And the award for most crushing review goes to:
This gentle reader, review published on Amazon.co.uk, January 12th 2008.
“On the whole this isn’t a bad read – but not brilliant. The context of the story is dull (some meeting of like minded stranded passengers before a flight on concorde).”
Seriously, that really is the most disparaging one I could find.
Running through the texts of all three books are periodic (and, I sincerely hope, subtle) subplots, references to writers, the occasional homage to a particular character or scene from some of my favourite books; even the odd metaphor, though I’m not sure I’m particularly good at them (in fact, the searing uphill challenge to write a good metaphor has become my personal Everest). The overwhelming majority of these references are included in the texts just for fun; some readers have picked up on some of them, some readers have picked up on others. That said, ‘getting them’ or not ‘getting them’ really isn’t an issue; it’s just me messing around.
The subplot in Life in the Fast Lane was my yearlong quest to obtain that seemingly elusive bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. And, yes, absolutely, as several correspondents correctly surmised, there was a sort of concealed value to that intermittent story.
The closing pages of that book were a genuine joy to write. I recall describing the artist’s painting on the bottle’s label, the pulling of the cork and, finally, the pouring and drinking of the wonderful wine itself; all this while the church bells of Chipping Norton announced the arrival of 1995.
They were fun pages to write because also they were written with an enormous sense of relief; I had finished the book. Beyond my wildest expectations I had finally proved to myself that I was not only capable of scribbling a rough framework of notes and beginning the essential task of structuring and writing the opening chapters (which in itself was daunting enough) but, of infinitely greater significance to me, I had actually found myself capable of finishing the thing, too. This took me quite by surprise.
Whether they will admit it or not, I believe that all writers are wracked with self-doubt: uncertain if their particular projects have real merit; unsure if their wispish notes will ever be kissed by the ink of a printer’s press: the gift that transforms ethereal thought into tactile reality. And, if my own emotions are any indication, I can tell you that all writers are beyond thrilled when they touch pen to paper for the last time: the nib forming the tiny dot needed to punctuate that final sentence. They sit back, read the line once more and realise that… there is not one more word to add. It’s done. Well, there’s perhaps a little more editing to do but, you know, nearly done.
Forgive the digression: my mind tends to wander. I was describing the ongoing chase for the wine as having some hidden meaning, and so it did. Some readers have asked if the quest for (and eventual drinking of) the Mouton Rothschild wine was symbolic of my team’s struggle to win the Formula 1 drivers’ world championship. The answer to this is no, it wasn’t. I can’t speak for all of my former colleagues, of course, but the championship most of us were so keen to secure was the constructors’ championship, not the drivers’ championship.
Our winning the constructors’ championship never happened in 1994, the year in which Life in the Fast Lane is set. Although Michael Schumacher did win his first drivers’ crown in that year, it was actually Williams that claimed the constructors’ championship and all the glory that goes along with the awarding of the trophy at the annual FIA prize-giving ceremony in Monaco. Benetton wouldn’t lay claim to that much coveted silver trophy until the end of 1995, twelve months later.
The actual meaning behind the tale of the wine is far more personal than that. In fact, I never intended for readers to recognise any veiled depth to the subplot. That many did suspect some hidden meaning is impressive to say the least, very insightful of them. However, having detected some hidden metaphor, and, having asked about it, my giving explanation does strike me as coming over as self-indulgent. I’m happy to share the story but I have no desire to self-indulge: I’m standing twixt a rock and a hard place…
Anyway, pressing on, here’s the answer: The ongoing story of the Mouton Rothschild wine was merely a private amusement, a way of relieving stress as I worked on the manuscript. The search for the wine was actually symbolic of my own quest to see my first book written and published. Like the bottle of wine I once picked up but never bought (then instantly regretted not buying,) so at times it seemed I would never manage to hold in my hands a finished, printed copy of Life in the Fast Lane; many times it seemed the thing was destined to forever evade me.
The battles of any unknown first-time author striving to see their work in print have all been well documented throughout the ages; my struggles were no different, so there’s no need to repeat the myriad stories of worry and angst and woe here; suffice to say that the eventual securing of the bottle of Mouton Rothschild, its uncorking and the pouring of the wine represents a moment of personal accomplishment: my completing the manuscript and quietly celebrating the end of a long journey with a glass of fine premier cru Bordeaux; no more than that.
The extracts from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (most notably the quotes from the nonsense poem, Jabberwocky) that can be found throughout The Mechanic’s Tale are intended to recall and so highlight Alice’s adventures in her surreal fictional world, and to reflect the weird microcosm that is modern Formula 1.
Just as Alice fought to comprehend the fantasy world in which she had her adventures, through my own recounts I wanted to reveal my own experiences of the bizarre (though all too real) adventure land that awaited me behind the gates of the F1 paddock. Alice tumbles down a rabbit hole; F1 people walk through an electronic security turnstile: merely differing ways of entering two seemingly magical, alternate realities. Although, I must say, when comparing the two (even after studying the world of Formula 1 for twenty years) it seems to me that Alice’s crazed Wonderland often makes far more coherent sense.
As for the brief content descriptions prefacing each of the chapters in The Mechanic’s Tale, these are an homage to Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. Jerome uses the exact same treatment for his chapter introductions in …Three Men. I adore Jerome’s boat-trip novel and I merely wanted to pay him a little tribute. Also, I rather like this style of chapter heading, I believe it makes the pages look rather elegant. The trend was quite popular a hundred or more years ago, not really sure why it declined, rather sad that it did, actually. Whether it be time, tide or publishers’ in-house style guides, I suppose nothing stands still forever.
The Chariot Makers contains myriad references to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. Here’s some of them…
My three travelling companions in …Chariot Makers are the three characters out of Three Men…. Jerome based his characters on real people: himself and two close friends. In his book Jerome refers to himself as J. The character of George was based on his friend, George Wingrave, while the character of Harris was based on another friend, Carl Hentschel. Rather than use Jerome’s character names, I called my travelling companions Wingrave and Hentschel. As for Jerome himself, I decided to call him Paul Kelver (Paul Kelver is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Jerome).
In chapter two (A Remedy for Terminal Boredom), the dog-eared book I’m reading (my “faithful travelling companion”) is, of course, Three Men in a Boat. Naturally, I never mentioned the title, that would have been way too easy.
In chapter nine (High-speed Suspended Animation), where George and I are discussing living on a desert island, he tells me that the only thing he doesn’t want on the island is tinned pineapple, says he has bad memories of tinned pineapple and would rather not get involved again. In Three Men… there is a wonderfully comic scene where the three of them are desperately trying to open a can of tinned pineapple without a can opener. Despite their best efforts they fail in spectacular style, the can remains not merely unopened but in pristine condition.
In chapter ten (Down a bit… down a bit more…), where I say goodbye to Paul, George and Carl, they tell me they are headed to Pagani’s, an Italian restaurant in Great Portland Street, London. Pagani’s was a real place, a favourite restaurant for Jerome and his friends to meet for dinner; he talks of it in his autobiography My Life and Times.
Finally, the closing paragraph of chapter ten, where my companions walk off, out of my life… Well, the paragraph’s not very long, so here’s the whole thing:
“The three of them set off in the direction of the metro, Kelver and Hentschel humping the great leather case between them. Wingrave paused and turned, ‘see you on the river, old man,’ he said enigmatically. With a final wave he casually folded and stowed our meeting in his top pocket and was gone.”
I have to say, I had enormous fun writing The Chariot Makers; I really enjoyed writing of New York and of Paris, the cities that bookend the story.
I would dearly like to write more of that type of thing.