Stirling Moss: The Definitive Biography volume one reviewed

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The rule of F1 Fanatic book reviews is that the text must be read cover-to-cover before a verdict is passed. I have been sorely tempted to break this rule over the past weeks.

The arrival of Philip Porter’s new biography of Stirling Moss is what has tested my resolve. When the package appeared on my doorstep I assumed it was a new set of brake pads I had ordered for the car.

I was astonished to discover a book inside, and doubly so when I spied the legend “volume one”. This is the first 26 years of the Moss story in 640 pages. Being a lifelong gym-dodger, Porter’s magnum opus has left me in serious danger of growing biceps.

But when someone has gone to the effort of writing a book then the least a reviewer must do is read it. And make no mistake, a serious amount of research has gone into this tome, enhanced by interviews with the subject as well.

“I believe this may be the most deeply researched and detailed motoring biography ever written” the author claims, and I’m not inclined to argue. Not least because vast chunks of the original source material are quoted in the book, often at excessive length.

In places entire articles have been reproduced irrespective of how much detail they offer about Moss. Unfortunately this is just one aspect which makes the book as tiresome to read as it has been to carry around.

Many will be familiar with the ‘Scrapbook’ series from Porter Press, which includes titles on Martin Brundle among others. This has the feel of a series of scrapbooks which has been converted into straight text with not enough attention paid to how well that would read.

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The text is rigidly chronological. If this was a book on a modern driver who never ventured beyond Formula One, this might not be a problem. But Moss spent the early fifties racing in formula cars, sports cars, hillclimbs, rallies and more. Any broad sense of his performance in each and his career progression as a whole is obscured by the constant shifts in focus.

If ever a book needed a proper index of references, it’s this one. The endless citations and corrections prevent a coherent narrative from emerging. It’s a pity because there is no shortage of engaging material here. This is a book to read on fast-forward, skimming the endless slabs of diary quotations (including ratings of every film he watched) to get to the meaty parts.

The prose is more than good enough not to need to rest upon paragraph after paragraph of quotations. The author is a self-proclaimed fan of his subject and there’s nothing wrong with that. But too often Porter merely tells the reader Moss was loyal, virtuous or patriotic, rather than letting the facts speak for themselves. The general absence of criticism makes the book feel hagiographic.

It gives me no pleasure to hand such a meagre score to to a book which is clearly a labour of love and one into which an extraordinary amount of effort has evidently been applied. Moss fans I’m sure will appreciate the diligent examination of his career, the product of which is a thorough reference work which attempts to set the record straight. For others I suggest Robert Edwards’ pithy 2001 authorised biography.

Is this the “definitive” Moss biography? “Exhaustive” might be a better word, at least until volume two, due in 2018, arrives.

F1 Fanatic rating

Rating three out of five

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Stirling Moss: The Definitive Biography volume one

Author: Philip Porter
Publisher: Porter Press International
Published: September 2016
Pages: 640
Price: £46.27
ISBN: 9781907085338


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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 4 comments on “Stirling Moss: The Definitive Biography volume one reviewed”

    1. There’s an awful lot to be said for the argument that the judgement of a sports(wo)man’s career and abilities is far more than just the numbers and statistics that makes up their results or longevity. Moss is surely the most obvious example of that in motorsport, so to find a biography which tosses that concept overboard at the start must be disappointing. Whether judging performance at an individual event, or over a whole lifetime, there are so many factors which can throw a result one way or another for a competitor, so many of which are out of the competitor’s control, that the only judgement we can offer is a balance of probabilities and weighting. And this obviously leads to lazy accusations of bias from anyone who disagrees with the conclusion, weights the same factors differently, or calculates on different criteria altogether. But a biography can’t ever just be a recitation of facts, dates, and stats; it’s supposed to provide insight, and to do that requires speculation and opinion. Well informed, and researched, and referenced, but speculation nonetheless.

      Whether we’re judging a comparison between two individuals like Moss vs Fangio or Hamilton vs Rosberg, or trying to summarise a single career, inevitably there are endless layers of things to argue and consider. Maybe that makes definitive conclusions more difficult to come to, but for me that’s half the fun. Or maybe I’m just a contrary type who likes to play devil’s advocate all the time.

    2. “The general absence of criticism makes the book feel hagiographic.”

      Moss is very much a Man of his era. Nowadays, away from racing, he would be judged a misogynist, homophobe and quite arrogant to boot.

      Probably best to focus on his on track work!

    3. I am probably not in a position to comment upon the signal-to-noise ratio of the book, not only given that I haven’t read the book yet but also because I have often written twice as many words as were needed to communicate what I try to say… …but I found the beginning of your review particularly amusing. F1 really does find ways of keeping us fit whether we want to be or not, doesn’t it?

      1. @alianora-la-canta Thanks! I can’t remember where I heard ‘gym-dodger’ but it seemed so appropriate I also worked it into my FR2.0 Eurocup commentary on BT Sport this morning!

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