The Bookworm Critique|
By Maurice Hamilton;
Published by Macmillan
|by Mark Glendenning,|
It's hard to believe now, but a biography used to be an event. Biographies were usually written about people who had made a significant contribution to a particular field and were generally produced when that person's contribution had ended. Frequently, they were released posthumously. Things change though. The nature of the celebrity is very different now to what it was a few decades ago, and the associated trappings, including biographies, have adapted accordingly. Well written, insightful, comprehensive biographies still exist, and they continue to be an event when they are released. Far more common, though, are the unimaginative, hastily thrown together, colour-by-numbers books that are churned out of publishing houses faster than calculators from a Taiwanese electronics factory.
Along the way, the 'Society for Subjects of Biographies' has become a far less exclusive club. Gone is the prerequisite of having enriched a particular field in some way. Now, simply having your picture in the paper a couple of times is apparently sufficient justification for having at least three books written about your life. However, one person in motor racing who does deserve to have his life story recorded is Frank Williams. Well-known Formula One author Maurice Hamilton obviously felt the same way, and the end result is sitting in front of me at this very moment.
As a great admirer of Frank Williams, I was really looking forward to reading 'Frank Williams'. Hamilton is a good writer, Williams is a fascinating person. In theory, this should add up to a good book. If equations like this meant anything, though, then Ferrari would probably have won the last couple of World Championships. Like the Prancing Horse, though, the expectations failed to meet with the reality. In fairness, it probably couldn't have hoped to - my expectations were pretty high. And it is not a bad book - far from it. But nor is it a great one.
As a descriptive account of Williams' life so far, this book works well. Hamilton has done his homework and offers the reader a reasonably in-depth rendition of the major events in the Williams story, up to the end of 1997. At times, though, it seems that Hamilton has opted for simple description over analysis and insight. This is especially disappointing in light of Hamilton's experience as a writer and journalist. I'd assume that he must know Williams reasonably well and has no doubt interviewed him many times over the years. It's a shame, then, that Hamilton's own thoughts and opinions weren't present in the book.
There are lots of excerpts of interviews with other people, and these are genuinely interesting and revealing. Hamilton's thoughts would have been equally valuable. For example, on page 37, Hamilton tells us that Williams "tended to view racing drivers through rose-tinted glasses." Recent history would suggest that his perception of drivers has changed quite a bit. This could have provided the springboard for an interesting discussion, however Hamilton either missed it or deemed it irrelevant.
The other main problem was that the book seemed to occasionally wander off track. Sometimes it was a book about Williams the man, other times it was about Williams the team. The two are not as interchangeable as you might think. Williams is certainly the heart of the team, but a heart can't function without a whole lot of other bits and pieces. Some chapters read almost like a season review - this is fine if you're writing about the team, but how relevant is it to Williams as a person? The same chapters could have been inserted, virtually word-for-word, into the biography of a driver, and nobody would have noticed a thing.
The coverage of the various seasons was also a bit inconsistent. Entire chapters were written on some of the team's successes. Alan Jones' victorious year in 1980, the team's first Championship, was covered in great detail, as were Damon Hill's efforts in 1996. So why did Villeneuve's championship only warrant three paragraphs? It may have had something to do with a publishing deadline. Hamilton manages to cover the Senna trial, the loss of aerodynamicist Adrian Newey to McLaren, and the 1997 championship in the space of a couple of pages. It's a shame, because these are the last pages of the book, and the sudden change of pace is a bit disconcerting. It's almost like you've been having a long, relaxed conversation with somebody, and then they're suddenly trying to hurry you out of the room.
Hamilton tells us in the preface that Williams did not authorize this biography, although he was aware that it was being written and did not make any formal objection. Interviews and anecdotes, then, form the basis of most of the information. It is here that the book shines at its brightest. The interviews and anecdotes are all well chosen, interesting, and relevant. There is virtually no dead wood here. The absence of any real opinions or thoughts from Hamilton himself forces the reader to rely heavily on this type of information to build a picture of Williams as a person. Happily, the information that he does provide is up to the task.
On page xi, Hamilton describes Williams as "one of the most poignant and frequently misunderstood figures in British life." I'm in total agreement with him. The mere mention of Frank Williams usually conjures up an image of a man hunched in a wheelchair at the back of his team garage, watching a small screen and wearing a facial expression reminiscent of a cat sucking a lemon wedge. His cars may have just smacked into the wall, or they could be lapping the field. It didn't matter - the expression remained the same. Of course, all of the team bosses were probably wearing similar expressions, but Williams' inability to stand on the pit wall made him more accessible to the camera lens. And so the image stuck. When you have that image of Williams in mind, it's hard to believe that the same man was at the centre of the following story:
"Aware of his willingness to accept any bet which was half-reasonable, Charlie (Crichton-Stuart) wagered Frank ten shillings (fifty pence) that he would not run, stark naked, outside when, the story goes, the congregation was emerging from the local church. Frank accepted. He darted outside, but on his return found that the door had been locked. With the occupants of the flat watching from the windows, Frank called their bluff by returning to the middle of the road and thumping his chest in a demented fashion before answering the plaintive calls to get back inside." (Page 15)
Several other passages stood out, however one in particular made a great impression on me and contributed quite a lot to the overall picture of Williams that I had developed by the end of the book. It is derived from an interview with Peter Windsor. Now a journalist, Windsor was, at one time, the Williams team manager. He was in charge when a pitstop cock-up saw Nigel Mansell's car allowed to depart before one of the wheels had been fitted properly. The car took off, and within a few yards the suspect wheel flew off. The situation became even worse when, rather than hauling the car back to the pit and replacing the wheel, the mechanics were instructed to attend to the car where it stood, an action which breached the regulations. Mansell eventually got going again, and drove another twenty laps before the stewards decided that he was to be disqualified.
Windsor took full responsibility, although there was no condemnation from within the team. He even offered his resignation, but Williams refused to accept it. Windsor relates:
"That was a vote of confidence, but I needed Frank to say: 'You are one of a team, there was a cock-up, so let's move on and do a proper analysis.' That didn't really happen... Frank is a loner but I wouldn't say he has a mean streak. I don't think there is anything mean about Frank. He's a very hard person sometimes but he is no harder on anyone than he is on himself. Therefore he is very fair as a result. If he behaves in a way that makes you think 'What a bastard!' then nine times out of ten he has probably been in the same situation himself, and he knows what he's doing." (Page 195)
This is a reasonably good book. It is fairly solid and informative; and is the best source of information about one of Formula One's most intriguing characters currently available. It is far from comprehensive though, not least because the Frank Williams story is far from over. Even taking that out of the equation, I still feel that the biography would have benefited from some of Hamilton's own thoughts and experience. It's a decent effort none the less, and a pleasant read. If you're after the definitive account of Frank Williams' life, however, then you might have to wait a while. If ever anyone were looking for a book that's just begging to be written, that would have to be it. In the meantime, Maurice Hamilton's 'Frank Williams' is the best we've got, and you could do worse than to check it out.
|Mark Glendenning||© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.|
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