1923 The Mystery Of Lot 212 And A Tour De France Obsession, Ned Boulting (2023)
A film fragment illuminates an ancient race and much of the intervening century
Bloomsbury Sport, 978-1-3994-0154-8 Octo 284pp
Immerse yourself in the early history of cycling’s grand tours and ‘monuments’, and a paradox quickly presents itself. Most of these competitions were conceived and designed as a means to sell newspapers. Racing created narratives that journalists could serve up to readers; the map-bisecting routes acted as rolling promotional tours for the newspapers themselves.
But despite being contests designed for recording and description, its a struggle to feel much connection, or even understanding of events before the second world war. Brunel’s Intimate Portrait Of The Tour De France is a case in point. It is packed with quality images, mostly of cyclists between races. Granular depictions of their basic machines, antique dress and evident privations somehow serve to render their subjects even further from comprehension, however.
Ned Boulting’s compelling psycho-history is an attempt to address this. His starting point is an incomplete Pathé newsreel showing two-and-a-half minutes of the 1923 Tour, that he purchases by chance in an auction. You can watch it here.
To this fragment, Boulting devotes more than 100,000 words, recounting an obsession that is partially the product of the Covid-related lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. From this celluloid snippet, he conjures a narrative that reveals the geo-political twentieth century anew, as well as coming a lot closer to the forgotten Flandrian at the heart of the action, Théophille Beeckman.
Along the way is a rolling cast of characters. Some are new faces, such as Le Grand Bob, Henri Desgrange’ towering assistant who waves off each stage of early Tours. Others populate the tale lending Beekman the quality of a Belgian Zelig – Sarah Bernhardt, Alfred Jarry, Adolf Hitler and Alexander Dumas all make appearances.
Occasionally I would have swapped Boulting’s personal travelogue for more contextualising. How many films did Pathé and others make of each Tour, what were the technical considerations of such film making and in what circumstances were they shown? There are also snatches of Beekman’s interior monologue, which are unexplained, but I assume are fictional?
None detract from a book that I consumed pretty much in one sitting, and continued to pick it up once I had reached its conclusion. By that point my imagined proximity to the ghosts who once circumnavigated France on monstrous daily stages was revelatory, even if every fresh fleck of detail highlighted just how much of that period is beyond resurrection.
TD August 2023