The Mechanic’s Tale

The Mechanic's Tale cover image

ISBN 0-7603-0754-7

And the award for most crushing review goes to:
This gentle reader, review posted on Amazon.com, June 27th, 2007.

“I’ve followed F1 since ’86 watched all the races, read many a magazine and many books from the sports greats, and this book was by far the worst… I couldn’t wait to finish the book so I could toss it aside…”

Inspiring stuff.

***

There were two reasons for my writing The Mechanic’s Tale so soon after quitting Benetton: First, as the majority of my savings had been used to secure the wreck of a farmhouse in France, I was somewhat keen to persuade my publisher to get excited by the idea of another book, so releasing to me, sooner rather than later, some (most welcome) advance funds. Second, I wanted to get the story down before the simmering secondary details of the thing had chance to swirl and drift away, lost to the ether of the heavens. All of which is a rather unnecessarily longwinded (and overly colourful way) of saying I was skint and have an awful memory.

I really was pretty broke too, and I most certainly do have poor memory. Not that I’m crying ‘woe is me, pity my hardships.’ I’m merely attempting to set the scene. I’ve never regretted my decision to leave the pit lane and sail away to France; it merely presented a fresh series of challenges. I’m reasonably resourceful: patience and adaptability will generally help to cure the first of these two problems, that of finances.

As to the latter: poor memory, well, this is something I’ve learned to live with. I appreciate that people are often suggesting they have an awful memory (typically when they’ve misplaced the car keys for ten minutes) but, in my own case, it is much more of an issue than mere momentary distraction: entering the house without focus and putting one’s keys in an unusual place while reaching for a ringing phone.

I’ve been affected by poor memory for much of my life, certainly since childhood. The odd thing is that some things, certain events, I can recall with utmost clarity: Minuscule details of childhood experiences are as crystal clear today as they were the moment they happened, thirty or forty years ago. Likewise, many events of my Formula 1 career are forever seared within me. Some might describe these tiny details as irrelevant, such as during the Saturday night car rebuild (in preparation for the 1994 French grand prix) when I watched a tiny drop of fluid begin to form and grow on the underside of a brake master-cylinder. All of which indicated the need for my colleagues and I to track down and cure an annoying (and a potentially mid-race car-retiring) hydraulic leak. An irrelevant memory? Not to me.

Conversely, just as dawn mist is melted by the kiss of the sun, many other ephemeral memories continually dance, evade and elude me; the more I try to catch them, to hold them, to solidify them, the more they slip and fade away.

I succumb to the many common examples of poor memory we’ve all heard of, such as a new face telling me their name but… in an instant it’s gone…

I walk into another room in search of something but, on entering, I do no more than stand and look around, lost, powerless to fathom why I’m there, unable to remember what I’m looking for. If I retrace my steps, however, back to the other room, sit at my desk and focus on what I was doing…bang! the reason for setting off to the kitchen becomes instantly clear.

But such things I consider trifles, minor annoyances to which I have adapted and work around, almost without giving them a second’s thought: I ask again for the stranger’s name, or converse in a way that doesn’t require my need to mention their name; I walk back into the kitchen repeating ‘scissors’ over and over until I find them.

If at night I need to put out the dustbin for collection the next morning, I’ll write a note and leave it on my pillow. This is a useful tip, by the way; leave a note elsewhere and you might not see it (until it’s too late) but, come the end of the day, most people usually make it to their bed. And, if you haven’t got a notepad to hand, place something totally out of keeping on your pillow, a saucepan, for example. A tee-shirt or a hairbrush just won’t work, at least not for me, objects familiar to the bedroom setting are instantly ignored; you need something that will jar the memory, make you ask ‘what on earth is that doing there?’ You are free to return the saucepan to the kitchen once its work as an aide memoire is done, of course, you don’t need to leave it on the pillow overnight and continually knock your head against it…

More frustrating than these common examples is my inability to remember the complete details of recent events: race results, for example. I can recall, with ease, the significant happenings of a given race: the pit stops, shunts, radio transmissions, the unfolding race strategies, the problems of a particular car but, quite often, no more than mere minutes after the chequered flag, I am struggling, really struggling to remember the order of the top eight finishers.

want to recall them, I really do, but the more my inner-self dashes from internal filing cabinet to internal filing cabinet, throwing drawers open, scattering reams of memories into the air as I desperately hunt for the relevant details, the more I realise I’m snatching at cobwebs… the delicate silken filigree of recollection has blown away.

For reasons I’m totally unable to explain, it takes time for me to thoroughly absorb things; information needs to permeate, to infuse through me: ‘Read this list, remember it, now recite it.’ Forget it.

But I don’t mean forget it in a dismissive way. It’s not that I don’t want to remember these things, I achingly do want to remember them; it’s just that I absolutely cannot get certain information to gel, it simply will not pass through the filters.

The more I read and reread the list (the more I try to force the issue), the more everything on the sheet melds to black… Sometimes I find this so debilitating that I catch myself trembling; occasionally, I’m ashamed to say, I even weep with frustration. Not that either of these physiological responses actually helps. Far from it.

I’ve never written of these things before, and I’m not entirely sure why I am doing so now with such enthusiasm; it’s certainly not how I envisioned this little essay progressing when I began to write it, perhaps it’s therapeutic, cathartic, even? Not sure. I do feel confident, however, that I’m not alone in my predicament, others must surely share similar experiences. That said, for countless more, those with memories that tick like finely lubricated clockwork, I would imagine it’s almost impossible for them to appreciate the dilemma.

I know several people, for example, able to recall minutiae from every grand prix throughout the sport’s sixty-year history: teams, liveries, sponsors, drivers, tracks, pole times, grid orders, wet races, dry races, fastest laps, finishing orders, driver points, constructor points, on and on and on… Endless data, absorbed, stored and faultlessly retrieved at a moment’s notice. To me this is a skill beyond all explanation; it is otherworldly, quite magical.

So, for those blessed with great recollection, let me ask you this (something that may help you to appreciate what I’m trying to describe): have you ever been reading a book, deep in thought, when you suddenly snap out of reverie and realise that although you’ve read every word of the previous page, your mind was focusing on other things: the weekly shopping, collecting the kids from school, whatever? Consequently, you have to go back and reread the page because you have no clue what you’ve just read?

You can remember reading the material in front of you, you can recall your eyes scanning the lines but… what did it say, what did it mean? Lost. That’s kind of what it’s like for me when presented with new facts, figures and data. It’s really, really bloody frustrating. I can’t overemphasise that: it is reallyreally bloody frustrating.

Facts, figures and data, yep, they’re my main stumbling blocks. Personally, I have no problem with absorbing texts; books present no difficulty at all, providing they’re actually worth reading, of course. I can recall with ease passages from books I have read but once and years ago.

Perhaps, this is why I take pleasure from literature and writing? The words, the structure of the sentences, the thoughts and ideas of the authors flow through my internal filters without any effort whatsoever. The same with writing: I write without effort; the process is fun, the work quite unforced. Is this because I’m more relaxed? Certainly, I’m absolutely at ease with a book in my hands or a keyboard to play with.

A friend and colleague of mine, Peter Windsor, once told me that memory is primarily emotion driven. I think there is a great deal of truth in that statement. When an experience means something to you, genuinely means something, when you have personal attachment to a thought, an idea, an experience, when emotion is involved: love, hate, fear, jealousy, pride, anger, then the mind processes that information differently.

These precious memories are stored in a special internal filing cabinet always within easy reach: Those endless days of the summer holidays when I was a kid. The camping adventures in the woods: the wonderful, sweet incense of broken oak burning on the campfire; the spongy feel of the thick moss underfoot; the hollow cry and beating wings of alarmed pheasants breaking cover through the dense bracken, ock!-ock!-ock!-ock!-ock!; the branches and leaves of chestnut and beech filtering the bright sun into dappled patches of light and shadow…

The times without number I would lie on my tummy, stretching far out over the pond of the high-walled kitchen garden: patiently lifting lilypads and catching newts in my hands (they appeared completely unafraid, seemingly knowing they would be returned unharmed); the water, sun-warmed and pleasing to the touch. The ochre of the crumbling bricks forming the aged sunken walls of the pond; the purples and blues of the topping slates; the emerald greens, ruby reds and flashes of intense blood-orange of the big round lily leaves. The smells, sounds and the colours of my childhood: as clear, as vivid now as ever they were. Peter is absolutely correct, memory and emotion are intertwined, weaving through and around one another like the searching tendrils of two lush, fertile vines.

As for The Mechanic’s Tale (remember The Mechanic’s Tale, the very reason you began reading this page?), well, I think it turned out alright. Each chapter said everything I wanted it to. I was happy with it, my publishers were happy with it. Moreover, my readership seemed happy with it, too.

The Mechanic’s Tale has outsold my other two titles by many thousands of copies. As of February 2012 the paperback edition has been reprinted thirteen times; the original hardback version making a current total of fourteen imprints. It has become, as my publisher described it, ‘a minor hit!’ A minor hit! Yippee! I’ll take that! Orion have written to me saying they suspect fourteen impressions to be a new house record for reprints of a motor racing book. That makes me feel extremely proud, extremely happy, extremely thankful.

In answer to several enquiries, yes, the title of the book is an homage to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. If you’re unfamiliar with it, this fourteenth-century masterpiece features a series of stories, experiences as told by a myriad cross-section of characters from English life: The Knight’s TaleThe Shipman’s TaleThe Monk’s Tale and many more.

Now, not for a split-millisecond am I implying that The Mechanic’s Tale should be considered further reading to Chaucer’s work, heavens forbid! Not only would such a thing be beyond risible; it would make no logical sense. No, merely that as my book describes the stories and experiences of an average English mechanic setting out on a journey of discovery, I believe the title, The Mechanic’s Tale to be most apt. I take no credit for this, however, the suggested name came from Orion; a playful acknowledgement by my publishers to a master of early literature. And I am extremely flattered that Orion deemed my book worthy of carrying the salute.

Talking of Orion, the real purpose of a publisher’s advance is to give an author something to live on prior to publication. This cash advance on future sales should, therefore, help to protect the writer from bankruptcy while he or she produces the manuscript faithfully promised under the terms of a mutual contract.

I believe this to be a good system, in theory, but I have never felt sufficiently brave to cash an advance cheque prior to handing over the manuscript. It would be awful if, for whatever reason, I never completed the book, the project was scrapped and I had to repay the advance… nightmare thought. Consequently, when the advance for The Mechanic’s Tale arrived in the mail, I tucked it away for safekeeping: work now, play later.

Ages after completing the manuscript, literally months later and quite by accident, I discovered under a pile of books a rather crumpled envelope on which was written in black marker:

Reminder to self, in here: Orion Advance, book two. Keep safe. DO NOT LOSE.