Monday, 29 December 2008

“Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of Islam's City of Tolerance”, Giles Milton

September 11 is now, for all of us, a tremendously emotive date, so much so that it is surprising when one comes across seismic historic events that did not take place in New York and Washington in 2001 it brings one up short. September 11 1922 is one such date.

I've been reading and thinking about the birth of modern Turkey, to one extent or another, for 20 years or so, and it's a credit to the power of this book that it captured my attention and served very well to keep my attention through a day in a Budapest airport riven by crowds, strikes, and the aftermath of altogether too much hospitality the night before.

Giles Milton's telling of the fall of Smyrna intermingles the broad sweep of the long First World War with individual tales, first of opulence, then of heart rending atrocity. Smyrna is portrayed as a bucolic pleasure garden destroyed in an orgy of vandalism by a victorious Turkish army, and as such this should read as a classic tale of 'good and evil'. Interestingly however, Milton cannot achieve such a simplistic conclusion, and ultimately this is the real strength of the work.

There are villains in the piece, but none of them were directly responsible for setting fire to Smyrna in September 1922; indeed at no stage is an attempt made to seriously posit that the fire that engulfed the city was a consciously taken political decision. Instead the reader finds complicity further afield. Smyrna ultimately was not destroyed by Turks, it had, after all, flourished under Ottoman rule and the decentralised Ottoman system of government allowed it to function freely through the First War. Instead the megali idea of Venizelos (and Milton accurately links this etymologically to the concept of megalomania on p.38), supported energetically by Lloyd George. Cast in this light the destruction of Smyrna is only the most tangible instance of the willful attempt to smash the Turkish state at Sevres.

None of this excuses the atrocities perpetrated in September 1922 and the wholesale ethnic cleansing that took place in the aftermath of the Greco-Turkish war, stains that persist to this day, however the broad sweep of Milton's work helps understand why tragedies occur, and why simplistically assigning blame is seldom the correct course of action.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

"Monocoques and Ground Effects", Janos Wimpffen

This is a brilliant yet strangely frustrating book; but maybe this reflects my personal prejudice more than it should.

The period it covers (1982-1992), the final decade of the World Sportscar Championship, coincides with the awakening of my interest in the subject, and as such I approach a book like this with high levels of enthusiasm, but also high expectations. This is compounded by my familiarity with Wimpffen's previous works, from the magisterial Time and Two Seats, through the direct three predecessors covering sportscars in pictures.

The period enjoyed a huge richness of entries and rounds, and in the scope of a volume such as this, especially one following on from the preceding volumes and sharing their high presentational values, there will inevitably be omissions. Wimpffen does a sterling job mixing the headliners with the weird and wonderful, but there are times when you wish for more of the pithiness that sometimes accompanied the earlier volumes. Equally, there are times when one wonders about the opinions voiced - to describe the De Cadenet of 1982 as "one of the most attractive cars of the early Group C period" (p.59) does somehow make one wonder if the author is operating on a different aesthetic plane.

More than usually one is lost without the companion "Time and Two Seats", in and of itself no bad thing, but when one bears in mind the lap space of this late evening reviewer, it does stretch things ever so much.

David Bull are usually to be commended about their production values however there are a couple of glitches that should have been caught - a missing photo on p.94 and the need for a fuller explanation of Jose Thibault's 1987 entry on p.239 at times make one pause, but do not detract from the overall experience.

Ultimately this is a sad book. I loved the period and it produced some of the finest racing and finest cars sportscar racing has ever seen, but it also came to standstill in 1992. Where "Time and Two Seats" takes this in its stride it is impossible to avoid the feeling of impending doom as "Monocoques and Ground Effects" winds into the late '80s and early '90s. The difficult times the sport is now encountering make the final pages poignant reading, the finality in 1992 not giving much retrospective hope for us looking towards 2009 and beyond.

Through all this though do not forget that there is genius contained within. In trying to summarise what to many is the golden age of sportscar racing Wimpffen will always leave some disappointed, but nonetheless the field of literature is hugely enriched by "Monocoques and Ground Effects". If you have an affinity for the period, and ideally a dining table where you can spread this alongside "Time and Two Seats" now is the time to devote some time to reading this book.

One can only await what comes next from the sportscar sage of Seattle.