Three weeks eight seconds; the epic Tour de France of 1989 – Nige Tassell

A Stage by Stage, accident by incident telling of the battle for the yellow jersey between Pedro Delgado, who was supposed to win it, Laurent Fignon, who thought he’d won it, and Greg Le Mond, who started out as a no-hoper and who did win it.  This is the story of a remarkable race.

This is about more than just these three cyclists though as there were a number of exciting break aways and Stage finishes on the 1989 Tour.

The book begins with the shooting accident in 1987 that almost caused the end of LeMond’s cycling career.  He was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law, seriously injured and, in early 1989, was struggling to find fitness and form going into the Tour de France.  He found form during the Tour and he and Fignon were both battling to gain and keep the yellow jersey.

Delgado was in top form and defending his Tour win from the previous year but there was controversy about a failed drugs test and he got his time mixed up for the Prologue time trial and turned up late.  He spent the rest of the Tour trying to catch up to the front-runners.

Fignon, a Frenchman, was not universally popular in France and he and his team didn’t help themselves by not adopting new technology, such as tribars for time trials, teardrop shaped helmets and how disc wheels are used.

The battle for first lasted all the way to the Champs Elysees and Greg LeMond won by 8 seconds.

I really enjoyed knowing what happened on the 1989 Tour.  It is unlikely that in today’s world of team radios and solid team tactics such an exciting race will happen again.  It’s also a story of a simpler time when cycling teams weren’t as media savvy as they are today.

What the book does lack, however, is the humanity of the race.  The facts are presented, the breakaways and spills related but it just doesn’t ever quite come alive.  At the end of the book I have no more sense of the three main protagonists as people than I did at the start of it.  And none of them are cited in the acknowledgements, which makes me think they weren’t involved in the book and which might explain its 2-dimensional nature.

I am pleased I read it. I know more about the 1989 Tour than I did. I won’t be looking out for any more books by this author.

Whisper of the Moon Moth – Lindsay Jayne Ashford

The latest of my 99p Amazon Daily Deals I actually started reading this some time ago and got sidetracked, which I think says something about the beginning of this book.  The book’s start is pleasant but doesn’t really grab you, making it easy to put to one side if something more interesting turns up.  This is a shame as the middle part of the book was interesting.

I should probably let you know at this stage that the book is a fictionalised biography of the life of the film star Merle Oberon from her time as a young woman in Calcutta to the point she marries the director Alexander Korda.

Before reading this I didn’t know much about who Merle Oberon was.  I vaguely remembered that she was in the film of Wuthering Heights, which I loathe because it is given a happy ending.

What I have learned from this book is that whilst she was alive Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson made sure her background was entirely fictional to hide the fact she was Anglo-Indian, which would have made her persona non grata in Hollywood.

The book takes what facts have been discovered about her and turns them into a reasonably plausible story of her life in the 1920s and 1930s.

The book gives a good flavour of the lives of Anglo-Indian people trying to be accepted as more English than Indian to improve their lot in life.  This is interesting from a sociology perspective but the least interesting part of Estelle’s story.  And I think that because I read this section in dribs and drabs I kept forgetting who Estelle was going to become.

The parts about the young girl and her mother working out how to survive in cold, dreary London are really interesting.  This is where the story starts to come more alive as Estelle moves into the film industry and moves up the ladder, changing her name and history to facilitate it.

The book doesn’t sidestep the numerous people Merle had affaires with although it does edit some of them out and cleans them up into “love affaires” rather than rungs on the career ladder, which I suspect they were.

The most annoying parts of the book are where it casts certain people as villains of the story when there is no evidence they were, for example the part where Vivian Leigh blackmails Merle into not taking a screen test for the part of Scarlett O’Hara.  This doesn’t seem very fair to me.  It’s ok to cast villains when they are wholly fictional but not when they were once living, breathing people and there is no evidence of it.

The true end of the book occurs around the death of Oberon’s mother when she learns that her mother was actually her grandmother and her sister, long estranged from their mother, was her birth mother…and her father was still her father!  This must have been a shocking revelation, assuming Estelle grew up without knowing the truth.

The actual end of the book is a summary of what happened after this revelation and Oberon’s marriage to Alexander Korda.  This is simply a list of facts and spoiled the book for me.  I would have much preferred a suggested further reading list or a link to an online biography.

Overall, this was an interesting book but I think I would have preferred a genuine biography to this fictionalised one.

The Kindness of Strangers; The Autobiography – Kate Adie

I probably wouldn’t have bought this book but a friend left it when he’d finished reading it whilst staying with us and I happened to pick it up and start reading it without thinking much about it.  I’m so pleased I did.

I am familiar with who Kate Adie is.  She was the war journalist du jour when I was in my early 20s and famous for always wearing her pearl earrings no matter how dire the situation she found herself in.  I hadn’t given much thought to who she is and how she ended up as a war journalist.  If I had I think I would have expected her to have begun her career as a journalist on a local paper, graduated to a national and then moved into television.

The truth is more interesting and, I think, not a path open to people nowadays.

The book starts by giving an overview of growing up in Sunderland in the 1950s/60s, in a reasonably affluent household.  It really gets into its stride when Adie finishes her degree and joins the embryonic Radio Durham as a producer.  The whole experience sounds utterly chaotic, totally exhausting and a whole lot of fun.

The transition from Radio Durham to Radio Bristol to television and from producer to reporter appears to have been a matter of pure chance and of being in the right place at the right time when someone needed someone to do something and there wasn’t the time of budget to find a person with experience.  There is a strong sense of “everyone is in this together” and “we’ll find a way to make it work” ethos when Adie is talking about the BBC in the early parts of the book.

Adie herself comes across as likable and fun.  There were several laugh out loud moments in book – a bit disconcerting for fellow train passengers! – which was unexpected.  Having mainly seen Adie report from war zones I have always had the impression that she is a very serious woman.  Looks like I was much mistaken.

My main criticism of the book though is that I really don’t feel I know much about Kate Adie as a person; the “what makes her tick”, what does she enjoy doing when she isn’t reporting, who are her family.  I think this is fairly typical of an autobiography where an individual is more likely to draw boundaries between what they are happy for people to know and what remains private.  I understand the desire to do this but it does lead to an incomplete picture of the person.

However, if you want to know more about life at the Beeb when local radio was new and there were fewer rules and regulations this is an interesting place to start.

Double Cross; the true story of the D-Day Spies – Ben Macintyre

I couldn’t resist reading more about the D-Day spies after having read Operation Garbo and Ben Mackintyre seemed a good place to start; I always find his books readable and this one was no different.

I read it on the train on the way to college and found myself slightly resenting my colleague when he wanted to talk on the way home and I couldn’t read a bit more of my book without appearing really rude!

The most powerful statement in this book is somewhere near the beginning when it states that by 1943 Tar Robertson, Head of the Double Cross section of MI5 knew – not just thought or guessed but knew – that every spy the Abwehr thought they had in Britain was actually working for him.  Think about that for a moment.  I find it utterly astonishing, especially considering the Russian spies who were undetected in the higher echelons on the Secret Services!

As well as including Juan Pujol Garcia – Agent Garbo – this book tells the stories of Dusko Popov, a Serbian playboy, Roman Czerniawski, a passionately patriotic Pole, Lily Sergeyev, a bored French woman, Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, a Peruvian playgirl and Johnny Jebsen, an anti-Nazi German Abwehr officer.

The individual stories have a slightly incredible feel to them, almost a feeling of “this has to be true because you just couldn’t make it up” and yet together this group of remarkable people helped to save the lives of many of the soldiers who were part of the D-Day landings.  Their misdirections kept units of the German Army tied up away from Normandy.

The stories that stand out for me are those of Lily Sergeyev and Johnny Jebsen.

Sergeyev’s because I feel she wasn’t treated particularly well.  It is remarked upon throughout the book that double agents are a tricky bunch of people to deal with.  You have to keep them happy/occupied/interested in what they are doing to make sure they don’t become triple agents.  It doesn’t seem beyond the capability of the secret services to have turned a blind eye to Sergeyev bringing her dog into the UK.  Especially when it seems to have been the only thing she really cared for.  MI5 were lucky that Sergeyev cared more about the work she was doing than in engaging in payback.  They were fortunate that Lily was content to know she could screw things up if she wanted to.

Jebsen’s is a more difficult story.  He was a close friend of Dusko Popov and each tacitly admitted to the other they were spies without spelling it out.  Jebsen was seen as a risk by the Double Cross team, in part because he was a Abwehr officer and in part because of his lifestyle.  He knew he was at risk of being abducted by the Gestapo, because of some financial mis-doings, and of being whisked back to Germany from Lisbon.  Unfortunately, he trusted his boss in Lisbon and didn’t have time to alert the British and escape.  The Double Cross team knew Jebsen’s health wasn’t good and expected him to break easily under torture.  This happened close to D-Day and everyone in the Double Cross team was concerned that Operation Fortitude would be blown out of the water.  As well as anxiously trying to find out what had happened to Jebsen they were searching the transcripts from Bletchley to find out if their misinformation was still being believed. Against all the odds Jebsen held out and reports came in, after the war, that he was sent to Mauthausen and then Sachsenhausen.  He disappeared from there and Ian Wilson, his MI5 handler, spent until his death in 1978 trying to find out what happened to him.  A remarkable man.

This is another great and readable book about spying in WWII from Ben Mackintyre.  I would definitely recommend it if you want to know more about Operation Fortitude and the people who created it.