The Bookworm Critique
By Christopher Hilton;
Published by Haynes
by Mark Glendenning,

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The late 1930s were a strange time in Europe; and as is often the case, the peculiarities of the political and social world spilled over into the international sporting arena. Several factors contributed to the unusual atmosphere during this period, however amongst the more significant were the consolidation of the power of the fascists in Germany and Italy; and the reactions from Britain and the rest of the continent to that. Virtually all international sporting tournaments were coloured to some extent by the political climate in Western Europe. Several examples could be suggested with regard to motorsport, however the 1937 and 1938 British Grands Prix at Donington provide a neat microcosm of the environment at the time; and as such are an excellent focal point for a book that attempts to convey some of the tension of the period.

Christopher Hilton is probably best known as the writer who churns out biographies of modern-era Formula One drivers in almost industrial quantities. This book, his latest offering, sees him don a new hat; according to the book's back cover, he is now a "highly respected motorsport historian." It's a title that Hilton takes seriously, for this is a book that attempts to work on two levels - on the one hand it is simply the story of the British Grands Prix of 1937 and 1938; but on the other hand it also a social history book that tries to place the events into some kind of broader perspective. As a motor racing book, 'Hitler's Grands Prix in England' works quite well, but as a 'history' book (I'm using the word 'history' in the analytical, academic sense, as opposed to just 'an account of stuff that happened', because that is how the book is presented), it fails rather badly.

Sigh... I guess I should get the negative stuff out of the way first.

The most basic problem with 'Hitler's Grands Prix in England' is one of context. Or rather, the lack of it. Hilton mentions that he did some reading on the 'political history of Berlin' shortly before he commenced work on this book. However, he appears to have made no investigations whatsoever into the relationship between sport and international politics during this period, or the relationships between sport and various political doctrines (such as fascism and democracy).

This is illustrated by the very first sentence in the book: "Politics and sport are by definition incompatible, and they're combustible when mixed" (p.6). In reality, it could be argued that sport and politics are actually far more compatible than many people would care to admit. It's not necessarily a desirable combination, but it is nevertheless difficult to claim that there are not many instances in which sport and politics compliment each other all too well. Indeed, one would only have to look to the Olympic Games that were held in Berlin one year earlier than the Grands Prix upon which this book is focused, to find one of the greatest examples in history of the use of sport to achieve political ends (and, to some extent, vice-versa).

Other possible examples of inadequate background research are evident in the way that Hilton refers to the types of salutes given by the drivers after the races. While the Mercedes and Auto Union officials tended to salute 'Hitler-style', using a straight arm and outstretched hand, many of the drivers used what Hilton called a 'compromise position', in which the arm was bent at a right angle. Hilton implies (though he never actually tries to explain it explicitly) that this was the result of the drivers being uncomfortable giving such an endorsement to the fascists, and he may be right: particularly with regard to British driver Dick Seaman, who drove a Mercedes. It's hard to be sure, though, because little is said about the political beliefs of many of the drivers.

The bent-arm salute, though, was also a legitimate variation of the salute used by Hitler and his friends, and as such is not really any less a show of support than the straight-arm version. The issue is further complicated when you consider that giving such a salute was necessarily an indication that someone was a rampant, crazed fascist. The fascist powers tied sport to nationalism to an almost unrivalled extent, and they were keen to capitalize on their successes by advertising the victories of competitors from fascist states in the international arena whenever possible. Looking at the photo of Tazio Nuvolari saluting at the German Grand Prix, it seems more than likely that he was simply doing no more than what would have been expected of an Italian sportsman competing internationally during that period.

Unfortunately, the problems of Hilton's book don't end there. Excessive melodrama seems to have become something of a Christopher Hilton hallmark, and 'Hitler's Grands Prix in England' maintains the tradition with gusto. I'd have hoped that anybody who was going to tackle a subject such as this, particularly a writer as seasoned as Hilton, would be able to restrain themselves from tittering at every glimpse of Nazi paraphernalia that appears in a photo. It doesn't matter what the photo actually depicts, and how small, blurry, or insignificant the image may be, you can bet that if there is even the suggestion of a swastika, salute, or anything else, then Hilton will gush on about it in mock horror in the captions.

These problems carry through to the text too and manifest themselves in a number of ways. For me, though, the most irritating by far were Hilton's continuous references to the impending 'darkness' (many of which were immediately followed by three dots... wow, very dramatic. The 'darkness', incidentally, was the Second World War). For example, following the description of a concentration camp in the Harz mountains (which had no relevance to anything in the paragraph before or after it, and to be honest I couldn't work out what it was doing there in the first place), we get the rather clumsy, sober assertion that: "The darkness would get no darker than this, because it could not" (p.26).

While these criticisms are the result of my own taste in writing (and for sure, I know a lot of people that love the way Hilton writes), there continues to be a problem when Hilton elects to use drama over facts. For instance, the comment that the German air raids over Guernica in Spain during the Spanish Civil War represented the first example of civilians being targeted en masse in military operations was just, well... weird. As was Hilton's predisposition toward national stereotypes, as illustrated by the following passage:

"Without making a caricature of a whole nation, you can venture that a German characteristic is, before acting, to await instructions and when they arrive follow them pedantically." (p. 141).

After giving so many aspects of the book such a roasting, you might be surprised to learn that there was actually quite a lot that I did like about it. When he was on familiar ground, Hilton did an excellent job of conveying the drama of the 1938 and 1939 Grands Prix, and this was no more evident than in his accounts of the races themselves. In all seriousness, the manner in which the author described the two races at Donington were probably the most exciting pieces of motor sport writing that I encountered all year. It's hard to provide an example, because much of the excitement of each passage is dependant upon the events that were described in the preceding passages, but I'll offer this excerpt from the 1939 Grand Prix as an illustration of what you can expect:

"On lap 42 Nuvolari came in, sprang out of the cockpit and circled the car as if he was trying to dissipate some great restless energy. Almost feverishly he rubbed the lenses of his goggles with a bit of cloth. His stop for fuel and four new tyres was completed in 35 seconds, a time considered a genuine feat. Sebastian records how Muller's stop had been fast but Nuvolari's even faster, although I quickly adjusted his clutch. Nuvolari set off in a cloud of dust. The hunt and the chase were really on.

"Nuvolari 'rolled his sleeves up and, roaring with laughter, set about motor racing in earnest. He came through the bends with his elbows flashing up and down like pistons, the steering wheel jerking quickly from side to side - and yet all the time the car ran as if on rails, the front wheels always pointing dead on the line of travel'. His yellow shirt fluttered and billowed in the wind, his red cap kept darting forward. At 46, and within a month of his 47th birthday, he was truly going to assert himself against the youth again" (p. 194).

Another standout point in the book is the quality of the photographs. Although they are sometimes let down by the captions, the shots themselves are, for the most part, truly exceptional. They're so good in fact that it's hard to pick highlights, although the dramatic shot of Manfred von Brauchitsch's Mercedes launching itself over Melbourne Rise is a standout; as is the photograph of Hermann Lang's car emerging through the shadows of a particularly densely forested section of the circuit.

This book deserves even greater praise for the fact that it virtually single-handedly sparked a new interest in historic Grand Prix racing within me personally. This is no mean feat - a book that can add an entirely new dimension to my interest in motor racing is a rare thing indeed, and the fact that Hilton has managed to do so suggests to me that he got something right somewhere after all.

All up, then, this book is a bit hit-and-miss. If you're simply after a good yarn about the 'good old days' of motor racing, spiced up with the dramatic elements borne out of the political and ideological tension between the fascists and the British, then you need look no further than here. Tread carefully if you have a particular interest in the socio-political background of these Grands Prix, though, because the small amount of information that has been provided wavers between inadequacy, inaccuracy, and irrelevance. It's quite possible of course that if you are interested in this aspect of 1930s sport then you may have done enough other reading that the problems contained within this book will be self-apparent. Nevertheless, these criticisms aside, 'Hitler's Grands Prix in England' was a reasonably enjoyable book that would be a worthy companion on those early morning train journeys to work.

Mark Glendenning© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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