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Looking Back at Writing “Formula 1: The Impossible Collection” For Assouline During Lockdown

September 17, 2021
bradspurgeon

Formula 1: The Impossible Collection

Formula 1: The Impossible Collection http://www.assouline.com

PARIS – The point of this blog for me is usually to write about things happening right now in my life. For more than a year now, I have kept quiet here about one of the biggest things that happened in my life during most of the Covid period we are still living through. I was so busy first doing it – and keeping my mouth closed and fingers crossed about it – and then once finished, talking about it everywhere except for here, with one published interview or review after another – I will run a list of links of those at the end of this post – that I simply did not find the moment to talk about it here! In short, I am referring to the book that I had the opportunity to write about the 100 great, extraordinary, “impossible” moments in Formula One history, since the series began in 1950 and up to the end of last season. The first 70 years of the world’s most popular auto racing series summed up in words and extraordinary images and published by Assouline, one of the world’s top luxury book publishers. So, I am coming late to it here, but since I also see this blog as a personal record of important moments in my life, I have decided that it is better late than never to talk about it!

This book project was offered to me in August 2020, when I was in Sicily and like everyone, found myself in that momentary lull between waves of the biggest pandemic to hit humankind in a century. And, as many readers of this blog will know and be able to relate to themselves, I had one part of my life absolutely wiped out by the pandemic: Performing music and doing my other theatre-related activities in public. The performing arts, as everyone knows, were amongst the worst hit – well, of course, not to mention the restaurant industry, the travel industry, airlines and airports, etc. – since to perform in public was one of the easiest and most natural things to ban. And rightly so.

But that left me, like so many musicians and actors and performers, feeling as if we might not be able to breathe if we came down with Covid, but we were not able to breathe without our moments on stage, either! Fortunately for me, I had spent decades of my life devoted exclusively to my other passion of being closed up in my room – or a media center or newspaper office – and writing. Living through words. Living in the mind and not in the outside world or on a stage.

Formula 1: The Impossible Collection promo video by Assouline (turn up the volume!)

So when in August 2020 I was offered this opportunity of writing a book about Formula One for Assouline’s most prestigious collection – the Ultimate – in the series known as “The Impossible Collection,” I didn’t just jump at it, I instantly stopped feeling any regret, pain or other horror for losing that other aspect of my life, consisting in performing on stage. Here was a fabulous project offered to me by Assouline that thrived off the lockdown isolation as it required intense concentration, research and writing at just the very moment that the second wave of the pandemic came to hit us.

First Hungarian Grand Prix 1986.  Photo Credit:  Bernard Asset

First Hungarian Grand Prix 1986. Photo Credit: Bernard Asset

Suddenly, I came entirely back to life thanks to this project. I also felt a huge sense of responsibility: The task was much bigger than I expected when I said yes. I had to come up with the 100 greatest, iconic, most important, “impossible” moments of Formula One over 70 years. I had been hired for my experience of more than 20 years covering the series for the International Herald Tribune, and The New York Times, and I realized that I had a responsibility for a big book that would sell for 920 euros, and/or $995, not just for an article on a piece of paper that would be used to wrap up fish the next day! My choices of moments have to be as close to perfect as possible.

Responsibility of Choosing the Impossible Moments for Formula 1: The Impossible Collection

It’s not that I doubted my ability to choose those moments. But I knew that Formula One is a series that has millions of fans who are not only passionate, but are often just as knowledgable as many of the journalists who cover it their whole lives. I also knew that any choice for a great moment that I made would also leave out several other possibilities that some other journalist or fan might feel very passionate about and cry foul!

“HOW could you not put in THIS moment!” they might say.

But that is also when I decided that, in any case, any list of 100 moments over 71 seasons that anyone made would have to have an element of personal preference or style to it, and I would have to assume that. Still, it took months to make the final choice of 100 great moments. I narrowed an initial selection down to 150, and then began eliminating, or at the suggestion of my editors at Assouline, in some cases, joining moments together – such as when I did only one moment for the two times that Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost crashed into each other at the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka in 1989 and 1990, thus drawing their championship duel to a close.

McLaren Technology Centre team factory.  Photo Credit: McLaren F1 Team

McLaren Technology Centre team factory. Photo Credit: McLaren F1 Team

I also said to myself that it would be absolutely necessary in a series like Formula One to include in the great moments not just sporting moments, but technical ones – the introduction of the Ford DFV engine in the 60s that would dominate for so many years, or the first rear-engine victory, etc. – as well as business advances or reversals, new venues, etc. Formula One has so many different aspects to it, that it would be impossible to do it justice while focusing on just one part of it.

While it was easy to make my first list – I started by working off the top of my head, then I went through several histories, timelines, collections of statistics, etc., to make sure I missed nothing that I might have overlooked – the most difficult thing was really what to cut out of the list. So many things had to go at some point. It was with great regret, for instance, that I did not include Jean Alesi’s sole victory in the series when he drove his Ferrari to win the Canadian Grand Prix in 1995 after Michael Schumacher, who led all but the last 11 laps of the 68-lap race, had to make a pit stop to change his steering wheel, and could not engage the gear, and so handed the lead to Alesi, who kept it until the checkered flag. It was a hugely dramatic moment during a season dominated by Schumacher, and involving the two teams that would exchange those same two drivers for the following year. (Schumacher went to Ferrari the following year, while Alesi and his Ferrari teammate, Gerhard Berger, both went to Benetton.)

Michael Schumacher's first win for Ferrari in the wet in Spain in 1996. Photo credit: © Agence de Presse ARC/Mario Luini

Michael Schumacher’s first win for Ferrari in the wet in Spain in 1996. Photo credit: Agence de Presse ARC/Mario Luini

There were countless moments like this that I loved, that were big, important, but it was impossible to use them all. One of the ways that I chose moments, in fact, was to try to choose them for their larger effect on the series. That applied especially, for instance, with the moments that involved fatalities. The early years were so full of fatalities, and each was as tragic as the other. As time went on and safety improved, there were fewer and fewer. But still, while I did not mention the death of Elio De Angelis in 1986 after a testing accident, I could not, clearly, avoid talking about the moment involving the death of Ayrton Senna (with Roland Ratzenberger having died the previous day) at Imola in 1994. Nor could I avoid talking about the death of Wolfgang von Trips and the 15 spectators at Monza in September 1961.

I could not, either, avoid moments that included the great records, Schumacher’s equalling Juan Manuel Fangio’s 5 world titles in 2002, and then beating that record. And how satisfying and beautiful it was for the book to end on the note of Lewis Hamilton equalling Schumacher’s record of seven titles – and beating his number of victories – in the final season that the book covered, 2020, which was unfolding as I wrote it.

Catharsis in Writing the Introduction to Formula 1: The Impossible Collection

It was the work on the moments, both selecting them and writing them – in all their minute detail – that would make up the biggest part of the job. When I took on the project, I had thought it would be the writing of what became a 65-page introduction – with lots of photos – that would be the hardest part. In fact, the introduction was probably the most fun part to do, as I saw it as an opportunity to sum up and focus all of my knowledge about Formula One accumulated over a lifetime of being a fan – the first race I attended was the first Canadian Grand Prix, at Mosport in 1967 – and nearly a quarter century of writing about it professionally. So in a way, the introduction – that even went into the previous era of Grand Prix racing, starting with the precursor auto races sponsored by the founder of my former IHT newspaper, James Gordon Bennett Jr. – was even cathartic, in a way.

It was an incredible bit of unexpected icing on the cake when after I submitted the completed book to the editors, I learned that both Jean Todt, the president of the International Automobile Federation, and Stefano Domenicali, the CEO of Formula One, had written forewords to the book. What an honor. (But just as great an honor was my having been the writer that Jean Todt recommended to do the book when Assouline asked for his advice on who to call.)

When Formula 1: The Impossible Collection Finally Arrives

Me at home with my advance copy of the Formula 1: The Impossible Collection book.  Photo Credit: Ornella Bonventre

Me at home with my advance copy of the Formula 1: The Impossible Collection book. Photo Credit: Ornella Bonventre

But the day my advance copy of the book arrived – all nearly 10 kilograms of it – that was when I saw the reality that I could never truly have imagined for a book that is an absolute “bijou” as the French say for a jewel, and I could see immediately not only why it was being sold for 920 euros, but that it seemed worth much more than that in the paper and hand craftsmanship alone. Printed at a luxury quality printer in Milan (called Grafiche Milani, a favourite of Jimmy Page) and many of the photographs – the photographic research job, as well as many of the photos themselves, was done by Bernard Asset, a top F1 photographer, while the final choices of photos and images was done by Martine Assouline, of the husband and wife team that own the company – were separately glued to the pages. The cover had a soft feel to it, and a wafting sent of the printer’s workshop came emanating from the box when I opened the book package. Astounding!

Jimmy Page video of his experience with Grafiche Milani printer of Formula 1: The Impossible Collection

By the time the book was completed, and published in May, I had begun to think about playing music again, and I was, in fact, able to do so at a few places, as the pandemic died out a little where I live, and the vaccination process began – I got my second one at the end of May – and then I returned to Sicily, where I was able to perform a couple of times, as I have done back home in France since then.

On the other hand, I have also been working all out on another book project in recent months, which I will also only announce when the time is appropriate! (I’m entering a virtuous cycle here!) And again, I can thank this new project for taking me through the third wave!!!

The book “Formula 1: The Impossible Collection,” is available around the world in both Assouline’s own stores, as well as some select shops. It is also available to buy online at Assouline’s site.

Great Press Coverage of Formula 1: The Impossible Collection

Actually, I said the cherry on the cake were the two forewords, but there was another aspect to doing the book that I had not expected to this degree, and that was great coverage by some of the world’s top magazines, some of which involved several interviews with me…that once again showed me how difficult it can be to be on the other side of the journalistic table, as the subject of the interview rather than the interviewer!

Here is a list of links to a few of the major interviews and reviews of the book, so you can click on any one of them to read the review or interview:

  • Robb Report: Assouline’s New $995 Formula 1 Book Was 70 Years in the Making
  • MAXIM: A LOOK BACK AT FORMULA 1’S MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS
  • MAXIM: RACE THROUGH F1 HISTORY WITH THIS HIGH-OCTANE COFFEE TABLE BOOK
  • BOSS HUNTING: ‘Formula 1: The Impossible Collection’ Is The Ultimate Coffee Table Book For Racing Fans
  • F1Total.ca : INTERVIEW l Brad Spurgeon and Assouline release ‘Formula 1: The Impossible Collection’, a one-of-a-kind $995 book
  • Motorsportweek: Feature: Writing the Impossible Formula One book
  • GQ Australia: 11 coffee table books you actually won’t be able to put back down
  • L’Automobile Magazine: F1: un livre collection sur les plus grands
  • L’Equipe: Un livre pour célébrer les 70 ans de la F1
  • Quattroruote (Italy)
  • Bunte (Germany)
  • Le Figaro Magazine (France)

    Le Figaro Magazine (France)

    L'Automobile (France)

    L’Automobile (France)

    FIA AUTO MAGAZINE ISSUE #34

    FIA AUTO MAGAZINE ISSUE #34

    The book was reviewed or promoted in many, many other parts of the internet, on many different kinds of sites, making me realize there is a landscape out there for talking about books and products of a size and kind that I had never even suspected existed (the landscape I mean, not the size of the books!). And so it was a fun, learning experience all over to have been blessed with this not impossible dream of writing a book about Formula One’s impossible moments for Assouline.

    Genesis of All That Talk! An Explication de Song….

    January 19, 2021
    bradspurgeon

    PARIS – With the world no doubt feeling tense over the possibility of an Act II to the riots of D.C. at tomorrow’s inauguration for Joe Biden as president of the United States, and the end of the reign of terror by Donald Trump, I wanted to do a post of a kind I have never done before. It has to do with the writing of my new song, “What’s All This Talk?!” Normally I prefer to leave as many interpretations open as possible for a song I write, since I do believe that sometimes songs can be interpreted even in ways the author did not intend; so why limit it with an explication de texte?

    But as you can see from the video that I made for this song – which I will put here below again – I have already decided, by using news footage from several different sources of the riots at the Capitol Building on 6 January to give one interpretation to the song. In fact, I was pretty surprised myself how well those riots seemed to illustrate the meaning. Especially since I wrote the song in late October, early November, just before the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.

    And it is true that Trump was first and foremost in my mind when I wrote it. But he wasn’t the only one. I also had Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro, Salvini, Orban and many other world leaders involved in the current trend for populist destruction and manipulation in mind. And I even had past such leaders, like Hitler and Mussolini in mind. But when I saw the riots at the Capitol, I said, crap, this thing is really coming to a head here, and these images are the perfect illustration for this sad protest song “What’s All This Talk?!”

    So I decided to try to string them together as a background for the song. For me, personally, it was an interesting project, because pretty much without fail all the songs I have ever composed have had to do with a broken heart, a love story, an emotional relationship with a lover, etc. The old stories. I never thought I could write a protest song about politics.

    Then something happened and I only saw it once I made the video. In fact, there were one or two listeners who when I sang them the song wondered if it was about a personal relationship rather than the politics I had intended. But now I know and understand: For the past four years I have been emotionally devastated by witnessing these political populist movements we are surrounded with and by the seeming loss of a world where the highest values are truth and beauty for one where lies and ugliness seem to reign. In other words, I did indeed have an emotional crisis; but not with any particular person, rather with our vanishing world of decency.

    So it turns out that this is only just another love song of a broken heart after all. Let’s hope for a clean and peaceful transition of power tomorrow, followed by the whole world coming back to its senses bit by bit.

    P.S. I also decided to put up the video on my YouTube channel, so anyone who doesn’t use Facebook, or who wants to link the video somewhere themselves, can have access to it. So here is that link here for “What’s All This Talk?!

    In Memory of Jim Haynes: End of an Era, but not of a Philosophy of Life

    January 12, 2021
    bradspurgeon

    Jim Haynes

    Jim Haynes

    PARIS – Not long into reading Jim Haynes’s autobiography, “Thanks For Coming!” in 1984, shortly after it was published, I said to myself, “I am certain I will meet this man.” I lived in Paris, as did he, I was interested in the expat literary and cultural world, and he was at the center of it, and my bookstore of choice was “The Village Voice,” on the rue Princesse, which it seemed impossible that he would not know. A meeting had to happen.

    As it turned out, sitting in the back of that same bookstore, drinking a coffee and eating a brownie, and reading Jim Haynes’s book, who should walk in but Jim Haynes. With his big moustache, and slightly drawling accident, he was easy to recognize. I wasted no time in approaching him and telling him of the coincidence that there I was reading his book at that very moment and in he walks! So began a 37-year-long friendship that came to an end two days ago when Jim died at the age of 87. In fact, as anyone who knew Jim knows, it was not just Jim who left us, but a whole chunk of cultural life in Paris (and dare I add a cultural life of the 1960s and 70s in Britain too), and a living, walking, smiling philosophy of life.

    Thinking about his life in the last few days since he left us on 6 January, it struck me that Jim was born in the same year that Hitler took power in Germany, and that he should die in a hospital in Paris at the same moment that the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. was being raided by violent haters, was very significant: Nothing could be further from Jim Haynes’s philosophy of life than the hatred that both Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump knew so well how to manipulate in their followers. Jim was all about love and togetherness and sharing; and if that sounds like some kind of 1960s hippie peace sort of dreamy approach to life, well, not only was it just that, but Jim successfully – and contagiously – lived by it right to the end.

    I will not spend time on this blog post reiterating the events of his life. That has been well handled all over the place, including in this obituary about Jim Haynes published in The Guardian, or on Jim Haynes’s own web site. The only thing I feel I can bring that would serve any purpose beyond what everyone else – and he himself in that autobiography as well – would say, is my own experience of Jim. And I look forward to reading many more such accounts by the other legions of people from every walk of life who knew him.

    Even so, in a nutshell: Born in the U.S., in Louisiana, after coming to Europe in the military, he decided to live in Scotland in the 1950s, where he created the first paperback bookstore, then helped found the now-famous Traverse theatre, before then moving to London where he founded the Arts Lab theatre space, and the International Times newspaper. He then came to Paris on a teaching assignment at the University of Paris, and stayed the rest of his life here, writing, holding Sunday dinner salons for more than 40 years, creating his publishing company, as well as many other manner of homegrown artistic thing.

    Jim Haynes Autobiography

    Jim Haynes Autobiography

    Jim also, by the way, wanted to meet and know everyone in the world, and it was for that reason that I had no qualms about introducing myself to him in that bookshop. After that first meeting, we had many different kinds of meetings or communications over the years, never as close friends, but always as welcome friends. In the early years he would periodically call me up while I was working in the library of the International Herald Tribune – a newspaper that he read daily – in order to find some clip or other fact that he needed for whatever purpose. We would talk for a while, I’d find what he was looking for, and life went on.

    I met him on occasion at the various book launches and small press nights at The Village Voice, at Shakespeare and Company or other meeting points during the period of the 1980s when it felt as if the literary expat world of Paris of the 1920s and 1930s or even the 1950s had returned. Several young expats from the English-speaking world decided to create their own literary magazines, and Jim, who had his own Handshake Editions at the time helped to encourage many of those young people with their literary magazines and actions. “Frank,” by David Applefield, was one of those, John Strand, who went on to have an excellent career as a playwright had another called “Paris Exiles,” and a woman named Carole Pratle had one called Sphinx. And, yes, Ted Joans, the famous beat poet was hanging around too. Jim had even helped advise AND occasionally work for Odile Hellier, the owner of that very same Village Voice bookstore where we met. (Applefield, by the way, who spent most of his life in Paris until he returned to the U.S. a couple of years ago, ran for Congress last summer, lost, and died suddenly the next day.)

    One of the astounding things about Jim was just how many people he did indeed know. And the range of the kind of person they were. From the famous to the unknown, it didn’t matter who you were or what you did. He just liked people. But more important, even his act of knowing people was not something only for him: He loved to introduce people to each other, to make connections, to start relationships. One of his ventures was a global address book, comprising many of the people he met. And his famous Sunday dinners in Paris were always an occasion for Jim to introduce people to each other, and I mean in a really, outgoing, almost formal way: “Brad this is so and so; so and so, this is Brad.” That sense that we were all there to meet and share was one of the first signals you would receive upon entering the dinner.

    On one of our early meetings at his home in the 1980s, I went because I learned he had some kind of recording studio at home and I wanted to record a couple of songs and a piece of prose writing I had done. I secretly hoped he would love it and use it in his then popular “Cassette Gazette,” a cassette tape collection of all kinds of writing and music and everything else you could put on tape. He showed no interest in the written piece, but he did sincerely and with some surprise in his voice, compliment my recording of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies song. At the time I was no longer playing music in public and had no ambitions to do so. So I was a bit pissed off he liked the song but not the writing!

    That recording, by the way, was done by his longtime friend, Jack Henry Moore, who I knew nothing of at the time, but who I would eventually learn was also very much at the center of the underground of the 1960s. Jim wrote a Jack Henry Moore obituary for The Guardian when he died in 2014.

    That, I believe in fact, was my first visit to Jim’s atelier at 83, rue de la Tombe Issoire, where one of his illustrious neighbours and friends was Samuel Beckett, by the way. Yes, Jim was friends with countless literary people, including Henry Miller, another one-time Paris expat, and he had a long running friendship with the book publisher, John Calder, with whom he founded the first Edinburgh international book festival. And to my delight and surprise, he had also corresponded with Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British literature, whom I would later meet, interview and befriend. I was delighted to be able eventually to give to Jim a copy of the interview book that I did with Colin Wilson. How strange the world is! (I recall now that I had also run into Jim at the Frankfurt Book Fair the one time I went there, which he attended regularly, and he introduced me to Calder.)

    From a coffee and brownie meeting while reading his book, and him calling me up as a librarian at the IHT, soon he would be complimenting me on “writing half of the IHT newspaper,” or however he put it, while referring to all my regular Formula One writings and multiple-page special reports in that paper. He had treated me with the same respect as a support staff member of the IHT as when I became a regular journalist for the paper. Over the years we would meet in various circumstances, maybe at an organized play attendance followed by a dinner with a small group of people whom he had encouraged to see his friends’ play – or at a Sunday dinner at his atelier.

    In another interesting Jim Haynes phenomenon, through the decades the number and kinds of people who I knew and who I learned also knew Jim Haynes grew and grew. They would, again, be from different countries around the world, and my relationship to them would vary completely, never being entirely to do with journalism or the arts, so vastly large was his relationship “footprint” around the world.

    Jim Haynes and Varda Ducovny, with host Grace Teshima behind. Photo © Seamas McSwiney

    Jim Haynes and Varda Ducovny, with host Grace Teshima behind.
    Photo © Seamas McSwiney

    One of our more recent meetings happened four or five years ago at a book launch of a friend of his, Varda Ducovny, in a home art space in Paris, in Montmartre. I had met Varda at one of the above mentioned dinners. At the end of the evening, he left a few minutes before I did, and as I descended the stairs of the building, I found Jim, sitting oddly on the bottom stair, with a couple of his friends either side. He had fallen and hurt himself; in fact, he had fallen before the start of the evening, and despite being in pain throughout, he stayed for the full launch and cocktail ceremony. By then in his early 80s, such a fall felt ominous. And as it turned out, it really was the beginning of a series of incidents that would remove from him his strong good health and easy mobility.

    One of our last meetings I now see in a short recorded interview that I did with him for some research that Ornella was doing, was in January 2018. Three years ago. While he was 100 percent there mentally – and morally, ie, in his usual good spirits – I seriously worried about how many months he might last. That he lasted three more years is testament to his incredible inner strength, which I put down to that Jim Haynes optimistic, happy, loving and thankful philosophy of life.

    Ornella found a key to that philosophy in the book he had given her that day three years ago, a copy of his book, “Everything Is!” She posted these words from the book on her Facebook page, and I agree with their profundity, so I finish this post with them too: “Some people say that when they are happy they sing and dance. But I say: when I sing and dance, I am happy!”

    Another Interview from the past: François Guérif of Rivages and his World of Claude Chabrol and Barry Gifford and James Ellroy!

    January 5, 2021
    bradspurgeon

    Rivages Cover of James Ellroy

    Rivages Cover of James Ellroy

    PARIS – Rereading this interview that I did 25 years ago with François Guérif, the director of the crime writing collection at the Rivages publishing house in Paris I am actually astounded by all of the interesting aspects to the link between the French publishing world and the American one. François Guérif had already been directing the collection at Rivages for 10 years, and he only left the job in 2017, so this interview is still in its own way relevant. But among the stories that makes this worth reading today are those linked to Guérif’s discovery of James Ellroy, to his hand in helping revive several careers of American writers, like Barry Gifford, and his work with Claude Chabrol, the film director. So as part of my decision to put up on this blog and publish for the first time ever these interviews in their entirety that were done as research for my article on French crime writing in the 1990s, here is my interview with François Guérif, then of Rivages, and certainly one of the most interesting of the Q&As so far!

    A Visit to the Past with Patrick Raynal as then Editor of the Série Noire

    January 3, 2021
    bradspurgeon

    La Série Noire

    La Série Noire

    PARIS – Today I have published on my blog the third in a series of never-before-published Q&A interviews that I did in the 1990s in preparation for a big article about the French crime writing scene. This interview, with Patrick Raynal, who was then the editor of the famous Série Noire crime novels of the Gallimard publishing house, is a great look at how the world has both changed and remained the same. Raynal is still alive, and about to publish a new book at Albin Michel this year, and the Série Noire continues as well. But it is interesting to see how much a few things have changed since then, like his comment about how few women writers he received manuscripts from in the mid-1990s. Or the role of the agent in France, which while not having grown to the level of so many Anglo-Saxon countries, has nevertheless developed massively since then. It is also a good look at the American writers the French liked at the time, and still do, in fact.

    Writing on Writers and Writing: a New “Salon” Space on this Blog

    December 29, 2020
    bradspurgeon

    Writing on Writers and Writing Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

    Writing on Writers and Writing.
    Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

    PARIS – The other day when I put up that article I did about Marc Villard, the French crime writer, I mentioned that I thought it was about time for me to create a separate space on this blog to hold together all my articles about the French crime writing scene. Sleeping on the idea, I came up with an idea I like even more, which is to create a space on the blog that will group together ALL of the writing on this blog about writers and writing. So it seemed natural to create a menubar, that you see above this post at the top of the browser, called “Writing on Writers and Writing.”

    Under that menubar you will find a collection of all sorts of bits and pieces of writing from this blog of stuff about writers and writing, books, bookstores, Not Book Reviews, etc. It is not an exhaustive collection of such writing that I have done over the years, by any means. It is just like the rest of this blog, stuff that I chose at any given time to devote a page to. As a result, I took away some of the articles previously held in certain other parts of the blog – like from “Blog Articles as Opposed to Posts,” and I gave them this their own home.

    I am hoping that it will inspire me to contribute regularly to them with many of the pieces of writing on writing and writers that I have done in the past, and perhaps, eventually, I will create subheadings for each area that may grow too big, such as the writings specifically about the French crime writing scene.

    Also, I decided that it was a good place to carry the definition of what should be linked there just a little further, by adding links in the menu to such things as my interview book with Colin Wilson, linking to its place on Amazon: Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Or the video interview that I did with Colin Wilson when a new edition of the book came out.

    Finally, I also decided to add to the Fiction menu the some of the translations that I have done of other people’s fiction, notably the three stories by Marc Villard, and a story by Jean-Hugues Oppel, that appeared in an anthology in the United States, and then later made its way to a BBC radio play, which is where the link goes.

    And so it is that under semi-lockdown I have finally found the time to do some long-required housekeeping on this blog! (You will have seen the huge lack of blog items in recent months about playing music in public! And you will not, coronavirus oblige, wonder why!)

    A New Tack With TAC Teatro – or Should it Be Called a New TACtic?

    September 23, 2019
    bradspurgeon

    TAC Teatro

    TAC Teatro

    Why have I done so few posts on this blog in recent months? Let’s call it a TACtic. I have mentioned TAC Teatro a few times on this blog in the past three years, and especially my activities with TAC. But as of this summer, I have been devoting a lot more time to TAC, and am now a full member of the troupe. This is part of a decision to transform all my open mic experiences into something different, and, hopefully, bigger.

    When I say bigger, I mean above all in terms of range of use of the body, voice, performance. I continue to play guitar and write every day – in fact, I am working on a very big writing project that I will finish at the end of the year – but I got to the point with the open mics that it felt as if I was repeating myself. Since stopping my travel to the Formula One races at the end of 2016, I had pretty much only Paris as my stage. And as big and beautiful and great is that stage, playing the same open mics with the same songs for the same spectators began to wear on me.

    But my love of performing and my need to create are as strong as ever and always. Now, invited by Ornella Bonventre, the director of TAC Teatro, to involve myself even more than before – that is to say, with at least three meetings with the newly formed Paris troupe per week — I have found what feels like the answer to the stagnation at the open mics.



    Of course, I am also continuing several other projects, such as the completing of my open mic documentary and the completing of my open mic memoir. But as far as performing goes, the idea is to build as much as possible on the physical theater of TAC Teatro. This is a kind of theater that appeals to me as it involves voice, music, physical action, acrobatics, puppetry, juggling, unicycling, text and just about every other thing you can imagine all wrapped into one.

    Among its great proponents are groups like Odin Teatret of Denmark – I am also finishing the editing of a video interview with the founder of that theater, Eugenio Barba, that I conducted along with Ornella – and even the Théâtre du Soleil of Paris, and many others. TAC Teatro has existed for many years in Italy, and Ornella started up the Paris part two years ago. This year is the biggest step so far, with the recent gathering of several new performers – and you could say I am part of that wave.



    In the first week of September five of us, under Ornella’s direction, put together a performance on the theme of borders, or “Frontières” that we performed on an outdoor stage at the city hall of Asnières-sur-Seine, where the French TAC is legally based in France. I am putting up on this blog page two videos connected to that event, one of which is a short video of the performance that Luca Papini, an Italian filmmaker in Paris, made.

    The other video is of my own specific contribution to the writing of the performance, that did not make it into Luca’s film. All the performers created the first seeds of their own scenes, which we all then worked on together under Ornella’s directing, and so I was pleased to learn that Ornella had found in the filmed bits of our rehearsals and moments of creation, that there was a good, complete filming of my scene. (The exercise of filming the rehearsals was in order for the performers to have a more objective view of their work.) Ornella just finished preparing that segment as a video, which I post above.

    TAC Rehearsal with music

    TAC Rehearsal with music


    We all used our personal preoccupations of the moment to create these seeds of our scenes, which were all also somehow connected to the theme of borders. My own section, called “Le Passeport,” as you will see, has to do with my personal battle with the concept of Brexit, which is affecting me to the point of madness as I wonder at how long I will be considered a legal citizen in France, as opposed to an illegal alien…. And I emphasize that word ALIEN.

    So to sum up, again, my lack of presence on the blog in recent months has had nothing to do with an end to my creative projects, but rather, a reduction in the approach of the past – focusing almost entirely on open mics – and the beginning of a new approach, combining all of my interests, including playing music. I hope now I can shake myself out of the lack of contributions to the blog and back into a cycle of regular updates, but on a bigger theme!

    Fantastic Find of My Never-Before-Published Interview with A.S. Byatt, the Booker Winning Novelist

    October 30, 2018
    bradspurgeon

    A.S. Byatt

    A.S. Byatt

    I was quite astounded today as I was going through my huge archive of 35 years’ worth of my writing in my computer (my first computer was a 1982 Osborne), and I discovered an interview article I did with the Booker Prize-winning author, A.S. Byatt.  Strangely – or not, given the ravages of age – I had completely forgotten that I ever did it.  I performed the interview and wrote the article in 1991 and it was immediately rejected by an editor and immediately, for some reason, relegated to my archives as of no interest to anyone.  Because it was 1991, the only way it COULD be published at the time was to submit it to print publications, and I probably had gotten tired of all the submissions I had already made for the article that inspired it:  my article about the world’s most prolific writers of books in English (which was eventually published as the lead essay on the front page of the Los Angeles Times Book Review.  So I “trashed” this Byatt interview, which I also had tied in not only with the theme of prolificacy, but also with the centennial of George Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street.  In fact, finding it now, I see it was a lively, fantastic interview with an important British author who is still alive today, at age 82.  So no sooner did I discover it today than I decided to add it to my collection on this blog of “Brad’s Rejected Writings.”  Check it out, this 1991 interview with A.S. Byatt.  

    The Inspiring Steve Forbert Memoir, or Another Great Gift From Romeo: Big City Cat

    September 11, 2018
    bradspurgeon

    Big City Cat Cover

    Big City Cat Cover

    PARIS – I am so relieved to have just finished reading Steve Forbert’s memoir, “Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock.” I am a very slow reader, and I had been glued to it during every off-moment of the past three or four days since I downloaded it into my Kindle – wreaking havoc on the rest of my life. I had been waiting patiently for the book’s release date and the moment that came, I downloaded it and dug in. Were it not for other commitments I would have finished it in a single reading, if possible. As it was, I was forced to put down the Elvis Costello autobiography to read Forbert’s, but I couldn’t kill all of my commitments – work, family and social. So it took a few days. Why all the excitement?

    Let me use the Costello book, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink,” as a point of departure. Forbert and Costello were born only four months apart in 1954, with Costello being the older of the two. I was born almost exactly three years after Forbert. They were born on different sides of the Atlantic ocean, and both became famous at almost the same time – Costello’s first album, “My Aim is True” was released in July ’77, while Forbert’s first album, “Alive on Arrival” came out in June ’78. I was living off my busking in London’s Marble Arch subways at the time Costello’s album appeared, and I was renting a bed in a crappy hotel in Notting Hill Gate. I remember seeing the posters all over the place for Costello’s album, with the photos of the nerd with the horn-rimmed glasses, and I remember thinking, “Who is this clown?” In time (years, really), Costello would become one of my favorite singer songwriters, and remains so today.

    Forbert, for me, was a completely different story. He was one of my early musical influences. But not from his album, it was from having attended open mic nights at Folk City in New York City in 1976 when he was starting out, and I met him there, and talked to him about himself a little as we stood in line outside in the cold, waiting to sign our names to the list for the night’s open mic. He uses the older term “hootenanny,” and writes extensively about this period in his life. It fills in a background for me not only of his life, but of the life I took part in at the time but only briefly, and only barely, and especially of all that I missed by not staying in NYC long enough before returning to Toronto.

    Alive on Arrival

    Alive on Arrival


    At the time, I was very interested in talking to him because, for me at 18, seeing this 21-year-old take to the stage and spread some kind of magic around the room, filling the place with a presence and a sound that I could not identify, I wondered what the hell was going on here? What was happening that the room changed when “Little Stevie Orbit” took to the stage? What orbit did he come in from? I was confused, particularly since I knew that my own efforts on stage as a musician at the time were so poor, and so many of the other musicians taking part in the “hoot” sounded simply human – not from another galaxy or time warp.

    So his influence on me was something in his performance that I continued to search for a long while and eventually started to grasp one evening while busking in London in the fall of ’77, the following year, and feeling something about how to use the whole body and express through the body and voice the fire of the emotion burning inside the gut. (It would take me many, many more years, even so, to get to any point where I could be in any way satisfied with a feeling of how to reproduce that thing at will.) So it is that I know exactly what Forbert’s eventual manager, Danny Fields, was referring to when he describes in the book what got him interested in the young Forbert:

    “I … loved the intensity of performance — I would say that most of all,” Fields is quoted saying. “I don’t remember words, just remembered he played, he sang and he played and he stomped with his boots, so he was like a one-man band and I liked that.”

    That’s a bit of a crude and simple description of the thing Forbert gave off – in addition to the rich, unique rasp of his young voice – but it does indicate it was this “thing” that was being communicated and reaching everyone that listened and saw him perform. There was a genuineness that came through it all, too. And in reading this autobiography, I realize where the genuineness came from: Forbert, who reached international fame in the pop charts in 1979 with “Romeo’s Tune,” is about as genuine as they come. This book is genuine. Unlike so many efforts at propaganda that show business personalities release as memoirs or autobiography, “Big City Cat,” gives several sides of the story.

    There is the beautifully told, laid back, easy voice of Forbert – his Mississippi voice comes through – telling the main narrative (in which he frequently talks about his own failings as well as his strong points and successes). But the book also gives space for several of the other people involved in his career, including the aforementioned Fields, who are given what appears to be freedom to talk about the bad side of Forbert as well as the good. (At one point Forbert just fired his whole entourage, without much explanation, including Fields – and it was for good. Oh, and he goes on doing the same with his managers for decades.)

    Forbert as “the new Bob Dylan”?

    And so, yes, it turns out, the “bad side” is mostly, possibly, bad for Forbert himself, who does not hide that he probably made some mistakes in his career choices that led to his career peaking in the late-70s, early ’80s before he completely disappeared from the pop firmament and never had another hit like Romeo’s Tune. He was one of a long line of singer songwriters who were cursed with the epithet, “the new Bob Dylan.”

    “I say to this day that, deep down, Steve Forbert wanted to be the new Bob Dylan and/or the new Elvis Presley,” writes Fields. “And, the cataclysm, you know, was when he woke up and he was not either the new Bob Dylan or the new Elvis Presley. It became apparent after the third album—he was not the new Bob Dylan—and he lashed out.”

    But here’s the beauty of the book, in Forbert’s immediate response in the main narrative:

    “Any career disappointments I had didn’t center around the cliché of being the “new Bob Dylan.” I never put any credence in that,” Forbert writes. “I knew enough to know that that tag put me in some pretty good company, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, and Loudon Wainwright being three. I’m sure they would agree that what it basically conjured was a talent for poetic storytelling. As far as whatever literal expectations it might set up, it was nothing to be taken seriously. No one new was ever going to be able to bring about the radical changes the real Bob Dylan had brought to songwriting.”

    “In my case, my illusions were shattered when I didn’t manage to follow the success of “Romeo’s Tune.” I had been under the impression that I could accomplish pretty much anything I wanted to do. For a while I could. And then, lo and behold, I couldn’t.”

    This reminds me exactly – paradoxically – of the quote in Bob Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles,” where after the producer Daniel Lanois beseeches Dylan to write some new songs like the epic greats he wrote in the 1960s, Dylan responds that he would love to, but that he can no longer do that – that that was another time, place and Dylan. (I am paraphrasing without returning to read the original quote.)

    But true to his genuineness, Steve Forbert has continued writing songs, playing music, loving music, being obsessed by music, to this day. And making albums. And touring endlessly, including around Europe and elsewhere. (I saw Forbert solo in a small town in England in 2013.) Here is, finally, a man who – after semi-serious alcohol problems in addition to the career problems – appears to be ultimately at peace with himself and his career.

    “By the time “Romeo’s Tune” was a hit I had already surpassed my personal level of comfort with, oddly enough, the very goals I’d set out to achieve,” he writes near the end of the book. “If it’s clear that I am not the type of personality that would ever be at ease with a household name–level of fame, then I should be pretty comfortable these days.”

    Beyond Romeo’s Tune: Or the Forbert behind it all

    For me, Forbert’s voice, his talent, his “thing” from Folk City suddenly made sense to me in the middle of October 1978 when I had just returned from one of the most painful episodes of my life, living in Iran during the Revolution, and I was taking a black London taxi from the airport back to the apartment where I had been living while in London for most of the previous year. All of a sudden, over the cab radio I heard a song, I think it was “Goin’ Down to Laurel,” and I instantly recognized the voice and the feeling. It was that guy from Folk City from two years earlier.

    All of my questions and confusion suddenly got answered and straightened out. He had simply been so fabulous and gifted that he was destined to be heard on the radio. It hit me with all the greater power because I was returning from the hell of the revolution in Teheran to the comfort of the West, and felt life opening up with endless possibilities. Forbert’s voice and performance seemed to fit right in with that sense of an optimistic future.

    And as life’s strange synchronicities would have it, the apartment where I was heading was that of Paul Gambaccini, the American BBC radio DJ and pop music writer, which was where I had lived before heading for Iran. Paul was unaware that I was returning – but I still had my key – and so he came home that afternoon to find me sleeping on the couch in the living room. It was a slightly awkward situation for a moment, as he had come home with a couple of people he was going to interview; a guy named Bob Geldof and his girlfriend Paula Yates.

    I had no idea who Geldof was – other than Paul telling me he was a singer in a band called the Boomtown Rats -, but when Geldof discovered I had just returned from the revolution in Iran, he was more interested in talking about that than doing the interview with Paul. His probing questions about the life of the people of Iran I would look at in future years as highly significant of his character: The man who eventually became famous and knighted for his charity concerts and philanthropy nearly a decade later to help people in need, was already interested in the needy people of Iran in 1978.

    All of that might appear like going off topic, but I don’t think it is: Whatever you do in life, it will be influenced by the character guiding the whole enterprise. The true “you,” that you are, the one that makes the decisions every waking moment. And reading Forbert’s book, I feel I have finally understood what made up this massively talented “one-hit wonder,” who has, in fact, had a lot more to contribute to the musical world than just “Romeo’s Tune.”

    And this draws us back around to the Costello book, which as reflected in its title, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink,” is a completely different read from a completely different character. Where Forbert’s could be read in a single rollercoaster read (or ride) the Costello book, like his music, is a vast tapestry of stories, memories and impressions in a language that is much more involved than in the Forbert book. I saw an interview with Costello recently on YouTube where he says that the book is meant to be read very slowly (which made me feel immediately better about myself and my slow – but relishing – reading of his book). So I felt no problem dropping it for the Forbert rollercoaster, and I will now pick it up again. Suffice it to say, there could not be a bigger difference in philosophy between the two books – as I think there is in the two lives, and the two musicians’ music….

    By the way, in another strange twist of fate, in 1980 when I was back in Toronto and preparing to go to see Forbert in concert after the release of his third album, “Little Stevie Orbit,” I glanced into the window of the record store on the way to the concert and saw suddenly jumping out at me the name of the man who had written the liner notes to the album: Paul Gambaccini! How the hell did that happen?!?! Come to think of it, Paul might well have been the DJ who put the Forbert tune on the radio in London as I was in the cab on the way back.

    I highly recommend anyone who does not know Forbert’s music to get listening immediately, and go out and get this book. It’s a great read about the whole pop music world of the last 50 years. Forbert was one of the rare musicians who appeared to be equally at home at Folk City – and other Greenwich Village folk clubs – AND at the rock mecca of CBGB’s, where he opened for the budding band known as Talking Heads and others, including John Cale. (And don’t miss him as the boyfriend in Cyndi Lauper’s video of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun!”)

    What a life!

    Unfinished Business Continues: From a Glam Rock Roll to Light and Soundman, Music Jams and Colin Wilson Book Presentation at a Red Cross Event

    December 12, 2017
    bradspurgeon

    Ornella Bonventre Show

    Ornella Bonventre Show

    MILAN – It was a crazy few days of a classic example of performing my unfinished business for my new company called Unfinished Business SAS, created last month and truly starting business next week. But I just had to write about this weekend in Milan, as a perfect example of how my business is now about doing all the different things I ever did or wanted to do in my life, but now, all at the same time! And so it went with me wearing my 41-year-0ld, green and orange sequinned circus costume while acting the role of a glam rocker from the 70s arriving in a special part of heaven – for women only – along with Ornella Bonventre of TAC Teatro at an art exhibition in Navigli on Friday; to a jam Saturday evening on the top floor of a condo to celebrate my birthday; to featuring in a conference to present the second edition of my Colin Wilson book after a 5-actor play presented at a Red Cross event, and taking a side route as the play’s sound and light man when it was discovered that the theater had not booked their person to work that night…. The whole followed by another brief jam at the Spazio Ligera before returning to Paris today…

    My Colin Wilson video and Philosopher of Optimism link

    The weekend was also supposed to include setting up the exhibition about peoples’ dreams – Acchiappa Sogni – that Unfinished Business helped TAC Teatro do a few months ago. It was supposed to be set up for the second time at a local public library, but there turned out to be a problem with scheduling. No problem. That can be done another day. I only mention it to talk about the diversity of this weekend in Milan.

    Which was the most fun? That’s my point: It was all equally fun, sometimes nerve-wracking, as well as hugely gratifying. And all of it thanks to my association with TAC Teatro. Ornella Bonventre and I first started rehearsing the Friday night show in the TAC Teatro France space in Asnieres last week. At the time, I couldn’t quite believe it would turn into the wonderful event it did. By now, I can believe anything! The story of Ornella’s one-woman-show, called “Avete mai provato ad essere donne…,” is that of a place in heaven for women who have been beaten and eventually killed by their husbands. It is all about the low opinion people have of women – but all done in good humour, as in the section about how one woman was the fourth girl in a family of no boys, and the huge disappointment of the father….

    Anyway. my role turned into that of an androgynous glam rock star from the 1970s – Bowie, Bolan, Glitter, etc. – finding himself in heaven, but not sure where to go. He ends up in this women’s part, and he is accepted there, and is invited to play his music as the various women tell their stories. The role just naturally wrote itself, and the final crowning touch was when I remembered I still had my glam circus costume from my days in the circus in 1976 and it still, somehow managed to fit me! It also turned out that I have a large number of cover songs from the 1970s or earlier, touching on subjects that just fit right in – “Father and Son,” “Cat’s Cradle,” “Just Like a Woman,” etc., as well as some of my own songs that fit in, like the sad one, “Memories,” that we closed the show with.

    Ornella Show 2

    Ornella Show 2


    The show took place at an exhibition put on by the Circolo Metromondo association in a week of events linked to violence against women in this fabulous space on the canal in the Navigli area of Milan. The building is called the Spazio Ex-Fornace, and it was likely used in the past for making bricks, which were then loaded to boats in the canal.

    Ornella Bonventre and Brad Spurgeon in Avete mai provato ad essere donne

    The exhibition was a series of paintings and sculptures by the Italian artist, Roberta Stifano, who gave us a tour of the artworks in the exhibition, “Dal Tunnel…” and explained how they charted her experience in a relationship with a narcissist pervert, and the resulting road from infatuation to pain to torture to separation, and eventual slow recovery. It was clearly a good marriage between the exhibition and Ornella Bonventre’s monologue, entitled “Avete mai provato ad essere donne…”

    And Then Came the Interlude of a Chef From Emilia Romagna

    Saturday was supposed to be the setting up of the Acchiappa Sogni exhibit at a public library, and here I post again the video that I helped to make, and I edited, for that project many months ago. TAC Teatro and Unfinished Business plan to continue collaboration on this and other such projects in the future.

    Acchiappa Sogni video

    Saturday night, it was time for a break, and I was invited to a birthday party in the top floor of an apartment overlooking Milan, with the Duomo glowing visible in the distance. It was a private party just for me, for my very big birthday that actually happened on Pearl Harbour day. The main interest of this party was the invitation of a private chef from the great dining area of Italy, the Emilia Romagna. She prepared a fabulous lasagna typical of the region – making the sauce and the actual pasta herself. We had a roast porc and some fabulous fried potatoes that has herbs and spices that the cool would not reveal but said were a secret recipe of her grandmother. The dessert was a typical Italian tart, filled this time with fabulous fresh prunes.

    After the meal, which by the way was watered by two different Italian wines from the chef’s region, I pulled out my guitar and two other guests pulled out some bongo drums, and we jammed for an hour or so. A better, more relaxing evening could not be had….

    And from there, to the Binario 7 theater complex for the conference and play of TAC Teatro

    The final evening in Milan was the very special one of my first witnessing of the TAC Teatro production of the play called Edipo Rap, written by Angelo Villa, an Italian psychologist who is also the author of many oeuvres. I have not only seen this play in preparation over the last year from auditions to rehearsals, but I have also helped to re-edit the trailer that contains the endorsement by Mogol, the great Italian songwriter. On Sunday, once again I watched a little bit of the rehearsal at TAC Teatro, and gave a little feedback to Ornella Bonventre, the director of the play. But I knew little else about it, and had never seen it performed from beginning to end.

    So it was a moment of extraordinary panic when I found myself at the Teatro Binario 7 just an hour before the show and with Angelo Villa present, and I learned that I had been drafted in as the sound and lighting man! I at first refused, saying that not only can I not speak Italian, but I’ve never seen the play! It turned out that the Binary 7 had not included a technical guy to deal with the sound and light, and no one knew this until the moment the troupe arrived at the theater, just an hour and a half before the show.

    Mogol endorses the Edipo Rap play by Anelo Villa

    But Ornella and TAC and the four other actors of the play are the very definition of theatrical troupers. So I was drafted in to do whatever I could to help, while the other actors filled in on the lighting and sound responsibilities whenever they were not on stage! To my great amazement, I managed to perform the lighting and sound function without a hitch, and when it was not my responsibility, the actors did the same, again without a hitch. No audience member – and there were between 120 and 130 of them in a full-house of the small theater – was aware that anything but a professional, smooth production was underway and went from beginning to end without a hitch.

    Such is life in the theatrical lane!

    And once my duties as the light and sound man were finished I was then invited up onto the stage in my official role – more unfinished business – in presenting the second edition of my book, “Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism,” to the audience as part of the conference after the play. The other invited guests were two emergency workers of the Red Cross, a psychiatrist and Angelo Villa. So I was among distinguished company.

    Edipo Rap, in fact, is a play that deals with the problem of drugs, and ultimately, outsiders from society – which is why there was the connection with my Colin Wilson book – Wilson being a specialist on the theme of the Outsider – and the Red Cross had paid to host the play as part of a show of its new service that it offers to people in trouble with drugs and in need of emergency psychological assistance. This service is offered in Monza and Milan, and the space between.

    Yes, it was strange for me to find myself performing all of these functions in Monza! For regular readers of this blog will know that I have been visiting Monza annually since 1998 or so to cover the Formula One race – until this year! And so I was back again, symbolically NOT covering the F1 but taking care of unfinished business, in the way of running a theater performance’s lighting and sound system while then appearing and a special guest author.

    The play was fascinating even for someone who understands no Italian! The actors were an eclectic group that includes Ornella, who in addition to directing the play, had a small role that opens and closes the action; Cisky, a well-known Italian rap artist (and former prisoner who turned his life around with theater and music); and Jagorart Marco, who is a fantastic circus juggler trying to turn his life around into that of actor.

    After the show came the conference, as I mentioned, with Ornella acting as my interpreter. I was pleased to learn that no one in the audience had heard of Colin Wilson – despite many of his books being translated into Italian – and so I was able to give a very short primer on who he was.

    After the conference came a return to our local hangout, the Spazio Ligeria, in via Padova, where over a nice meal of pasta and other things, I took a moment to take part in the ongoing jam session that had been providing the soundtrack all evening.

    The weekend left a very strong feeling of no unfinished business. I hope I can have many more like it….

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