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The Sinking of the MV Port Victor – 1943

There’s a lot in the news right now about the tragic loss of a rather large ocean liner that took place about 100 years ago.  Sixty-nine years ago a rather smaller ship than the Titanic went down in the Atlantic Ocean, the victim of a German U-Boat.  What makes the latter incident much more immediate to me is that the Master of that ship was my Grandfather, Captain William Gordon Higgs. The MV Port Victor set sail on her final voyage on April 11th, 1943 and in today’s blog you’ll hear a report of that sinking in great detail.

I’ve mentioned my maternal Grandfather before now in these pages, but just recently his own type-written report of the incident turned up in a university library in Australia after an internet search.  It runs to eight pages and I thought I would like to share it with a wider audience – I found it so extraordinary to read and I present it here in it’s entirety (about 25 minutes).  I hope you find the time to listen through as it gives an extraordinarily vivid picture of what it must have been like to risk life and limb on the high seas during the height of World War II.

The ‘MV’ of MV Port Victor stands for ‘Motor Vessel’.  She had only been completed the year before, having been built in 1942 in the Wallsend shipyards of Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson. She was 12,441 tons in weight and, as far as I can make out from internet records, of the 200+ merchant vessels sunk by the Germans in 1943 there were only four heavier. If you are interested click on the following link to find more details and the map location of the sinking at the bottom of the page: http://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?37354

Some years ago I remember my mother showing me the photograph my Grandfather mentions, taken by the Liberator’s crew, of their lifeboats roped together, in a frame alongside the handwritten note scribbled in pencil by the American crew of that plane and sent down with the supplies.  It exists somewhere in our family’s collection of memorabilia, but quite where at this moment we are not sure – it is being looked for…

A couple of weeks after reaching dry land my Grandfather wrote to the parents of a couple of young female Dutch passengers – I present that letter below.  I love his turn of phrase: ‘To the feminine virtues of beauty and grace they added intelligence and “savoir faire” to a remarkable degree in girls so young’.

I am adding this paragraph after the initial publication of this blog as my brother has succeeded in finding more material relevant to our Grandfather’s career – below is a newspaper report (from the Tasmanian Examiner, of all papers!) on the visit of King George VI and the Queen to the newly launched Port Brisbane in 1949 – Commodore WG Higgs commanding:

To say I am proud to be a part of a family that contains such a wonderful man as my Grandfather is understating it. My only regret, and I have said this before, is that he died when I was only 9 months old.  Here’s a picture of my Grandfather with my Grandmother and her sister taken in 1948 – 5 years after the events mentioned here.  WGH with wife and siter-in-lawIt’s said my Grandmother’s hair turned white overnight on hearing that her husband’s ship had gone down.

My thanks go to Elizabeth Drew in Australia for bringing these documents to our attention, my brother who emailed them to me from the UK (and found the cutting used above in the National Library of Australia) and my cousin Graham (also in Australia) for the 1948 photo. Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing!

Take Care
Simon

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A series of one-liners…

I am an audiobook narrator.  In my day-to-day work I deal with many hundreds and thousands of words passing in endless formation in front of my eyes hour after hour… and I love it.  But this blog today is not about those multitudes – it is about a mere 11 words – and how they have come to mean more to me in the past three months of anticipation than any other sentence I have uttered in the past year.

Now, why should this be so?  Probably because I’m a bit of a geek and am unreasonably excited about being a small part of something so much larger than I’m usually involved in.  This project goes by the name “JOHN CARTER”.  It is a movie… directed by a two time Oscar winner… it supposedly cost $250 million dollars to make… and I have a line in it!

Over the years, first lines (only lines) have become quite important to me.  In Grammar School in the UK at about age 12 I took part in my first school play.  It was Julius Caesar and my line (my only line) was “Sirrah, give place”.  I have no idea why it has stuck in my mind for so many years, but there you have it; like that first kiss, that first taste of a really fine malt whisky, the first time… well, you get the idea.  This line is uttered by the character Publius, a Senator, not far into Act 3 Sc 1. As I look at the original text I see Publius has other lines in the play but I know this was all I uttered in our production, so the rest must have been cut.  Not an auspicious beginning.

Back to ‘John Carter’: After the movie had been ‘put together’ (I’m not good with technical terms) the director screened it several times to spot anything that needed improving and amongst several other little tweaks (more on one of those later) the director felt that a line as uttered by one of the minor characters just didn’t sound right in the context of the movie and they needed it replaced (I heard the original later – the actor had a strong Irish accent).  Word went out and through my agent I was asked to send in a sample recording. Oh, I was ON it.  Fortunately so.  I heard later that I was hired because I was the first actor to supply anything that matched the original actor’s voice. A few days later I traveled to Marin County and entered the world of big movie making at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch.

Now, thirty or so years after asking ‘Sirrah’ to ‘give place’ (this is another flashback) I landed a spot in my first TV show, Nash Bridges.  This was Don Johnson’s vehicle being filmed locally in San Francisco.  I was hired for the episode “Out of Chicago” as a hotel concierge.  Talk about anticipation!  Over the next couple of weeks I must have received a script update at least once a week FedEx’d to my house… a full script each time… and each time I still had only one line, and it NEVER changed.  I must have run that one line through my head a thousand times… was I getting the emphasis right, was I using the right tone of voice?  I knew that one line backwards, sideways and upside down.

Finally came the day of filming, at a hotel in downtown San Francisco.  I was ready for anything.  The director called for a rehearsal… I waited for the female character to come to my desk and ask the question that was my cue and I gave my best line reading EVAH.  For weeks I had had the line in my head and I was not going to get it wrong.  I was PERFECT.  Then the director came over… and changed the line.  Just like that.  At the last minute.  But… I’m a professional and I handled it.  I can still recite that one line from memory: “There’s another stand on the plaza. Through those doors, ma’am.”  Awesome.

Here’s the snippet:

At Skywalker Ranch,  in January of this year, in a small room off a small corridor, off a longer corridor, off the huge reception area (it’s a bit labyrinthine) I was shown the few seconds of the movie in which my reading of the line would be inserted in place of the original actor’s.  We practiced a little and then Andrew Stanton (the  director of the Oscar winning movies ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘Wall-E’) came into the room and gave some direction. The actor was crouching to his knee as the line was spoken and I had to imitate his movement so that the sound was authentic on screen. We recorded several takes and that was it!  Since they had to be sure it all went together well I was asked to hang about while the work was done and it was suggested I might like to sit at the back of the much larger mixing studio and watch as some other part of the movie was being worked on.  Being in this mixing studio was like being present at NASA during some crucial phase of the moon landing… it was amazing.

The studio (the Kurosawa studio) had just been refurbished at a cost of a million dollars or so and it was, is, truly impressive.  It’s about the size of a small movie theatre with banks of NASA-like desks and monitors in rows facing the screen.  It’s here that sound effects and music and … oh I don’t know, so much of what gets put in a movie gets put in.  I watched as a 35″ clip of a sequence of JOHN CARTER was run over and over as they tried to balance a background sound effect with the music score.  They were tweaking the tiniest detail, something that would blow by the audience’s ear in a second, but they know that it’s the attention to detail that can make all the difference.

At the time of writing, the critics have not been kind to JOHN CARTER.  I’m going to take the family to see it tonight and I shall conclude this particular blog, after I get back, with my verdict … on my line AND the movie – I may even tell you roughly where in the movie my line is heard…

********* Several hours later**********

Hey! That was FUN!

No, it’s not a great movie (if it won Mr.Stanton a third Oscar I’d be very surprised) but as a piece of escapist entertainment I’d say it was pretty darn good and at times it is that wonderful cliche a ‘visual feast’.  It occasionally stretched believability (what SciFi/superhero movie doesn’t) but no more than, say, a Tarzan movie might. I mention Tarzan because the author of that series was also the author of the John Carter series of novels, Edgar Rice Burroughs.  So you have to bear in mind the origins of this tale… It’s a Saturday matinee serial writ large.  I’m a big kid at heart so for me it was, without a doubt, worth the cost of admission.

My line in the movie?  Right towards the end… and it was brilliantly done. That’s all I’m saying.

Take Care
Simon

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It all began like this…

Not exactly like this, but the goal was the same: Creating audiobooks for the blind, partially sighted or dyslexic.  When I began 30 years ago we recorded on reel-to-reel 1/4″ tape machines and had one engineer between two recording studios – yesterday there was one engineer to each narrator and everything was recorded onto a computer’s hard drive using rather strange software.

I’m choosing this topic for my first blog on the re-designed “me” website because yesterday I donated some time in support of Learning Ally’s Record-A-Thon (the organization formerly known as “Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic”) and had a wonderful morning down at their studios in Palo Alto which made me recall the many pleasant hours I spent at the Royal National Institute for the Blind’s Talking Book Service (now more than 75 years old) in London in the 1980’s.  I always say it’s where I served my apprenticeship in audiobook narration.

Back then I was at the BBC working a very strange shift pattern as a newsreader/presenter for Radio 4 that left me with time off during the week and as I was new to London I was still looking for things to do in my spare time.  A friend had recorded a few books for the RNIB (whose Talking Books studios were just around the corner from Broadcasting House, the BBC’s headquarters) so I volunteered and that was it, I was hooked.  For the next 10 years I must have recorded scores of books in short 3 hour sessions once a week (including my first recording of Frank Herbert’s DUNE canon – all five books took me about a year).

Here’s how it worked then: One engineer sat between two soundproof studios and listened in to each in turn.  We, the narrators, would record continuously and if we stumbled and the engineer was not listening to us we would first have to get their attention.  Then they would rewind the tape and at a suitable gap (prior to where we stumbled) the engineer would ‘drop’ us back into the recording.  I recall there were green and red lights on the desks in front of us and they put the green up for standby and the red when we were to start (come to think about it, it may have been the other way round!).  Nowadays I work alone in a studio and do all the work myself – while some narrators still practice the ‘drop in’ method of picking up after stumbles I prefer to record straight through, dropping markers when I need to, and editing the mistakes afterwards.

The Learning Ally studios are shown on the right – they look like a set of experimental boxes in a futuristic SciFi movie – you’re never quite sure if what emerges will be what went inside to begin with…

Yesterday I had to learn a whole new system because for that book I actually had to say the name of the page I was on and pause both before and after.  At the same time the engineer would click on a screen and highlight an icon indicating that page… and at the end of that page there’d be a pause, I’d say “Page two seventeen”, another pause while the engineer clicked the ‘217’ icon, and then on I’d go.  Certainly not the same as recording a commercial audiobook.  I’m sure this has to do with allowing the person listening to be able to easily find their way through the book.

I must mention the person who brought my attention to this organization and first invited me down to donate a few hours to the cause: Anne Richardson.  She’s someone who (like me) started recording for the blind and partially sighted and has since moved on to commercial audiobooks.  She’s still just starting (with only a few audiobooks out there) but she’s put a lot of effort into expanding this part of her career and promises to do well.  What I find admirable is that she still donates at least an afternoon a week to working down at Learning Ally studios.  If you find yourself able to then please do your part and donate to the cause.

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In a side note our peach tree produced it’s first blossom of the year today and I wanted to share it with you.

We have two apple trees, one pear and the peach all of which have been planted in the last 2 years.  We had a couple of delicious apples last year, but the late rains knocked all the blossoms off the peach tree and it gave us no fruit – but then, we’re told, it probably wouldn’t have been that good since the tree was so young.

We’re hoping for a better result this year.

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Finally, I hope you like the new format of the website.  It requires me to go back over many of the past posts and adjust them for the new style and that’s very time consuming, but I’m trying to do that over the next few months.  I really like the much more simple framework and hope you do to.

Take Care
Simon

Addendum:  Since writing this the subject of volunteering as a narrator has come up in other social media outlets, and from a LinkedIn discussion I offer these two suggestions for places people can volunteer (it’s a great way to begin training yourself in long form narration).  One is in Minnesota: http://www.positivelyminnesota.com/JobSeekers/Blind_or_Visually_Impaired/Donate_or_Volunteer/Support_Us_by_Volunteering_2.aspx and the other in LA: http://www.airsla.org/volunteer.asp – I’m not sure if they also accept donations.

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The Story of My Heart – #GoingPublic on Twitter

Not my heart, in fact, but that of Richard Jefferies, a prose poet of the English countryside.

I’m doing this at the instigation of my friend and fellow narrator Xe Sands.  In a moment of inspiration some weeks back she decided to introduce #GoingPublic as a hashtag to Twitter (I can’t really explain the details of hashtags, if you know twitter you’ll understand and if you don’t it really doesn’t matter that much).  Suffice to say, it is an opportunity for narrators (and, I guess, just about anyone) to record a piece of literature or poetry that is in the public domain (so no copyright issues) for people to listen to without charge – and the links are promoted via Twitter and #GoingPublic.

So this is my offering.  It’s from a book I’ve long wanted to record.  In fact, many moons ago I thought of doing it as a solo production and offering it for a fee for download via my website.  But in the end, I think offering extracts for free is a better way of getting this ‘out there’.

Many years ago I worked for a group that took the name “Lectures at a Loss” founded by two producers at BBC Radio Brighton (Keith Slade and Ivan Howlett, both now deceased) who created shows using actors to read texts on stage with a slide show behind (merging pictures using two projectors) as well as music.  There were shows about the Cutty Sark that took place aboard the Cutty Sark (a clipper ship) at Greenwich and a show about Aubrey Beardsley (an artist of the late victorian era with connections to Brighton).  There was also one about Richard Jefferies that I particularly enjoyed working on (I just helped with the set up and background stuff – although in the Cutty Sark show I did have a line or two…”Millet, Sir!” was one of them).

The Richard Jeffries ‘lecture’ made a big impact on me and as I became a narrator I promised myself that one day I’d seek out his writings and try to present them in audiobook format… so far “The Story of My Heart” is the only book I have in my possession…. So here are the opening pages from that book – I strongly suggest listening to Vaughan-Williams’ composition “A Lark Ascending” while listening to this (I’d have mixed it in myself, but…copyright).

 

John Richard Jefferies (6 November 1848 – 14 August 1887) was an English nature writer, noted for his depiction of English rural life in essays, books of natural history, and novels.  The novelist and historian Walter Besant wrote of his reaction on first reading Jefferies: “Why, we must have been blind all our lives; here were the most wonderful things possible going on under our very noses, but we saw them not.”

In December 1881, Jefferies began to suffer from his until then undiagnosed tuberculosis.  After a series of painful operations, he moved to West Brighton to convalesce. About this time he wrote his extraordinary autobiography, The Story of My Heart (1883). He had been planning this work for seventeen years and, in his words, it was ‘absolutely and unflinchingly true’. It was not an autobiography of the events of his life, but an outpouring of his deepest thoughts and feelings.

I hope you enjoy listening to it.
Take Care
Simon

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Flying High

When I first flew into the United States almost 20 years ago I hadn’t done much commercial flying.  Getting about the UK for me meant long train or car rides – I once flew to Aberdeen, but that was it. So here in the early years I was like a kid whenever I boarded a commercial airliner (in fact, as a kid, I’d long had the fantasy of becoming a pilot) and I was always so excited.   I had to have the window seat, and stayed glued to the view from 36,000 ft.

But over the past 20 years the thrill has worn off and flying has become something of a chore… I’m flying now, as I write this (distance to go 2,652 miles).  I’ve just left Boston Logan Airport to return to San Francisco after spending a week in the brand-spanking new studios of AudioGo(formerly BBC Audiobooks America) and I thought I’d make this whole trip go faster if I tried to polish off an update to my blog here – pictures and everything, starting from scratch.  It helps that I’m flying VirginAmerica and they have wi-fi (for a fee) and power sockets by the seats!

So let me begin by telling you what I’ve been doing here… I mean, there… in Rhode Island where AudioGo are based.  British author Chris Ewan has written four books in a series that goes under the general title The Good Thief’s Guide To… (insert city here).  I was recording the first and fourth in the series which are set in Amsterdam and Venice respectively. I shall be recording the second and third books (set in Paris and Las Vegas) in the not to distant future.  They’re fun books and I’ve enjoyed reading them – brief info here or the actual ‘Good Thief’ site for more details.

If you follow my video blogs you’ll know it’s unusual for me to leave my home studio but Dan at AudioGo asked me very nicely, and the studios were only three weeks old, and I said yes.  Being in a studio with an engineer is a very different experience from working on your own as a narrator.  I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to recording and I find it hard, at first, to relinquish control.  As a solo narrator you have to have all levels of your mind working at once – part of your consciousness is totally in the story: getting that essence of ‘here and now’ that producer Paul Ruben mentions in his excellent blog.  But you’ve also got to be aware of what’s happening technically – and that covers anything from getting all the words right and keeping the characters consistent to ensuring the levels are fine and your equipment is functioning as well as keeping aware of extraneous noises and so on.  In a studio with an engineer (and especially if you’re lucky enough to have a producer like Paul) you can let a lot of that slide and simply focus on the story – or you could if you weren’t me.

I’m so used to doing those other levels that I just can’t let go, and I stopped myself to redo passages or sequences far more than my engineer did – I’m also very self judgmental… did I say that? Tucker, my engineer at AudioGo, was very tolerant.And he was fast with the ‘punch in’ editing mode, which helps.  I still managed to get at least four hours a day of finished audio – which enabled me to finish a day early and go sight seeing (to Newport, RI – where these two photos were taken).

If anyone doubts that it’s possible to achieve high quality production from a home studio let me just note (and blow my own trumpet) that, this last week, I received a fourth Audie Nomination, this time in the category of ‘Distinguished Achievement in Production’ for Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. This goes alongside my nominations for Humor (Paul is Undead), Thriller/Suspense (TGWKT Hornet’s Nest, again) and Multi-Voiced Performance (Great Classic Science Fiction – one of many talented narrators).  I should add a quick shout out to Aaron who received and mastered the files I recorded at home and should definitely share in the production credits (and the Audie glory!) for Hornet’s Nest.

It’s always a thrill to be nominated for an Audie and I look forward to the Awards Ceremony to be held in New York City towards the end of this month (the 24th May, I believe). In fact, with this latest nomination I could be said to be ‘flying high’ in so many different ways (except drug induced…I’m too old for that nonsense 🙂 )

If you’re interested, now that the words are mostly done (I’ll tidy it up before publishing), I’m at 36,138 feet going at 431mph with 2,345 miles to go!  Now to work on the pictures.. and that can take some time.

Well, that didn’t take as long as I expected –  we’ve still got 1,940 miles to go… Maybe I’ll watch a movie, I hear ‘The Town’ with Ben Affleck is quite good.  Then I’ll take a nap.  Of course, I might just sneak a peek out of the window every now and then, and marvel at the miracle of flight.

It’s possible I’ll have this published before I touch down, and if you read it before I’m home (about 10:30 tonight Pacific) then I’ll consider that something of a miracle too…

Take Care
Simon

 

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Weaving the Strands

Surprised myself this morning by being somewhat poetic. My wife spends part of the week down at UC Irvine during the academic year and we usually speak a couple of times a day on the phone just to check in – sometimes I spur her on and sometimes she spurs me! Today I was wrapping up the conversation and I said: “Well, I’d better pull together the strands of the day and see if I can weave something beautiful”. It rather surprised her (this dumb klutz of a husband saying something that might be termed ‘inspirational’)…  it also stunned me! Anyway, the thought stayed with me and inspired me to launch into a blog in which I pull together some of the loose strands from almost a year of blogging.

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Let me begin with the one in which I praised grandfathers. In that blog I regretted not having a photo of my Father’s Father to place beside that of my Mum’s Dad – the Commodore in the Merchant Navy. Shortly thereafter my sister sent me this photograph. He’s clearly a young man here and given that he’s wearing a uniform I would guess this might have been taken during, or very near to, the First World War. I wonder if anyone in the family knows what he got up to then?

That’s the badge of the Royal Army Medical Corps on his lapel and I know he was a doctor in his civilian life, so maybe when he volunteered he was already a qualified medic. Incidentally, the word in the family is that his wife (my paternal grandmother who died when I was about 6) was one of the first female graduates of Queen’s University, Belfast.  She also became a doctor.

Anyway – this is to Grandpa John, long gone, but certainly not forgotten!

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There’s always the hope when raising your profile on the web that long lost friends will get back in touch.  But I was very surprised when my first wife, Jo, contacted me to correct my facts in the last blog about ‘Animals’.  In that, I’d said that I always mistakenly called Simone a ‘he’ because she has short hair and the short haired cat of the pair Jo and I had was male.  When Jo emailed me through the website she gently pointed out that both cats were female and we had named them Champagne and Charlotte – from Champagne Charlie – and they became Champers and Charlie.  Now, Charlie died nearly 15 years ago so I apologize here and now to her memory for ever disrespecting her sex.  And many thanks Jo for putting me right (a perfect ex-wife – haven’t seen her in over 20 years and she’s still correcting me… no, I kid!)

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If you’ll check out the beginning of my video blog (at the top of the right hand column) you’ll see me as a beginning drummer… inspired by my son who seems to be rather good at it.  I promised a short clip of him performing and that’s just what is below – only 30secs.  Can’t remember the song they’re performing right now – I’ll insert that later.  A word of warning – it might be loud. So here is Acid Tent performing locally with ‘my boy’ on Drums… 1…2…3…4:

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Getting back to the subject of past relationships:  Last year I recorded a book by a Finnish author, Arto Paasilinna: The Year of the Hare.  It was written in 1975.  It so happens that during that year I met a young Finnish girl and we had a relationship that lasted till the end of 1976 (I spent 3 months in Finland in ’76 – a memorable time, a beautiful country).  I lost contact after that and haven’t been in touch since.  While doing the book I thought I’d see if I could use the wonders of the internet to find out if she’s even still alive.  Well, sure enough I found her on Facebook and we’ve exchanged a couple of messages back and forth since (using Google Translate – my Finnish is terrible).  So, Ulla! A copy of the book will be in the mail shortly.

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Let’s jump back to that blog about grandfathers.  If you read it you’ll see that I was also celebrating the arrival of a new generation with the birth of a friend’s new baby.  The child was born prematurely and there were some difficult moments in the following weeks, but I’m happy to say he passed through the immediate dangers and is now thriving. I will ask you to keep your fingers crossed in the next month or so as he still has a lingering issue that requires him to undertake an operation – not an easy thing for such a nipper.

This photo from a few weeks ago may not be the best one of him (he has a wonderful smile that he’s not shy of flashing) but it shows an outfit we bought for him!  Given the nature of the way they grow he’s not likely to be wearing it very much longer so I wanted it on record.  iPoo’d/iPod… get it? The menu choice on the ring is ‘change me’! (if he can still fit into it maybe his mum will put him in it this weekend and I’ll try for a better shot…?)

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I just looked back at the blog on Syd, Proust and Jimi and saw some links were broken to the photographs.  They’re all corrected now.  Since I wrote that I did take the family to see Roger Waters’ performance of The Wall – and the boys are agreed it was about the best rock concert they’ve seen.

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When I began this blog nearly a year ago I was about to head to New York for the Audie awards, and I’m about to  head there again (end of May) for the 2011 Audie Awards ceremony.  I have my name attached to three nominations – Paul is Undead by Alan Goldsher as well as The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest by Steig Larsson, the third is for a SciFi collection of short stories to which I contributed.  There’s some stiff competition so I won’t hold my breath… but I always hope!

Incidentally, for the third year running I’m in the Audible.com Tournament of Audiobooks.  This year with that third in the Larsson Millennium series The Girl Who Kicked (and so on).  The first year Neil Gaiman knocked me off in the final, last year I fell at an earlier fence, but this year I have high hopes (though again, I’m not restricting my air intake).  If you enjoyed the book, please vote – if you haven’t heard it yet then buy it, listen and then vote… oh, what the heck, just vote for me anyway.

Take Care
Simon

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Animals

You’d be forgiven for thinking, if you know me well, that I’m about to launch into some kind of blog about the Pink Floyd album with the same name (which is, I have to say, a very good album). But no, this is really about ‘animals’ – or, more specifically, about household pets.

I’ve just finished reading Dr.Nick Trout’s latest book ‘Ever By My Side’. Nick is a veterinarian. He grew up and trained in the UK but since shortly after qualifying as a veterinary surgeon he has worked almost exclusively in the US. In his first book (which I also narrated: Tell Me Where It Hurts) he described several of the cases he has worked with in his time at the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. In his latest he takes a more autobiographical look back at his personal experience with his own (and his family’s) feline and canine companions.

I must confess here that occasionally I am driven to tears by the material I read. Nick’s first book had one passage which I had to read several times before I was able to keep my emotions enough under control to allow the reader to experience their own truth of that particular moment in the story. But this time he had me going three or four times at least.

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Those of you who have had no experience of growing up with pets may not understand what all the fuss is about. But I had the company of pets throughout my childhood. In my parent’s house I knew three dogs and four cats (not to mention a great many goldfish). Sandy was an Irish terrier, Mandy a black Labrador and Candy a Beagle. Smokey was a British Blue, Whisky and Frisky were Siamese and there was a ginger cat called Shandy (do you think we had a thing for rhyming names?).

But the pets that mean the most are those I had a part in choosing myself. Shortly after my first marriage my then wife and I went to pick up a kitten from a friend who had several. Needless to say we came home with two – Charlie and Champers we called them (something to do with ‘Champagne Charlie’). Charlie (he) was shorthaired and Champers (she) was longhaired.

After the end of that marriage both cats came with me, eventually surviving a long journey to settle in California. Charlie died at 11 years old – he hadn’t been well for a while and one day he crawled to his favorite place under the bed and left his mortal remains for us to find a few hours later. After Charlie left us Champers became a much friendlier cat – they’d neither of them been lap cats and that didn’t change, but she certainly sought our company much more often.

Champers was a tart! She really was. She was a real charmer and although she never became comfortable with being handled she loved to be near us and to be tickled and stroked. She slowly developed more and more health issues, but she stuck in there and made it past her 20th birthday. Then we come to the part that connects with my emotional side so strongly when I read about Nick and his experience as a vet. Especially when he describes dealing with the end of a much-loved pet’s life.

In January 2006 I flew to Toronto to film a role in an episode of a new ABC TV series (The Evidence – don’t ask! It was canceled after they’d filmed 8 episodes – I was in the 6th). Champers hadn’t been well, but looked like she’d hold on for a few weeks more. It was a Saturday when I was to fly home. While waiting at the airport I received a call from the vet – she wanted permission to put Champers to sleep. She had been brought in the night before, after having a relapse, by the person in whose care I had left her. She was not in a good way at all.  It was Saturday; they couldn’t wait until I got home… I said my goodbyes.

I still regret not being there, though I couldn’t insist on keeping Champers alive for my own selfish reasons and I trusted my vet to tell me the truth.

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Now, you may have noticed the photographs up and down this page. This is not Champers and Charlie, this is Sebastian and Simone, almost four years old (they joined the family in March of 2007). Just to confuse me, the boy, Sebastian is longhaired and it’s the girl, Simone, who is shorthaired.  They kept the names they were given when we collected them from Community Concern for Cats.

My wife and I wanted lap cats and we got them. No butt can hit a chair in this house without a cat appearing from nowhere to take up residence in the lap. While writing this I’ve had to redirect Simone three times and Sebastian is on the couch beside me.

Neither Champers nor Charlie could ever be replaced, but I love these guys.

I’m sure that if you’ve ever had a relationship with a pet you’ll enjoy Nick Trout’s books… they may even make you cry!

Take Care
Simon (and Simone and Sebastian)

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I blame Syd, Proust and Jimi amongst others…

I’ve been wondering why I haven’t been able to summon up the creative energy to write a new blog in a couple of weeks (of course you have too, and that’s why I’ve been inundated with emails and tweets demanding some fresh words of wisdom – not).  Well, I think I’ve finally found the reason for my malaise:  I am, to a greater or lesser extent, affected emotionally by what I’m reading at the time (a bit like an actor being so immersed in a character he’s playing that his moods begin to be affected by the role) and the two books that combined to put me into an almost catatonic state were Swann’s Way, which I recorded about three weeks ago, and A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett, which I was deep into all last week.

Swann’s Way begins Proust’s journey ‘In Search of Lost Time’:  Every sense is heightened as they all contribute to triggering memories of the past, and there is much wallowing in nostalgia.  Now, I am very prone to be sent off into memories of my past – reading 20 hours of Proust simply sharpened that ability.

Cue Syd, and my own experiences growing up in the late sixties and early seventies.  I knew it might be a book I had a connection with even before I started, and by half way through the author’s introduction I was finding myself becoming emotional (in a not particularly emotional passage).  The sense of loss I felt in the story of Syd Barrett was palpable.  If you know nothing about him, let me tell you he co-founded Pink Floyd in the mid sixties and just as they were becoming famous in ’67/68 he had some form of psychological breakdown.  He was ‘edged’ out of the Floyd (one day they just didn’t pick him up for a gig) and after two solo albums and an aborted attempt at a third in ’74 he probably never picked up a guitar again.  Many people who knew him commented on the difference between the old Syd (pre-breakdown) and the later Syd; they appeared to be two very different people.  After years of obscurity living as normal, and anonymous, a life as possible (not very – unthinking ‘fans’ of his early work never stopped bothering him in some way or other) he died in 2006.

After completing Syd’s story I just had to go back and listen to all the recordings I had of early Pink Floyd, I listened to Syd’s solo stuff and I watched a lot of what was available on You Tube. Suddenly I was reliving my own introduction to the raw rock of the late 60’s /early 70’s…

The first concert I ever attended was on 19th February 1969 and it cost five shillings (at the time about 60 cents) – here’s the program cover on the left (part of my mammoth collection of Rock Concert programs).

On the right is a picture I took of my early favorite guitarist Paul Kossoff of Free (yet another victim of the times; he died in 1976 after falling victim to drug abuse, though he tried to clean up he died of drug related heart problems on a flight from LA to NY).  Free, you’ll note from the program cover, was first on the bill at my first gig.

Two weeks later my second live concert was… Pink Floyd!

I was thirteen at the time and I tried to go and see as many live concerts as I could.  By the time I finished Grammar School (1974) I could beat most fellow students with the list of live acts I had seen.  Perhaps the most memorable was Led Zeppelin on 20th December 1972 (see the pic on the right): After the concert was over and the house lights went up Robert Plant came out in response to the continuing cheers and demands of the audience members who had resolutely refused to leave. We had stayed clustered around the stage and he emerged from the wings and joined us in singing Christmas songs – without a microphone.

I mustn’t forget to mention ‘Rock at the Oval – 1971’, which took place a year to the day after the death of Jimi Hendrix (which was forty years ago this past weekend – another reason for my malaise… FORTY years? I can’t be that old… where did my life go…etc, etc.).  Top of the bill – The Who (Pete Townsed smashed his guitar and Keith Moon walked through his drum kit – quote from Roger Daltrey “As you see, we can’t do an encore”).  Also: Rod Stewart and the Faces, America, Mott the Hoople, The Greaseband and Quintessence, among others – what a day!  I went to a couple of the Crystal Palace Bowl concerts too and saw the likes of Elton John, Yes and Lindisfarne (one of my favourite bands of the time).

I chose my university partly based on the fact that The Who had a live album out called ‘Live at Leeds’ recorded in the refectory at Leeds University.  I wasn’t disappointed – I probably saw a great live band almost every weekend in my first year at Leeds.  After a year off I went back to Leeds at the end of 1976, but by then punk was gaining a hold and it was impossible to relax and enjoy the music sedately – it was all about getting up and jumping and pushing and… well, that’s when I first realized I was an old fogey at heart.

Jump forward a few years to 1985 and I remember seeing Bruce Springsteen for the first time at Wembley Stadium, and being so impressed I went back the next day and bought a ticket off a tout (first and only time) and saw him again. Saw Floyd again in 1988 (I’d seen them do The Wall at Earls Court in 1980 and 81).  Saw Genesis whenever I could (I’d seen them first when I was still in grammar school) and by now you’ll realize I really wasn’t a punk of any kind, I really enjoy good stadium rock (though I saw The Jam twice and survived!).

So, live rock makes up a large part of the landscape of my life – I could write for hours about my experiences at rock concerts, but we’ll save that for another time!  Since my sons have been old enough I have taken great pleasure in dragging them around to all the best concerts I could find (in my judgment, of course).  We saw the Genesis reunion gig in 2007 and I took my eldest (for his 14th birthday) to see the 35th anniversary tour of Yes and because I had met Rick Wakeman at the BBC he gave me backstage passes and my son met him, Jon Anderson, Chris Squire and Alan White.

But my favorite moment with my sons has to be getting tickets for The Rolling Stones, and when the moving stage came to within 20 feet of us my youngest son stood on a chair and put his arms round my neck (he was quite small then).  With my eldest  the other side of me and with Mick, Keith, et al just a few feet away I was the happiest dad in the world.

I’m taking the family to see Roger Waters perform The Wall in a couple of months – which kind of brings us round in full circle.

By the way, all the photos I took myself (the sliver of a pic at the top is of Zeppelin in ’72)!

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Thankfully the ‘malaise’ has passed and I think I’ve found my mojo again  – but I’m going to have to watch it when I do any more of those rock biographies.  I’m getting too old for them….

Take Care
Simon

PS If you’re interested I have narrated Eric Clapton’s autobiography and a biography of Led Zeppelin. Click on the pictures below to take you to the Audible.com download page:

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Grandads …and (one) other small stuff

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks, so I’ve not got to this page very much and when I have started writing I’ve always out-thought myself afterwards and erased what I started.  But I kept the last thing I did, because I rather enjoy the nostalgia thing… and you can see what that is below.

Before I get there let me pat myself (and my wife) on the back: We managed to complete the patio area in our backyard in record time – we had a party scheduled and we needed to finish by last weekend.  I’ve mentioned in past video blogs how barren it was out there but it’s not so barren now.  We did it all ourselves in the early mornings and evenings (with a couple of days thrown in when I rented a Bobcat – that was fun) and I especially want to thank the weather gods who gave us the coolest summer in years, without which we would never have done what we did… it was exhausting.

The party was partly to entertain our friends but also to celebrate a very good friend’s birthday.  His partner was in her ninth month of pregnancy and I think we only just got the party done in time… more later…

But first, the blog I intended to post several days ago, but never finished:

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I missed out here… I’m not unique, I know that, but if there’s something I would have wished to have more of in my life, it’s the living experience of having a grandfather.  My grandfathers existed, of course – both of them (well, duh!).  But my father’s died a few years before I was born, and my mother’s when I was nine months old.

I don’t have any photographs of my father’s dad, he was a doctor (like my dad), but here’s one of my mother’s father—>

He was a commodore in the Merchant Navy, lost his ship to a German U-Boat in the Mediterranean during one of the Malta Convoys in WWII, made friends with the German captain of that U-Boat after the war and was later awarded the OBE by King George VI.  Now those were just a few of his life experiences… imagine the stories he’d have told.  I know he cared about me and there’s a picture somewhere of him holding me in his arms – but, darn it, he died shortly after the picture was taken.

I mention all this because the blogger known as ‘The Literate Housewife’ just lost her grandfather, and it made me think… She provides such a moving tribute to him on her website that I became a little jealous.  Not for her pain in the loss, of course, but because of the years of companionship and fun she must have had and the stories she must have heard.

I haven’t missed out entirely on the experience, though.  My wife’s grandfather died only a couple of years ago – he made it to twelve days past his 100th birthday!  His grand-daughter and I had been married several years when he died and although he lived somewhere north of Seattle we did visit on a number of occasions (should have been more, I know – but kids today… they don’t call, they don’t visit…).Born in 1907, Warren lived a long and very full life and he loved to tell stories about his experiences – and, oh my, he really could tell stories… sometimes at great length.  His favorite was the story of  ‘The Cougar and the Blueberry Pie’! Perhaps one day I’ll put it in print… if I can remember it all.

My own dad would have loved to be a grandfather, I’m sure, but he missed out by almost a year.  I’m hoping to be a grandfather myself one day – although (note to sons) I’m not in that much of a hurry.

Some people have quite a ways to go… and that brings me back to my very good friend whose 56th birthday we celebrated last weekend.  Last Thursday he became a father for the first time (three weeks earlier than expected).

This little fellow (the ‘small stuff’ mentioned in the blog title – he was 4lbs 3oz) may one day be a grandfather himself… Hope he has lots of great stories to tell his grandkids.

Take Care
Simon

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Proust, Joyce and a dead rabbit…

I think I’ve mentioned here, or at least in a video blog from my studio, that from where I sit as I record my books I can see out of the front window to the street.  In our front garden we have a couple of medium size trees and just last week, as I was in the middle of recording ‘Tongues of Serpents’, I became aware of a kerfuffle in the branches of one of those trees.

It turns out there was some kind of hawk, with prey in claw, being harassed by a couple of scrub jays (who must have had a nest, or young, they were protecting).  We have a large open space nearby and I’m fascinated by the amount of ‘natural’ life we get to see.  I paused my recording, grabbed my camera, and crept around the side of the house to witness what was happening.

There was the hawk sitting on a branch with a quite substantial animal gripped beneath its claws – it looked not dissimilar to a small stuffed rabbit that a child might have….  Christopher Robin would have been most upset!

After withstanding the barrage from these scrub jays for several minutes my hawk took off when a couple walking their rather large dogs came a little too close… Scared the dog walkers almost out of their skin as it soared out of the tree and over their heads.

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Now, despite being linked in the title of this blog the events describe above have nothing to do with Proust and Joyce (sorry if you were expecting me to reveal some unknown interaction between the two authors – an argument in the woods, perhaps?):

I have just embarked on a recording of ‘Swann’s Way’, the first of the seven volumes that make up Marcel Proust’s mammoth ‘À La Recherche du Temps Perdu’ – which translates directly as ‘In Search of Lost Time’, but for many years has been better (if erroneously) known in English as ‘Remembrance of Things Past’.

Whenever I am asked to pick up and record a ‘classic’ I have to pause and take a breath before accepting the assignment.  The first and most important question I ask myself is: Can I really do it justice…? Has it already been done … and better than I could do it? (Maybe Hollywood should ask itself the same question when thinking about remakes)

Sometime early last year I was asked by a publisher to take on James Joyce’s Ulysses.  I hate to turn down work, especially something that could keep me busy for many, many days (as this would have done).  But I did turn this down for two very good reasons:  It would be an extremely difficult novel too do well (I just wouldn’t have the time to spend preparing every inch of this novel in the way it deserved), and there was already a most amazing version available to the listening public in which great work had been done to produce an authentic ‘Irish’ version (Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan, directed by Roger Marsh).

In being asked to narrate Proust I had a similar sense that I should pause and think hard.  Before accepting the assignment I read parts of the book… and fell in love.   I think this came along at just the right time for me.  I’m at an age now where I find myself in reveries of nostalgia, searching in my memory for those sensations of the long past… the same very small details of childhood that Proust begins his journey with.  I love the way he finds his way around in his memories, there’s no sense of rush, this is not a book in a hurry.  As I write this I have only just recorded about three hours of what may be around 20 (it’s doubtful that any future volumes will be recorded, but you never know) so I don’t know how I’ll feel by the end, but right now I’m relishing it.  I hope that comes out in the final recording.

By the way, this is a photograph of me at three years old – and I remember with fondness that polka-dot bow tie….

Take Care
Simon

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