Tag Archives: France

Book Review – Riding in the Zone Rouge

Riding in the Zone Rouge

Zone Rouge cover

Author: Tom Isitt

Hardcover: 320 pages

Publisher: W&N (21 Mar. 2019)

ISBN-10: 1409171140

ISBN-13: 978-1409171140

 

In May 1919 they had a cycle race in France and Belgium, taking in the battlefields and severely testing the endurance of the participants, many of whom had only just returned from the army.

This book describes the race and sets it against a modern cycling tour following the route, along with a travelogue based on the two wars fought in the area – the Franco-Prussian War and the Great War.

I haven’t been on a bike for forty years, but I like travel books and I’m very interested in history, particularly the events of 1919, so it was an obvious choice.

Cycle racing is tough these days. A hundred years ago it was tougher, with longer stages, rudimentary equipment and a ban on accepting outside help, whether from blacksmiths, teams or competitors. With the added hazards of war-ravaged roads and unseasonably bad weather it became less of a sporting event and more an endurance test. Despite many of the seemingly petty rules, there was no law against the use of performance-enhancing drugs (strychnine and cocaine in those days). This must have been a great comfort to the racers, particularly when weather conditions meant that several of them had to use battlefield ruins for a few hours sleep and shelter.

Most of the references to modern cycling went right over my head, though the contrast between the bikes and clothing of 1919 and 2019 is an eye-opener.

The Zone Rouge covered 1,200 square kilometres (460 square miles) in 1919. Even today it still covers 100 square kilometres (about the area of Paris). To be honest, I didn’t even know it still existed, or how the French and Belgians went about reconstructing their country. I am now better-informed about this, and a number of other subjects.

It’s a well written book by an experienced journalist and as such it has flow and pace and is a genuine page turner.

My least favourite parts of the book are the made up conversations between the racers. I’m sure they are accurate reflections of the conversations that would have been held, but they do blur the line between fact and fiction. As a device it works well and moves the narrative along, but I’m never happy with it in a history book. This is, however, a minor quibble and if this was the sort of review that gave stars I would give it five out of five.

This is the second post of the day, as it has been in preparation for the last few days. Unfortunately, politics intruded and although it gave me material for posts about judgement and a Fifty Foot Johnson I thought I’d go ahead anyway, rather than let it get lost in the unused drafts.

Banknotes, banknotes, banknotes…

We have, as I noted in the last post, been putting banknotes on eBay.

There are a lot of notes in the shops, ranging from serious notes for collectors to cheap and cheerful bulk lots.

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Austro-Hungarian Empire – early 20th entury

I work with two keen banknote collectors. I always admire enthusiasts, and respect their immense knowledge on the subject, but really can’t get enthused by talk of serial numbers, replacements and security printing. If I was going to collect notes I’d probably collect them by theme, such as notes with pictures of birds on them. I like birds.

However, I prefer burgers, and that would be a very small collecting field.

Republic of Biafra 1967-70 - a short and tragic story

Republic of Biafra 1967-70 – a short and tragic story

Some notes are spectacular, either because of the quality of design, or the history of the note or country. Others are very dull. You will probably see several of each sort in the pictures, though it has to be said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

It’s a very simple way of touring the world and it has one advantage over many other forms of collecting in that you can, when handling circulated notes, get a fairly strong whiff of foreign bazaars and sweaty hands.

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Guyana

Years ago I had a delivery of foreign notes in an antique centre and as soon as the wrapping paper came off several neighbouring dealers turned green and ran off spluttering.

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Atmospheric selection of notes from Ghana

So, for atmosphere , circulated notes are the thing to collect. But if you are looking for beauty, collect uncirculated notes.

Bhutan - nice and clean, with dragons

Bhutan – nice and clean, with dragons

An Interesting King

The coin is a 1 Fils of King Ghazi I of Iraq. Dated 1938 it is uncirculated and still has traces of its original lustre.

King Ghazi was king for only six years but he seems to have packed a lot in – wanting to annexe Kuwait, conducting an affair with a palace servant, having suspected Nazi sympathies and, finally, dying in a car crash which may have been organised by his Prime Minister.

All this sounds very familiar.

Fils is singular, though some coin dealers write 1 Fil. The plural is fulus but in the west we stick to using fils. Unfortunately it’s also French for “son” so you need to be quite precise in your search terms. In French it’s both singular and plural.

The coin is available on eBay for £25, though lower grades are available much cheaper. That’s a good thing about coin collecting – it encompasses all budgets. You can buy some very interesting coins for a pound or two if condition isn’t important. We did that yesterday, selling a coin of Louis XVI like this one, from 1792, to a young collector. It was very worn, but it was £1 and think of all that history!

A New Medal and some Questions from History

Someone brought medals into the shop for mounting last week. Their father has tended not to bother about his wartime service too much and has only just been made aware that the French Government has been giving out the Legion of Honour to veterans who participated in the Liberation of France in 1944-5. He now has his, and has decided to go to France for a memorial event in September. When he does he will be wearing a properly mounted set of medals.

He seems to have had quite an active war, and I don’t begrudge him the medal, but I can’t help thinking that giving someone a medal because he was in a certain country 75 years ago, and has lived long enough to collect it, is slightly devaluing his contribution, and the contributions of many others, including the people who kept the war going in Africa, the Atlantic and the Far East (to mention but a few). I worked with several Normandy veterans in the past, and I’m feeling slightly saddened that they didn’t live long enough to get an extra medal.

If you were at Dunkirk you don’t get it. Same if you were in the RAF flying over France in 1943 but not 1944. Or at Dieppe or St Nazaire.

And that’s before we come to the irony that we were effectively at war with the French from 1940-42. The Vichy French killed a number of British and American troops in that time, and imprisoned others. I’ve always wondered what it must be like for veterans of those attacks to see the French posing as staunch opponents of the Nazis. You would think the least they could do would be to give a medal to our soldiers that they shot at.

Politics and warfare are always more complicated than they look.