‘No pay, no prospects, not much pleasure’*

H.W.Tilman’s accounts of his mountaineering and sailing escapades have long swirled around the edges of my consciousness.

Now I’ve no excuse, with a gorgeous new collected edition of Tilman’s work being published over the next couple of years. I mean, just look at them…

Slider-Mischief-in-Patagonia Slider-Snow-on-the-Equator

* So stated a crew recruitment advertisement allegedly placed in The Times by Tilman circa 1960

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Recent Reading: Tour de Farce

Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar

 I’m a huge fan of the Tour de France. But after reading this book, my enjoyment has been mugged by the drug-invested reality of professional road cycling.

David Millar is currently trying to overturn a lifetime Olympic ban. A time trialling phenomenon when he burst onto the scene at the turn of the millenium (he wore the yellow jersey), this is a vivid, pitiless look at how he came to take EPO. Aka, he cheated. Cue shame, a 2 year ban, a French courtroom, am eviction, bankruptcy, redemption, valediction.

It’s excellent on the culture of pro cycling. Which stinks. And it leaves you in little doubt that the chances winning a major Tour ‘clean’ are… well, they’re not as high as one would wish.

In other news, Lance Armstrong was “cleared” by US officials this week, while Alberto Contador saw his 2010 Tour de France victory struck off. The rider who came second in the 2010 Tour says he’s sure Contador didn’t mean to take the performance enhancing drug clenbuterol. Enough said.

This book blows apart the peleton’s ruthless omerta. For that, David Millar deserves our respect.

Bad Blood: The Secret Life of the Tour de France, by Jeremy Whittle

Safe to say this was a classic ‘follow on’ purchase. David Millar’s autobiography opened my eyes to just how prevalent and normalised doping had become in pro cycling. I had to read more; learn about its history, and the science.

Whittle is an experienced journalist, and has covered the scene for years. He is very close to Millar and ‘helped’ him write his autobiography. Millar betrayed his trust, and Whittle’s “Good guys don’t dope” rose-tinted spectacles are forcibly removed.

It’s not a pretty book, this. The litany of cheating. The complacency of the governing bodies. The cynicism of the teams. And the inevitable corrosion of innocence for anyone new to the ‘sport’, be they cyclists or journalists.

I’d like to think Jeremy Whittle’s love of cycling shines through despite all, but he’s too honest a writer for such a cute conclusion. The love has gone. He admits to fearing he’s been complicit; this book a valedictory despatch.

How I Won the Yellow Jumper: Dispatches from the Tour de France, by Ned Boulting

Ned Boulting is a TV sports reporter, best known for his coverage of the Tour de France for ITV4. And this book tells you exactly what it’s like to cover the Tour de France for ITV4. More’s the pity.

While sometimes painful reading, the previous two books are both liable to be finished in the early hours. The story they tell is too gripping, too appalling to allow sleep to intrude.

This book isn’t like that. It’s dire. Ned and the crew traipse around France, eating well, sharing in-jokes and snatching meaningless interviews in hotel lobbies. It fails to make the making of TV interesting. Mainly, one suspects, because it just isn’t.

Meanwhile, all around him, athletes were corrupting their bodies and souls. Of this, Ned makes little mention.

Reading, and re-reading

War Diaries of Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke.  

Cover of Lord Alanbrooke's War DiariesAn astonishing, ruthlessly honest diary of the most senior British soldier of WW2, and the man who repeatedly – daily, even – dissuaded Churchill from his madder ideas & impulses. It’s a proper diary, this; an unfair, uncompromising, unvarnished receptacle for late night venting. It’s also particularly fine on the loneliness of command.

Brooke was a brave man, not least in standing up to Churchill, with whom he clearly had an intense, fraught, symbiotic relationship. At the very least it’ll change your perspective on Churchill, in my case both for better and for worse.

Fate Is The Hunter, by Ernest K. Gann

I strongly suspect it was Max Gadney who, many years ago, put me onto this memoir of flying commercial and transport aircraft in 1930s and 40s. Whoever did, I thank, for this is an extraordinary, atmospheric love affair with flight, told in a unique style combining American bravado with French spiritualism. Think Antoine Saint-Exupery meets Chuck Yeager. The author knows he is lucky to be alive,  and his relish for living lingers on as a healthy tang long after you close the book.

The day after I started re-reading it, I noticed a 2011 reprint in a bookshop in Ledbury, of all places.

Grayson Perry: Portrait of an Artist as a Young Girl, by Wendy Jones

A Christmas present from my gorgeous designer wife following our visit to Perry’s ‘Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman‘ exhibition at the British Museum. It’s a frank, tender, often hilarious account of Perry’s chaotic upbringing, featuring deeply dysfunctional parents, his emerging transvestism and, as so often, the inspired intervention of a teacher. All set in deepest, darkest 1970s Essex.

Even if you don’t like his pots, or art, read this to understand why some straight men wear dresses.

The Forgotten Soldier, by Guy Sajer

Max Gadney would definitely recommend this one, not least as the definitive ‘there but for the grace of / isn’t this duvet warm and cosy’ war memoir.

The offspring of a French father and German mother, the 17 year old Sajer joins the Wehrmacht barely speaking a word of German, and  duly spends three horrific years as a private fighting on the Eastern front.

A chilly, chilling reminder that ordinary soldiers fight, kill and die not for the honour of their regiment, their army, or even their country, but for the love of their mates.