Dark Horse, by John Bartlett

When I first read Chequered Justice I had not heard of John Bartlett and I had no interest in motor racing. But to my surprise I found he had written a marvellous, horrifying book which was impossible to put down. I read it over a weekend; it was the story of terrible miscarriage of justice in which the narrator, Will Middleton, had become entrapped.

But it was clear throughout that Will Middleton was a thinly disguised portrait of author, John Bartlett, and Chequered Justice was a fictionalised autobiography, which made the events described in it even more shocking. It also raised a number of questions: if this was essentially a true story, what happened before the book started? Who was Will Middleton? How did he grow up, and get into this mess in the first place? What sort of events shaped this man’s character?

Dark Horse is an attempt to answer all that. Once again the narrator, Will Middleton, is clearly Bartlett himself. And once we see that this man, a self-confessed dyslexic, has a natural gift for storytelling. Not only that, but he has a marvellous fund of stories to tell. He begins with his childhood in Brighton, where he works his way through a number of appalling schools which are beautifully described, and very familiar to people of my generation. But Middleton gives as good as he gets. Several of his inventive escapades as a teenage had me laughing out loud; they reminded me very much of the stories told by Roald Dahl, in his autobiography Boy. In fact I think John Bartlett and Roald Dahl would have had a lot in common, if they had ever met.

The book then takes us through a remarkably successful – and equally amusing and inventive – business career, which Will Middleton abandons only because of his passion for motor racing. Along the way he describes the lives of many close friends, some comic, others – one in particular – very sad and tragic. The experience of driving a high-powered motor racing car (not my favourite sport) is graphically described, but equally interesting and entertaining are the escapades Middleton finds himself getting up to in order to get onto the racing track at all. He becomes an entrepreneur as much as a driver – a buccaneer more like Sir Francis Drake, than just a simple sailor. This is a man of great energy and resourcefulness; he casually tells us, for example, that he bought a helicopter and learnt to fly it in 8 weeks, as if it were no harder than riding a bicycle.

But always in the distance, like a dark cloud coming closer is the threat of the law, which will entangle Will Middleton in its web, as readers of Chequered Justice will know. In this prequel, Dark Horse, we see him young, inventive, and mostly happy, with the dark days still to come. It is entertaining, easy to read, and adds a great deal of fascinating background to the tragic tale told in Chequered Justice.

About Tim Vicary

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