Cruel Crossing; escaping Hitler across the Pyrenees – Edward Stourton

This is a history of some of the escape routes out of Nazi occupied Europe open to people trying to flee the horrors of the Nazi war machine, avoid capture as POWs and get useful information out to the Allies.

The book tells the stories of some of the people involved working the lines, the stories of some of the escapees and about the routes themselves.  It also tells of how the Chemin de la Liberte is commemorated today.

Whilst this book is a celebration of the escape routes it is also sad to learn of the brave people who were betrayed, tortured and killed for running the routes or for trying to use them to escape.  It is almost unbearably sad to learn about those who were so close to freedom but didn’t quite make it over the dangerous and treacherous paths.

I knew, from previous reading, that crossing the Pyrenees was a route out of Nazi Europe but until I read this book I had no real understanding of the difficulties facing people trying to achieve it.  Nor did I know anything of the people who were involved in helping to get people through to Spain.

Edward Stourton has done a good job in uncovering facts and bringing them to life in this book.  He uses a good mix of personal testimony from survivors, hand-me-down stories from the descendants of those who are no longer alive to tell their stories and documented records and accounts. This means the reader gets a many-sided view of the history of the Chemin de la Liberte.

I’m also impressed that Stourton completed the Chemin.

A book that is emotionally difficult to read in parts and one well worth reading.

Click here to find out more about the Chemin de Liberte

Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain

This isn’t my usual sort of book but it was recommended to me so I thought I’d give it a whirl.  The sub-title of the book is “adventures in the culinary underbelly” and it is a sort of autobiography into how Anthony Bourdain got into cooking.

I have to start by saying that Bourdain comes across as an arrogant prat in the book.  He isn’t someone I’d want to meet.  However, his obvious and genuine love of good food makes the book readable and at no point did I consider not finishing it, despite throwing the book across the room a few times!

This is a classic tale of someone finding their purpose in life quite by chance; a friend was sick of Bourdain sponging off him and others so found him a job as a dishwasher.  From dishwasher to food prep and hey presto something clicked.

The early part of the book tells of the author’s fairly privileged upbringing and then his life spiralling out of control through drugs and bad career choices.  It then moves on to a clean Anthony and his rise as a renowned chef.

The book doesn’t hesitate to describe the appalling things that happen in restaurant kitchens, which is a bit off-putting to someone who regularly eats out!  It also helps you to understand how professional kitchens work and to understand what you should and shouldn’t order and when from a restaurant menu.

I probably won’t read any other books by Anthony Bourdain but, on the whole, I’m pleased I read this one.

Seven Deadly Sins: my pursuit of Lance Armstrong – David Walsh

I remember reading David Walsh’s early articles in The Sunday Times, at first with disbelief and then with a growing sense that there might be something in what Walsh was saying.  I’m not sure anyone was really surprised when the truth finally came out that Armstrong had been doping for years and had, essentially, bullied others into covering up what was happening in the sport.

This book is the story of David Walsh’s transition from Tour de France fan to cynical journalist to crusader trying to expose the corruption at the heart of the cycling fraternity.

Walsh tells not only of his own consignment to “troll” status within the TdF press pack but also of the terrible pressure and horrible stories spread about the Andreus, the LeMonds and Emma O’Reilly when they tried to expose the cheating going on in the US Postal team and by Armstrong particularly.  I am left with enormous admiration for Betsy Andreu for continuing to stand up against Lance Armstrong when he tried to destroy her and her husband for exposing him as a cheat.

The book isn’t just about the pursuit of Armstrong though.  It also tells the story of how doping affected the health of other cyclist.  One story that sticks in my memory is about a 21-year-old cyclist who damaged a leg during the Giro and needed an operation.  When they opened him up in the operating theatre they found his blood was thick sludge from the performance enhancing drugs he had been taking.  I find it shocking that people are prepared to do this to themselves.  Perhaps I’m naive or just not very competitive but I can’t believe that any race or sport is worth damaging your health to that extent.

It was good to read the book as it brings together all Walsh’s articles and research into one place to read at one time, rather than The Times articles that I read over a number of years.

It’s dispiriting though to find that Walsh feels the story of doping in cycling isn’t yet finished, especially on top of the recent allegations about Wiggins and Froome.

The Bugatti Queen: in search of a motor racing legend – Miranda Seymour

This is a book about Helene Delangle, aka Helle Nice, provincial child, exotic dancer in 1920s Paris and pre-WWII racing driver.

Helene Delangle was born at the end of the 19th century, the daughter of a rural French postmaster who died when she was young.

As a young woman she went to Paris to pursue a career as a dancer, changed her name to Helle Nice and seems to have existed on the seedier edges of the glamorous roaring 20s although she gradually rose through the ranks to become a headline dancer until she damaged her knee.

Her second career was as a racing driver, entering all the main races and competing against male drivers as well as in women’s races.  Although the book is entitled “The Bugatti Queen” she wasn’t exclusively a Bugatti driver and left to Ettore she may not have driven Bugattis at all.  Fortunately for her Jean Bugatti took an interest and she went onto set a speed record for them.

Helle had a talent for publicity, probably from the highly competitive dance world, and went on a tour of USA, successfully racing on dirt tracks as well as racing ovals until she had a serious accident in South America which stalled her career.

She remained in France during WWII and afterwards expected to take up racing again.  Unfortunately, Louis Chiron (the man the new Bugatti Chiron is named after) publically accused her of working for the Gestapo during the war and this finished her career although the author of this book notes that she could not find any documentary evidence to support Chiron’s claim.

Helle Nice lived until 1975, forgotten in the increasing male dominated world of motor racing and increasingly living in poverty.

I really enjoyed reading this book as it brought together several things I’m interested in: the jazz age, motor racing and the part played by women in motor sport during the 1920s and 30s.

Helle Nice is colourful character and, along with the other serious women drivers between the wars, does not deserve to languish in oblivion.

I think the author does a good job of pulling together the strands of a life shrouded in the mist of time and also subject to several revisions by the subject over her lifetime.

More and more I think it’s more than time that the motor sport fraternity gave due recognition to the women drivers who more than held their own during the inter-war years.  If you want more women in motor sport, start celebrating those who were successful at it in an era where gender roles were supposedly much more rigidly defined than they are today.