Innovator seeks publisher to get his digit out; BUNHILL

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The Independent Online
MANY people are trying to make money out of the digital revolution, the Internet and all that stuff. Few succeed, and Martin Woodhouse is not one of them. He has invented a clever way of jamming illustrated books on to floppy disks, and he is looking for a publisher to help him sell them. He has been wholly unsuccessful in finding one.

So far, so boring. There are plenty of bright folk out there trying to find a way of turning digits into cash, and plenty of publishers who cannot see the future if it is staring them in the face. But there aren't many computer buffs who are 62, who are qualified doctors and who have been best-selling novelists or Hollywood screenwriters. And that's not the half of it.

Woodhouse started in computers. Or least he built one himself out of Post Office relays in 1957, when he was working for the Medical Research Council. It worked off two car batteries. Then after he had qualified as a doctor, he was asked by his brother to help write the first 26 episodes of Supercar (for those under a certain age, this was Thunderbirds' forerunner).

He moved on to The Avengers, writing some of the early Honor Blackman episodes (he has been getting pounds 75 a shot for the recent repeats). From this, it was a natural step to writing thrillers. One of them, Tree Frog, became a best seller and Woodhouse was lured to Hollywood to write the screenplay (the film was never made).

Now it was time to try business. Woodhouse started a perfumerie on Grenada in the West Indies, and ended up running a waterfront bar and a quarry at the same time. He spent seven years in Grenada, got married and in 1974 came back to England to put his children into school. He wrote three more books, then he was divorced, which sent him into a downward spiral. "When I came out of it, I found myself reading computer magazines," he says. He was bitten by the bug, and taught himself several computer languages.

In the mid-1980s, he decided computerised books were the future, so he spent five years and 25,000 man hours working out a way of compressing them, complete with pictures, so they could fit on a floppy disk.

This got rid of nearly all his money: he now has no car or television and he is "happily poverty-stricken" in his house in Haslemere. But he would rather be rich again: a venture capitalist says he will back him, but only if he has a publishing partner. Step forward publishers - it is the only way of stopping Dr Woodhouse haring off on yet another career.

LAST Tuesday I went to Italy. Well it was the Grosvenor House Hotel in London really, but it felt like Italy. Piaggio, the company that brought us the Vespa (and therefore the mod) is launching a pretty range of new scooters. This was the first launch the company had done in Britain, but I don't know why it bothered. It seemed to have flown the entire Italian press corp in for the beano. The hotel's ballroom was heavy with unfamiliar tobacco, and you could easily damage yourself on the seriously sharp suits.

Then there was Giuseppe Agnelli, the 34-year-old who runs Piaggio. He must be amazingly talented to have got so high so fast, burdened as he is with an uncle who runs Fiat.

Best of all was the video, which of course featured beautiful people riding scooters - oddly, most of the men wore helmets, while few of the women did. This, I imagine, is due to an Italian compromise that demands there should be a nod towards safety, but insists even more vehemently that women's hair should be allowed to flow in the wind. Can you imagine a British or American company showing motorcycle riders without helmets? It's almost as bad as showing them smoking.

Top of the class

AMID the gloom about Britain's economic and every other sort of prospect, any glimmer should be held in front a magnifying glass until it bursts into glorious flame. So please raise a mighty cheer for Patrick Smears, who came second in the International Olympiad on Informatics, which was held in Holland last week.

Mr Smears is an A-level student from King Edward VI School in Southampton, and his triumph was to do some seriously serious computer programming. The competitors were set six brain-aching problems, given a computer and told to solve them. Our chap's triumph was particularly impressive given that some teams - the Chinese for example - are coached solidly for a year before the event. In the words of Flanders and Swann, "they practise beforehand, which ruins the fun".

What, you may ask, has this got to do with business? Two things. First, Mr Smears is a businessman. According to the Olympiad's British organiser, Antony Rix, he has written educational software that has been sold all over the world.

Second (pet Bunhill theory number 381a coming up), about the only chance this country has lies in its production of young computer geniuses. We already design 40 per cent of the world's computer games and, if common sense has any currency, the 1990s equivalent of the besuited 1980s City Slicker should be the betracksuited programmer. The Informatics Olympiad may sound daft, but if it encourages a few people to go for tracksuits rather than suits, our chances of economic survival will be marginally increased.

ACCOUNTANCY firms, or at least their receivers' arms, have become adept at running all sorts of businesses in the past few years. At one point during the recession, Touche Ross was the second-biggest hotel group in Britain. But one industry seems to have defeated the receivers - motor racing.

Touche Ross has taken over the Formula One racing team Simtek, but has failed to win any races - or even compete in them. Patrick Ellward, who works for the receivers, explains why. "Think of a Grand Prix car as a very expensive billboard on wheels," he says. "If we had pounds 500,000 we could run at Silverstone, but we haven't."

Simtek was set up by an engineer called Nick Wirth, who is 29. One of his drivers was killed last year, and he has found it impossible to get sponsorship. Now the receivers have made all but one of his staff redundant, and are looking for a buyer. They want to sell the team as a whole, but if no-one makes an offer the equipment will be auctioned. So if you want a Formula One car (without engine), you know who to ring.

No victim support

I AM afraid Touche Ross also wins this week's sanctimony prize. The accounting giant issued a press release after the publication of the Barlow Clowes report on Thursday. "The professional advisers, including Touche Ross, 'were deliberately misled' and 'were in many ways the victims'," the release says. The poor defenceless bunny rabbits.