Leo Villa was a unique man. From 1921, until his death in 1979, he worked almost exclusively in the world of record breaking. Where some would attack the land or water speed record and go on to other things, Leo remained as the only constant in the rarefied atmosphere of high speed and the measured mile. Even in the twilight of his days, anyone considering either a land, or water speed record attempt, would beat a path to Leo's door. Of his fifty-seven years of experience, forty-six were in the service of Sir Malcolm, then Donald Campbell, and it is more than likely that neither man would have succeeded without "good old Leo".
When I wrote my own book on Sir Malcolm and Donald Campbell, I went and found as many of those who were actually involved in the Bluebird story as I could, and found that the trouble with those actually involved in creating history, is that few write anything down, and fewer still take photographs. One exception was Leo, who left diaries, notebooks, and hundreds of photographs, cine films and even 3D pictures taken on his Stereo Realist camera. As the cliché says, "a picture is worth a thousand words", therefore Leo has left a few million behind him.
David de Lara, who is writing and producing a television documentary on Donald Campbell, obtained much of Leo's archive at auction, and since 1992, has painstakingly checked, cleaned, filed and where necessary restored this unique, photographic record of life with Sir Malcolm and Donald Campbell, and now, with help from one of Leo's friends, writer and motorboat historian Kevin Desmond, de Lara has put together "Leo Villa's Bluebird Album", a book containing many of Leo's pictures and recollections, taken from tapes, made in the seventies, and it is this that makes this book unique.
The photographs have been selected in such a way, that they fill the gaps left by other books on the subject. Whereas the press could only get so close, and take pictures staged for them, usually only at record attempts, Leo's "snaps" of Donald Campbell are unguarded, and show the real man. Then there are the pictures from behind the scenes, giving a glimpse into an exclusive period of history. Both Leo and Donald were as close as you could get, on the inside, and so we are treated to a journey through time, with the record attempts recorded so closely, you can count the rivets and smell the jet fuel. Although an amateur with a camera, Leo's work is remarkable, and his pictures are interspersed with his own account of the world, and how these attempts formed part of history. It puts Bluebird, and her pilot in perfect historical context.
Highlights, aside from the 3D pictures (viewed through the supplied glasses), are a series of black and white pictures of taken of Donald in the bar of the Sun Hotel, Coniston, pint in hand, relaxed, smiling, and just part of the crowd, as well as the chance to read Leo's thought's, word for word, which bring the book to life. But it also shows the toll that record breaking and the hostilities of the press took on Campbell over the years,
What the author has done is select the perfect pictures to illustrate Leo's memories and thoughts, placing them chronologically, and cleverly linking them with notes from Leo's diaries, his recollections, and even lines from the hit records of the times. As a book, it is the closest you'll find to a time machine. The author should be congratulated on seeing this monumental project through, and sharing the results with us, and what both de Lara and Desmond have done, is create a window to another era. It is truly superb.