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The Book Off! Podcast I never did

Hamlet and Willspeak Machine

Me with my chosen book. VW enthusiasts or fans of the US counter-culture movement of the late 60's will know exactly what it is.


As part of the launch of Early Riser in 2018 I was invited to appear on Joe Haddow's excellent Book Off! podcast, in which authors are invited to explain why they think their book is better than their opponent's. Trick is, you have only three minutes to make your case. I was slated to be up against Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, so I chose one of my favourite non-fiction books as a left-field counter to the Pulitzer winner. As is often the case, these things do not work out and due to some problem or other, the podcast never happened. Three minutes equates to about 750 words spoken quickly, so the challenge is a good one. Here it is.

The choice of my book is not an obvious one. It is a mechanical handbook that will teach you to do things you will probably never need to do on a car you will probably never own.

But I'm not promoting this as a handbook to repair cars, but for what it represents to me, and what I feel it represents to something that we have recently lost. As we move into a world of bewildering electronic and mechanical complexity, this book harks back to a time where, with a little help our devices could be understood, dismantled, repaired and put back into service. The philosophy of mechanical self empowerment coupled with reuse - a concept that has renewed freshness today.

I am talking about John Muir's 1969 counter culture classic: 'How to keep your Volkswagen Alive - a manual of step by step procedures for the complete idiot'

John Muir was a structural engineer who 'dropped out' in the parlance of the day and embraced the California and later New Mexico counter culture of the sixties. The Volkswagen beetle, a simple, mechanically robust and undeniably quirky vehicle, had been imported to the US since 1955 and acquired the status of something that was outside the mainstream culture of fifties and sixties consumerism.

The book is as much a philosophical tract as it is a manual, and can be read as such even if you may never own a beetle, nor need to repair it; the ideas in the book could extend to any mechanical device in your life that needs to be kept alive, or even as an approach to life. This is from the introduction:

"...While the levels of logic of the human entity are many and varied, your car operates on one simple level and it's up to you to understand its trip. Talk to the car, then shut up and listen. Feel with your car, use all your receptive senses and when you find out what it needs, seek the operation out and perform it with love. The type of life your car contains differs from yours by time scale, logic level and conceptual anomalies but it is 'life' nonetheless. It's Karma depends on your desire to make and keep it alive..."

If I had longer I could unpack that sentence fully, but it, like the rest of the book contains counter culture nuggets that while sometimes anachronistic and weird, are often extremely relevant, which leads one to think that the VW beetle is not the subject of the book, but only there to illustrate a broader point - that your ability to do anything is possible, so long as the problem is approached in the correct fashion.

The first chapter outlines how you should use the book which is a short lesson in the mindset of maintenance, and goes on to explain that a large task can be broken down into small procedures that if followed correctly transfers skill and knowledge already gained by Muir the long way, to you, the complete idiot. Doing so will allow you to tackle any large and seemingly insuperable problem without fear - itself a sound life lesson.

At this point I have to mention the illustrations, which are as much a part of the book at Tenniel's engravings are to Alice. The illustrator is Peter Ashwarden and are very much in the style of sixties underground comics - similar to Robert Crumb, he of 'keep on truckin' fame. They are mostly there to offer visual references and clarity to procedures, but are often -delightfully often - there simply to amuse and give visual context to Muir's philosophy - such as the full page cartoon of an owner having an 'engine exploded view nightmare' whilst their partner sleeps on.

I'm almost out of time so would also like to mention that if you do happen to have one of the old air-cooled beetles or even had a long term hankering to own one, this book actually works. More importantly, the philosophy that no task is impossible if broken down into usable steps, has been a lesson that I have brought to almost everything I do, whether it be writing a book, dealing with recalcitrant teenagers or having to sum up an off-kilter book in three minutes.

Originally written 2018, published here for the first time.


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