field of fire by jeff connor. mainstream publishing paperback 254pp illus. £11.99

field of fire by jeff connor

in october of 1987, mrs washingmachinepost, my daughter and i removed ourselves from the scottish mainland and took up residence on the isle of islay where, i'm happy to say, we have remained ever since. this all took place over 24 years ago, and though i remember one or two details from the expedition, not everything falls neatly into place. having sold off much of our furniture (we were initially moving to a furnished house), all our worldly possessions were crammed into the back of a luton transit van, navigated by my rudimentary driving skills along the passageway leading to kennacraig ferry terminal.

at that particular time in caledonian macbrayne's history, it was possible to acquire a weekend excursion ticket allowing any vehicle of five metres in length and below to travel to and from islay between friday and tuesday for a mere £26 return. according to the leaflet i had purloined from my local branch of budget rent-a-van, the vehicle i had requested was mere centimetres less than the stipulated dimension, so we looked forward to an economical shift.

unfortunately, the grunting bear responsible for loading the vehicles onto the ferry had a predilection for use of a measuring tape and proudly declared the van to be longer than the necessary five metres and insisting on several more pound notes to allow onward sailing to islay. £66 to be exact. matters were further convoluted by the necessity of reversing all vehicles onto the car deck of the ferry in service at the time, the name of which escapes me. normally, even a driver of my meagre talents would have found this well within their capabilities, but the lack of a rear window to look through meant that i started the trip poorly by reversing towards the ramp to which no ferry was attached.

on asking whether there might be a member of calmac personnel who could drive the van onto the deck for me, i was answered by the very same grunting bear with the tape measure that i should make use of my mirrors as "that's what they're effing for". service with a smile.

i can remember unloading the van and bits of the return journey the following day to hand the van back, but if my life depended on reciting the events of the following three weeks, i'm afraid i would fare rather badly. in fact, if push comes to shove, i can't honestly remember what i had for tea last friday. yet there are those possessed with better powers of recall than i can even aspire to, and with the wherewithal to turn these recollections into an informative and entertaining narrative. i so envy these people.

i have deliberately referred to the year 1987 because, coincidentally, that was the very year that the woefully unprepared anc halfords team entered the tour de france, a confluence of events that had as much to do with the then owner of associated national couriers, tony capper and the incumbent tour director of the era, jacques goddet. the latter was keen to encourage the participation of a british-based team and mr capper had that particular box left un-ticked on his team's strategic plans. aside from the necessary riders, directeurs sportifs and back-up staff, the team were joined by daily star journalist, jeff connor, whose remit was to write a daily report on their progress through the world's most famous bicycle race and, bizarrely enough, to ride one of the tour stages.

this latter assignation is perhaps demonstration enough of the complete lack of knowledge exhibited by the newspaper's editors, complicit with a similar degree of innocence on behalf of connor himself. the likelihood of monsieur goddet providing dispensation for a mere civilian to join the peloton for a single stage will doubtless raise many laugh in clubhouses around the country. if this story sounds familiar, then that's possibly as a result of jeff connor's previous publication concerning the same subject matter 'wide-eyed and legless' reviewed on the post last april. readers of cycle sport magazine apprently voted it 'the best cycling book of all time' which, with no disrespect intended, says more about the readers of that publication than it ever did about mr connor's book.

in my review of the original narrative, i took exception to this accolade, and though i admit i have no idea when this poll was carried out, in comparison to cycling books of the period, it is quite possible that it stood out amongst the crowd. field of fire in my opinion, is a far better book than its predecessor, aided not only by the intervening years and their allowance of reflection and hindsight, but because jeff connor has, in the interim, become a far more accomplished writer.

with the same ability to reconsider the aspersion of the time that has me finding my own criticism of wide eyed and legless to have been perhaps a trifle unfair, connor himself has realised that his character assassination of rider graham jones after he retired from the race was less than credible. "On the day of the Massacre of the Field of Fire, I stuck the boot in again on Jones after he had packed. It was only much later that I realised he had been ill. I had watched a poorly man suffer for six hours without much in the way of support from the general public, had watched him cheating (mildly) in an attempt to save his career and had spent much of the day in the knowledge that he was certain to abandon.". it is, of course one thing to know you've been wrong, but another entirely to admit so in print.

what makes this book better than that which preceded it is connor's filling in of the gaps, many of which would have been unknown to him at the time, others merely incomprehensible. though the bit by bit demise of the 1987 anc-halfords team during the course of those three weeks in july brought jeff connor from the position of observer to that of being all but indispensible as he rallied with those still heading towards paris, it bears reminding that he was a journalist imposed upon reluctant sportsmen and their entourage. for those unaware of the now defunct daily star it was one of the red tops; a tabloid newspaper more usually intent on scurrilous gossip than accurate and informative sports reporting. it is thus highly unlikely that connor was party to all that transpired at the time.

twenty-four years later, however, the perspective of all participants has changed somewhat. capper has taken on the mantle left vacant by lord lucan, remaining unseen and unheard of; a blessing if the opinion of one or two riders is to be taken into consideration. most of the other members of the team were, however, more than happy to reminisce about their participation and subsequent careers or lack of. despite his castigation of the efforts of one or two in the anc halfords jersey, connor has had time to appreciate just what is involved in being a professional bike rider "Sportswriters and pundits have a habit of calling every British sportsperson, win or lose 'brave', but brave to me is a man who will ride down a mountain at 60mph dressed only in a Lycra skinsuit - no headguards in those days - in the knowledge that there is a good chance he could crash and be seriously injured"

after a detailed reprise of the 1987 campaign in france, connor has spoken at length to as many of the team members as were traceable and willing to converse (thankfully most of them). phil griffiths is the owner of yellow ltd, uk importers of most notably assos clothing and pinarello bikes, a venture in which he has had the assistance, from a competitive point of view, of anc halfords sprinter, malcolm elliot, both of whom have had successful careers since 1987 and provide the bulk of the material for these latter chapters. despite my recollections of the previous book being of a fair on the spot assessment of the team's activities during the tour, connor seems more than gratified that most were willing to accede to his further requests in relation to this second bite at the cherry. i'm glad they did too.

the bravery is not only, however, confined to the riders. as confessed to in the book's latter pages. in april 2008 jeff connor awoke with a sharp pain close to one eye, subsequently discovering he had suffered an aphasia/stroke. it took him more than a year to recover many of the cognitive abilities we take for granted, including not only the ability to write, but that of recall which surely makes this book even more of a testament to its author and his historical subject matter than could be readily recognised.

with team sky now flying the british flag at world tour level, if for no other reason than to fully appreciate the substantial gap that has been overcome in the interim, this book ought to be required reading for every british cyclist, competitive or otherwise. and for those not of british domicile or descent, i commend jeff connor's words if only to marvel at the progress one nation with no real appreciation of the cycling metier, has made since last century. it's still not the best cycling book of all time but it would make my top five.

field of fire by jeff connor is published by mainstream publishing on 10th may

tuesday 8th may 2012.


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