Cars in Books, June 1996

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To be recommended to those who like reading in detail about the 1899 to 1936 period, there is also a little of fascinating motoring interest in the first volume of Dorothy L Sayers’s Letters (Edited by Barbara Reynolds. Hodder & Stoughton, 1995) sub-titled The Making of a Detective Novelist. (I have to say that for me no fictional detective other than the immortal Sherlock Holmes has much appeal — especially if their creators are copyists of the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.) In this very readable book we find reference to the motor-cars whizzing dustily along the road past Lake House, near Stonehenge, in the summer of 1910. There is also the letter Miss Sayers wrote warning her mother in 1922 that she would be arriving with a man, on the back of his motorcycle. She said that Brooklands was his native heath, which made me wonder, did he work (as a fitter) for the racing fraternity? Or was it just that Brooklands had become a name for things motoring, and known to the letter-writer as such? (I can find no evidence that this chap, Bill White, ever raced there.).

Later on it becomes clear that Miss Sayers had a motorcycle of her own and it was presumably a sidecar outfit, as she intended taking her mother out in it; she much enjoyed riding it out of London, circa 1926. She expresses dislike of draughty cars but in that year was persuaded by her husband to put up with a Belsize-Bradshaw coupe, which was not fast but had “a very sweet little engine”. And here is yet another nonmotoring book in which Brooklands is mentioned — Dorothy Sayers confessing to having become quite a habituee by the summer of 1926, but finding that the motorcycles appeared faster at first than the cars… She also had a Ner-a-Car motorcycle, which at first gave much trouble but after it had been taken to pieces went better, but with not very good hill-climbing powers, so that it was confined to comparatively flat country and she later looked for a more powerful outfit.

It also contains a reference to how sad Dorothy, now married to Atherton Fleming (Mac), motoring correspondent of The News of the World, felt when their friend Parry Thomas was killed at Pendine. (Mr Fleming is said to have raced at Brooklands, which I cannot confirm or deny). Finally, re my earlier remarks, Dorothy Sayers does not come into the anti-Sherlock Holmes category, for she wrote sympathetic books about his cases, as her letters convey. So not only Brooklands Society members but those of the Sherlock Holmes Society are prospective purchasers of a copy or two of this and its promised successor.

In kindly writing to give me permission to quote from the above book, Dr Barbara Reynolds referred me to one of her earlier books, Dorothy Sayers — Her Life and Soul (Hodder & Stoughton, 1993). This has a chapter titled A Man and a Motorcycle, which has a photograph of Bill White astride a machine I cannot identify. He is described as a car salesman, and brought Dorothy to that Christmas lunch at the Sayers’s home in 1922 where her father, the Rector, ran a Model-T Ford sedan. It seems that White may have competed in the TT races, although I have not been able to confirm this. (He became the father of the novelist’s illegitimate son, whom she kept secret from her family for many years).

Dorothy’s husband, whom she married in 1926, is described as having taken part in motor-racing in the early days, “testing Daimlers at Caerphilly and elsewhere”, for which company he was a publicity agent in 1911, attaining the acting rank of Major during the war and, when living in Hammersmith, being a friend of “racing driver and car salesman Louis Contamin. (Millward may have been the driver of a Charron-Laycock at Brooklands in 1921 but of his partner I can find no trace). Dorothy put up with a car for her husband’s sake, although he found it a drain on his resources, but in 1925 she bought the motorcycle, presumably the Ner-a-Car; her mother did go out in the sidecar and “liked going fast”. I cannot quite visualise a Ner-a Car sidecar outfit and perhaps it was in solo form that the famous detective novelist covered the 99 miles to Christchurch from London in 4 1/4 hours, in the summer of 1925. I am reminded from these very readable books that Dorothy Sayers put the short-lived car firms into The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. So it seems that I shall have to desert Holmes and Watson for a while and re-read this one. WB

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