Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Stirling Moss - The Authorised Biography - Robert Edwards

In my experience, most biographies of racing drivers do not offer much in the way of searching insight into personalities, motivations and foibles. They tend to barely scratch the surface in this respect. A notable exception to these rules is Robert Edwards' authorised biography of Stirling Moss.

This book devotes unusual space and attention to examining Moss's family background, his time at school, the role of his parents and his upbringing. At various stages an effort is made to put Stirling's experiences and achievements in some kind of sociological context; again, not something one usually finds in a racing biography.  In some ways I suppose that he was a transitional figure, combining many "pre-war" values with the ethos of the more commercial age which was just beginning.

So often in books, the prowess and drive of high achievers almost appears to come out of nowhere, but Edwards lays plenty of pipework here, allowing us to gain an idea of how the subject's character took shape, and how his psyche and outlook evolved over time.

I would contend that many of the author's observations and conclusions about Moss would surprise the general observer, in that they tend to be less straightforwardly in line with the public perception. The popular image of racing drivers, especially from the era covered here, does not always tally with reality.  Behind the "heroic" facade, they all had their weaknesses, quirks and needs.

Another aspect of this biography which impressed me was that Edwards was not afraid to leave chronological "gaps" in the narrative, instead preferring to concentrate on context and an evocative and representative portrayal of the subject.  The author goes into great detail about the areas which he thinks are instructive and important, but he doesn't feel pressured to document every race of every season. In this way, one gets a more rounded and humanistic sense of Stirling's progress, as well as a richer perspective on events.

It is pleasing to see that as much attention is given to Stirling's exploits in sports cars and certain "niche" spheres as is allocated to his Grand Prix endeavours. The sport was not so "F1-centric" in the 1950s, and all of this also serves to convey the mastery and sheer versatility of Moss. 

Technical matters are also gone into, mostly as a way of illustrating which way the racing wind was blowing, and to place some of Stirling's career moves into greater historical context.  The passages concerning Maserati, Mercedes and Vanwall in particular are thoughtful and penetrating, again dispelling one or two "myths" along the way, and painting a more nuanced picture than is often painted.

A prominent feature of the latter stages of this biography is the concentration on the aftermath of the accident at Goodwood in 1962, and its physical and psychological effects on the driver. Like many areas of the book, it benefits from being "authorised", and is therefore based on good, sometimes rare source material. Again, this all goes well beyond the simplistic, cliched version which was moulded by the popular press.

I also enjoyed the chapters which looked at Stirling's life following his decision to retire from racing, and how he adapted to his new circumstances. The book is written in a pleasingly erudite but economical and accessible style.  If the test of a good biography is whether the reader emerges with an enhanced understanding of the subject, and actually learns a few things in the process, then I would suggest that this fine effort comes through with flying colours. 

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