Birkin's ghost

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Sir Henry Birkin’s book Full Throttle was a huge success on its publication in 1932. But he didn’t write it. Gordon Cruickshank speaks to the man who did

Michael Burn is 92, a former Times correspondent, poet and playwright. But when Henry Birkin met him he was a young student who had never written anything. A mere three weeks later, he had. Birkin did everything at ‘full throttle’.

“I met Sir Henry down at Syrie Maugham’s very smart villa, the Maison Elisa at Le Touquet. I was 19. She had all kinds of people there, mostly from the stage. ‘Tim’ [Birkin’s nickname] would not normally have been a friend of hers — it was not his kind of world — except that there was a great association between the theatre and the turf, which then passed to motor racing.

“Tim was a guest not as a racer but because of a blonde cabaret singer called Sylvia Ashley. She brought him. He was mad about her. She was beautiful in a slightly insipid 1920s way, and she sang with a slightly insipid voice. But she went on to marry Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable and Lord Stanley, so she can’t have been boring! I don’t think Tim was one of her most eligible lovers because he wasn’t rich enough.

“She was awfully ill at Le Touquet, and Tim was terribly worried. John Buckmaster [son of Gladys Cooper, who would later star in one of Burn’s plays] and I drove terribly fast to the hospital in Syrie’s coupe because Tim was so worried. I was very innocent at the time, but I have a feeling she was having a child, or possibly an abortion.

“Tim was very fond of women. He had a beautiful wife, if I remember, extremely beautiful, but I think that he would have been intolerable as a husband, because he was simply in love with cars. I’ve just been re-reading my book — I mean his book — and though it is a very boyish, exaggerated piece of writing, it does convey his infatuation with cars. I think any wife would get tired of it.

“He said to me, ‘They want me to write my life, and Syrie tells me you want to be a writer. Why don’t you write it?’ I wasn’t particularly interested in cars, but I jumped at it. He didn’t care a damn that I’d never written anything. It was rather marvellous; it gave me an excuse not to go back to Oxford, as I was having a good time and hadn’t done a stroke of work.

“We worked on it at my parents’ house in Hyde Park Square. Tim would come there every day and stride up and down dictating. I’m sure we did it in three weeks, because Mr Marshall of Foulis [the publishers] said, ‘You can’t do it in that time’, and because we were both keen on a challenge we decided that of course we must! We started in September and Tim was determined to have it out by Christmas. I don’t know how l coped, knowing nothing on the subject; I can’t remember looking at any reference books. I had heard of Tim, just, but I’d never heard of Rudi Caracciola, Campari or Chiron. I had to decide whether I was writing for experts or the public, and I immediately dismissed experts — I wouldn’t have been capable of that. I just asked him questions. I never remember him being at all impatient with me for not knowing anything about racing. The book was simply about Tim’s character and his stories, and the whole thing was a great joy. I’m rather proud that it didn’t strike a phoney note and didn’t seem obviously ghosted. When I read it now I think it’s quite well-written. “The title Full Throttle was my idea, I think; or perhaps we hit on it jointly. He had thought of one or two — one was Racing Demon. The dedication [which reads ‘To all schoolboys] must have been him. He was a tremendous hero to schoolboys, like David Beckham is today — but not so organised.

“I don’t know how we did it in the time, except that we were determined to. And it did awfully well. Tim and the publishers were very pleased. I had a tiny slice of the profits, but it made up for me not going back to Oxford. I hope Birkin made a lot of money from it, but I’m sure he spent it all at once. He liked champagne…

“I didn’t meet the other Bentley boys. I had an interview with Malcolm Campbell, whom Tim didn’t like, though he’s pleasant enough about him in the book. He was awfully polite about people; not a malicious person at all, but I think he thought Campbell was a bit of an advertiser. Tim’s hero was Sir Henry Segrave. He admired him enormously, and talks about him in the book as some sort of an ideal. He also admired his German rivals very much, Caracciola especially.

“I don’t think he liked Dorothy Paget [who funded Birkin’s Blower Bentleys]. He was vaguely related to her. She was generous, and eccentric, but I think it very unlikely that they had an affair — she was a lesbian.

“The film [the 1994 TV film starring Rowan Atkinson as Birkin] shows me being terrified when Tim drives me on the road. That’s quite wrong. He was very insistent about being careful on the road. He hated people showing off in cars.

“One of the reasons he was particularly keen to get the book done was because he was full of fury that the British government was not assisting motor racing and that people had to spend their own money on it. He spent all of his money on it, and he thought that a great wrong. He was a great fan of Mussolini; I think he was drawn to Fascism because Mussolini gave great support to Nuvolari and Campari. And Alfa Romeo was partly financed by state money. I shouldn’t have been at all surprised if he had gone and worked in Italy. But he was very patriotic, very British.

“A rather sad thing is that he was a supporter of Sir Oswald Mosley, and he tried to enlist me. Some awful Blackshirt came to try to get me to enrol. Tim thought I was that sort of person because I could write. He certainly wasn’t an intellectual. Of course they came from the same sort of background — both rich — but Mosley was showy in a way Tim was not. Tim was not even flamboyant; he was naturally attractive. Dashing, with that polka-dotted scarf. He must have been aware that he was idolised by a lot of people, but he was never flamboyant.

“I was very fond of Tim; well, he started me off writing. I went to his memorial service at All Souls, Langham Place [in 1933], and felt really rather sad. He was awfully careless about that burn on his arm. He didn’t have it properly looked after; it could easily have been treated, I think. He was in a hurry to do something or other… I don’t remember if his wife came to the service, but there were an awful lot of people there. “Tim was a real amateur sportsman of the best kind — a Corinthian. Rich, privileged and brave. He’d certainly have been in the Commandos if he’d made it to the war.”

BIOGRAPHY: MICHAEL BURN

Born in 1912 into privileged circumstances (his father was Secretary to the Duchy of Cornwall). Burn dropped out of Oxford and, angered by rising unemployment in 1930s Britain, he flirted with socialism and communism, becoming close friends with Guy Burgess. He travelled to Germany to investigate National Socialism. where Unity Mitford took him to lunch with Hitler. During WWII Burn became a commando and won an MC for his part in the daring St Nazaire raid. when HMS Campbeltown rammed the gates of the dry dock and exploded. Burn was captured and incarcerated at Colditz.

After the war he became The Times correspondent in Hungary. and later started a mussel farm in Wales. He has published fiction. poetry and plays as well as Full Throttle and, in 1933, a history of Brooklands called Wheels Take Wings.

BIOGRAPHY: HENRY BIRKIN

Sir Henry Birkin at the wheel of a sportscar with his silk scarf flying was the archetypal schoolboys’ hero of the inter-war years.

Born into a wealthy family in Nottinghamshire in 1896, he had an exciting WWI as an RFC pilot, and after it took up motor racing to feed his desire for adrenaline. As one of the glamorous Bentley Boys he added prestige and success to the marques record, and with Woolf Barnato won the ’29 Le Mans in the new Speed Six.

Knowing that the Bentley’s design was ageing, he tried to prolong its competitive life by supercharging. For 1930 he was bankrolled by the Hon Dorothy Paget, a wealthy racehorse owner, and famously finished second in a stripped Blower in that year’s French GP at Pau against Philippe Etancelin’s much more agile T35C Bugatti. Birkin’s Blowers have become a 1930s icon, but though fast they were not reliable and never won a major race, while the cost, plus an acrimonious lawsuit with his partner in his garage business, bankrupted him.

Frustrated by the lack of competitive British cars, Birkin turned to Italy and raced a Maserati and Alfa Romeos, winning the Irish GP and Le Mans in 1931, the latter with Earl Howe. He also continued to race his single-seater Blower, in which he twice raised the Brooklands lap record.

In 1932 he was sued for libel by Brooklands, which he criticised strongly in his book Full Throttle. In it, he also advocated the creation of a road circuit and government support for the sport.

For 1933 he bought a 3-litre 8C Maserati and was third behind Achille Varzi and Tazio Nuvolari in the infamous ‘lottery’ Tripoli GP; but after burning his arm on the exhaust pipe he developed septicaemia.

He died three weeks later, aged 37

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