I don’t really do book reviews, largely because I don’t really ‘do’ books. As keen as I am to write, I read comparatively little. I pick up my monthly copy of Motor Sport and then spend two months reading a page at a time; I have a back-log building up on my desk. When I do pick up a book, usually one or two years after I’ve bought it, I read a page at a time before becoming distracted by something shiny across the room; recently, that ‘something shiny’ has been Netflix, the very worst purchase for someone ambitious but lacking focus.
Of those books I do read, all of them, with the exception of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, are of motor racing. And very good some of them have been…
Tom Rubython’s attempt to ‘out-page’ War and Peace with Shunt, his epic account of the life of 1976 F1 world champion James Hunt was…heavy! But a fantastic read once you’d built the forearm muscles to pick it up. Likewise, Gerald Donaldson’s Fangio, the story of five-time champion Juan Manuel Fangio was fascinating, as testament to such I set a personal record of completing it in eight days (admittedly, this was at a time pre-Netflix). Chris Nixon’s Nuvolari, an almost mythical tale of racing before Formula One, when Tazio Nuvolari was the man to beat, had a unique ability to transport my mind and imagination to a time that seemed almost fictional, such were the remarkable stories at the heart of Nuvolari’s career so eloquently documented by Nixon.
Robert Edward’s official biography of Stirling Moss is a personal favourite, but then, put a picture of Stirling on any book and I’ll love it, regardless of the writing quality. It helps though that Edwards’ captured Moss’s character and career sublimely. Likewise, Maurice Hamilton’s Williams, the brilliant account of the life and career of legendary team owner Sir Frank Williams, remains to this day the only book I, a relative ‘non-reader’, has read in its entirety, twice.
Hunt, Fangio, Nuvolari, Moss and Williams, each remarkable with many a written word examining and exclaiming their exploits and successes. In contrast, very little is written of Piers Courage, the Eton schoolboy who worked his way to the very pinnacle of motor racing. And what is written will likely be second rate when compared with Adam Cooper’s biography Piers Courage: Last of the Gentleman Racers. It is, quite frankly, brilliant. As testament to such, I have smashed my own record by reading it, start to finish, in four days! ‘Oh, it must be good’, those who know me exclaim. But that assessment alone merely suggests that Cooper’s book is better than anything I can currently find on Netflix, and that wouldn’t do the piece justice at all.
You see, a book has never made me feel before; when that pig in Animal Farm stood on his hind legs and walked like a human, it sent a shiver down my spine, but that’s as close as I’ve ever come to feeling anything real while reading. Films maybe, but books, no. Until now. Cooper, with the help of those who were close to Piers, has painted the most splendid image of a young, charming and deeply likeable racer.
Knowing Piers’ fate, as I already did, I found myself pleading for a alternative ending I knew wasn’t coming. As Cooper accounts each of Piers’ racing seasons – 1962, ’63, ’64 – I grew more and more drawn to this charismatic and enthusiastic character, yet I read on with trepidation. ’65, ’66, ’67. To my delight, Frank Williams plays an increasing part in Pier’s career and features in Cooper’s tale, but as talk turns to Frank’s F1 deal with little known manufacturer de Tomaso, I once again wished for a retrospective change in destiny. ’68, ’69. Of course, you can’t change history, no matter how good a writer you are and inevitably the story arrives at 1970. Cooper has done such a good job of making you fall in love with Piers’ character and racing abilities that I found myself genuinely choked when the book tackles his terribly shocking death at that year’s Dutch Grand Prix.
Before the book’s end, Cooper also deals with the death of Piers’ close friend and fellow racer Jochen Rindt; in describing the posthumous world champion’s deadly crash, Cooper says simply: ‘The impact was horrific, and unsurvivable. Jochen’s luck had finally run out.’ I found the words somewhat chilling, and even more than a fictional pig walking like a human, that passage sent shivers down my spine. I don’t think reading of Piers and his demise had opened an emotional floodgate, rather Cooper has so superbly covered the respective characters that I felt genuine sadness that the lives of two men I never knew ended so abruptly and prematurely, just as both were performing at their prime, not just on the track but off it also.
Prior to that dreadful, fiery crash that claimed Piers’ life, the book explores Piers’ struggles to make it in motor racing: the financial strains, dealing with questions about his ability and confronting the possibility of injury and death. In contrast to these pains of forging a route into Formula One, Cooper’s account also features the travelling bond of financially-strapped racers that accompanied Piers along his journey: the likes of a young Frank Williams – lovingly referred to at the time as ‘Wanker’ Williams – his name-sake Jonathan Williams, Charles Lucas and Charlie Crichton-Stuart.
The latter was the proprietor of the infamous 283 Pinner Road, Harrow, a flat with a rolling roster of inmates that included Jochen Rindt and GP veteran Innes Ireland, among others. Plus, as the book eludes to, a plethora of young ladies with plenty of ‘swapping’ going on. The infamous and often hilarious stunts of Flat 283 make for a remarkable portrayal of what motor racing was like in Britain in the 1960s; bloody good fun, by the sound of it. As a result, more than any book I’ve read before, this one has reignited that boyhood dream in me of becoming a dashing, daredevil racing driver; it made me forget that I’m too fat, poor and talentless behind the wheel, surely the sign of a great piece of written material.
In short, Piers Courage: Last of the Gentleman Racers by Adam Cooper is better than anything on Netflix, provokes stronger emotions than Animal Farm and can make you forget that you’re fat. Like I said, I don’t really do book reviews…