Reportage

Alive. The Story of the Andes Survivors. Lippincott & Co, New York. 1974.

Alive On 12 October, 1972, a Fairchild F-227 was chartered from the Uruguayan Air Force by the Old Christians Club to fly its rugby team from Montevideo to Santiago in Chile: friends and relatives of the players had bought spare places on the plane. Bad weather delayed the flight for 24 hours at Mendoza on the eastern side of the Andes; but the next morning, on 13 October, it was resumed. Flying through cloud, and losing altitude in a series of downdrafts, the plane hit the summit of a mountain and, losing the tail, tobogganed down the side of a mountain before coming to a stop in thick snow.

A number of the crew and passengers were killed instantly, but a majority survived – some of them unscathed. With its white roof, the plane was invisible from the air and after ten days the survivors heard over a transistor radio that the search by their rescuers had been called off. Unable to move because of the deep snow, debilitated by the extreme cold, and with no food, the decision was taken to eat the flesh of the dead bodies in order to survive.

Alive records from the account of the survivors themselves how they formed themselves into an ordered society, distributing tasks according to individual skills and degrees of physical fitness. Leaders emerged who had never been leaders before. All clung to life with an extraordinary tenacity and ingenuity. After sixty days, when the snow had partially melted, the designated `expeditionaries’, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, set out to cross the formidable mountain range, the Andes, and get help.

Awarded the Thomas More Medal for ‘the most distinguished contribution to Catholic literature’.

‘ One of the classic survival stories of all time – a story of the will to survive against impossible odds’.
Daily Mail
‘A classic in the literature of survival.
Newsweek
‘A great book….an incredible saga. Read’s accomplishment in recording a struggle both physical and spiritual is superb’.
Philadelphia Inquirer
‘Terrifying…exciting and hugely entertaining’.
New York Times
‘More than an adventure story… An intimate, unglorified account of the fear, tensions, and practical problems of people who want to live… Not to be missed’.
Denver Post
‘An extraordinary book… Read writes in a sharply honed documentary style that is sometimes intensely dramatic, sometimes the more effective for being deliberately underplayed’.
Publishers Weekly
‘One of the classic epics of how men interact in the face of near certain death’.
The Village Voice
‘Flawless…superb…. A testimonial to the durability and determination of young men who might have chosen to die and simply would not’.
Detroit Free Press
‘No one will come away unmoved by this book and no one will be able to put it down’.
The New Republic

Edward Burlingame, who ran the small general list of the medical publishers J.B. Lippicott, had published three of my novels in New York. In December, 1972, he read about the return to Montevideo of the sixteen survivors of an air crash in the Andes and rang me in Yorkshire where I was spending Christmas with my family. He said he thought their story would make a good book and asked if I would like to write it. I turned him down flat. The cannibalism seemed to me repugnant and, with my second child only three months old, I had no wish to travel to the other side of the world. Eventually, Burlingame bribed me with a first class return ticket to Montevideo and the assurance that if I did not want to write the book I could return home – something I fully intended to do after a short holiday in Uruguay.

The Survivors had made it known that they wanted one authorised account of their ordeal, and half-a-dozen publishers had sent their representatives to Montevideo to sign them up who all stayed at the hotel Victoria Plaza in Montevideo. We were up against much larger and richer publishing houses, with some well-known authors attached to their offers; but in the event the committee appointed by the Survivors chose me as the author and Lippincott as the publisher – partly because Burlingame had assured them that he had no intention of sensationalising what they had been through, partly because I was closer to them in age than the other authors, but mostly because, like them, I was a Catholic whom they felt they could trust to see the spiritual dimension of their ordeal.

I spent the next two-and-a half months in Uruguay, conducting interviews with the sixteen survivors, their parents, and the parents of those who had died. It was important to win their trust because, though they had contracted to tell all, they later confessed that they had had no intention of divulging the `details’ – by which they meant the antagonism some felt for other members of the group, and particularly the breakdown of inhibitions about the eating of human flesh.

I went back to London in March, 1973, and returned to Montevideo in October of the same year with a completed manuscript. It horrified the Survivors. The contract stated that they were entitled to remove from the text anything I had imagined or invented, but not material based upon the recorded interviews. Nothing I had written was imagined or invented: even the dialogue was based upon what they had said they said. What appalled them was the inclusion of the `details’; the depiction of some as cowards and weaklings; and the absence of any authorial comment on what they had done. They said they would be stoned in the street of Montevideo and forced to live abroad.

Over a week of often fractious discussions, I persuaded the Survivors first that it would be a mistake to remove any of the details because word would leak out that the book hand been censored; and secondly that it was not for me to tell the reader what to think: let the facts speak for themselves, and each reader pass judgement about what they had done.

The book was published as I had written it in the spring of 1974 and became a best-seller. In the United States it was promoted by Parrado and Canessa and suddenly everyone was asking: `What would I have done?’ Rather than being stoned in the streets, the Survivors became heroes in Uruguay and throughout the world. Alive was published in sixteen different countries and, by the fortieth anniversary of the air crash, had sold five million copies. Of the many letters that I received, not one criticised what they had done to survive.

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The Train Robbers. W.H. Allen/ Secker & Warburg, the Alison Press. London,1978

The Train Robbers On Thursday 8 August, 1963, fifteen masked men stopped the night mail train from Glasgow to London and robbed it of £2.5 million pounds. It was by far the largest theft in British history and thought particularly heinous because robbing the Royal Mail was tantamount to an assault on the state. Experienced detectives from Scotland Yard, aware that only a handful of criminals were capable of mounting an operation on this scale, tracked down and arrested some of the perpetrators. They were tried, convicted and given exemplary sentences for what the judge described as `an act of warfare against the community.’

Some of the Train Robbers escaped immediate arrest by fleeing abroad. One of the ring-leaders, Buster Edwards, made contact with the network established by the Nazi commando, Otto Skorzeny, to help war criminals escape from Europe after World War II. He was smuggled out of England with his family and given plastic surgery to change his appearance before moving to Mexico City.

The punitive sentences did not prove popular: the British public felt some sympathy for the gang who had cocked a snook at the establishment, and fugitives such as Buster Edwards and Ronnie Biggs provided rich fodder for the tabloid press. The Train Robbers, however, goes more deeply into the workings of London’s criminal culture with its corrupt detectives, venal lawyers, and the varying profiles of the robbers themselves ranging from crafty chancers to murderous psychopaths.

‘Read’s version is much the best and most detailed…he handles it very skilfully spinning it out as a cliff hanger…what is really useful is the social picture he gives of the criminals themselves’.
Observer
‘A clear, cleverly constructed and often humorous account of the robbery, its planning and aftermath’.
The Economist
‘Enjoyable and skilfully organised…he brings into a play a remarkable talent for the orderly arrangement of a confusing mass of facts and an outstanding ability to sustain a forceful narrative drive…the result is rather like a novel by Frederick Forsyth’.
Sunday Times
‘It is a fascinating picture; a spellbinding book’.
The Washington Star

By 1976 most of the Great Train Robbers, had been released from goal. They combined to sell their story to a publisher and approached W.H. Allen where a friend of mine from Cambridge worked at the time. He asked me if I would write a book based on their revelations. One of these revelations was sensational: the claim that the former Waffen-SS officer, Otto Skorzeny, who after the war had set up the ODESSA network for fugitive war criminals, had financed the Great Train Robbery and later helped Buster Edwards escape abroad. Skorzeny was now dead but Buster’s wife June had a letter from Skorzeny and Buster remained in contact with Buster’s wife, Ilse

This dramatic new slant on the otherwise familiar story of the Great Train Robbery led me to agree to write the book. However I was also attracted by an opportunity to study a group of criminals. In The Upstart my hero Hilary Fletcher had become a criminal, but this aspect of the novel had been unconvincing because I had led such a sheltered life.

The one member of the gang who had joined with the others to in marketing their memoirs was Ronnie Biggs, still at large in Brazil. He agreed to an interview and I flew out to Rio di Janeiro where he told me that the story about Otto Skorzeny was a hoax. Back in England, I interviewed Bruce Reynolds in Canterbury prison who, after some procrastination, confirmed what Biggs had said. Two of the other Train Robbers came clean but the others persisted in their claims about Skorzeny. In the event, I told the story as it had been told to me, adding an epilogue describing what I had learned in Brazil.

The book did well in Britain but badly abroad. All the good will that I had built up with foreign publishers with Alive was dissipated by The Train Robbers. However, I did learn much about my fellow-countrymen that I had not known before; the review in the Observer commended the book for `the social picture he gives of the criminals themselves’; and by successfully handling some disturbed and psychopathic criminals I had overcome my fear of what lay beneath the surface of my privileged life.

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Ablaze. The Story of Chernobyl. Secker & Warburg, London, 1993

Ablaze On 26 April, 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Cherobyl Nuclear Power station north of Kiev in the Ukraine was due to be close down for routine maintenance. Engineers planned to take advantage of the shut-down to conduct an experiment. The result was a thermal explosion which blew off the top of the reactor and spewed out a cloud of radioactive debris.

How did the accident occur? What was done in its aftermath? What was its effect on the development of nuclear power and the political unravelling of the Soviet Union? Ablaze opens with an account of the genesis of nuclear power in the Soviet Union when Stalin instructed Beria to do what was necessary to produce an atomic bomb. A network of gulags and unnamed cities were created under the auspices of the euphemistically named `Ministry of Medium Machine Building’ and in July, 1949, the first nuclear explosion took place in Ustryurt in the desert of Kazakhstan.

Nuclear power for the generation of electricity was now adopted with enthusiasm in the Soviet Union: it demonstrated the triumph of a society moulded by scientific socialism. But the flaws in the Soviet system permeated its nuclear industry, and the accident at Chernoby, with the fatal delays and subsequent cover, came to epitomise the failure of Communism and contributed significantly to its demise. The story has villains but also heroes – engineers, soldiers, helicopter pilots who showed extraordinary courage in dealing with the accident’s aftermath. Ablaze tells their story too.

‘There are not really very many outstanding books about communism in the Soviet Union. There are, however, some classics. Piers Paul Read’s account of Chernobyl is, in my opinion, among them’.
Norman Stone, The Times
‘Piers Paul Read tells the story of Chernobyl brilliantly. If you read only one book this year, Ablaze should be it’.
Gerald Kaufman, Manchester Evening News
‘The tale of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl is told with uncommon depth and vividness. Piers Paul Read, just as he did in the bestseller Alive, takes us through the accident, minute by minute. The result is a book that is part thorough history, part techno-political thriller’.
Time
‘Fascinating and compelling’.
Jonathan Porritt

In 1986, the year of the Chernobyl disaster, my novel The Free Frenchman was published in New York not by Ed. Burlingame but by the legendary editor at Random House Joe Fox. Harper and Row which had absorbed J. P. Lippincott had not done well with the books that had followed Alive and Ed. Burlingame encouraged me to make the move. However, the sales in the US of The Free Frenchman, A Season in the West and On the Third Day were also disappointing and with Fox I now looked for a topic that might replicate the success of Alive.

We settled on the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. It still seems foolhardy since I did not speak Russian and knew nothing whatsoever about nuclear energy. Moreover, the Soviet Union was in the process of disintegration and my attempts to make contact with the Writers Union proved futile. A friend of a friend offered to introduce me to a visiting Soviet publisher, and after the meeting the Russian interpreter, Natasha Segal, offered her services as a researcher. I took her on. She went on a reconnoitring mission to Moscow, arranged visas, set up meetings and accompanied me on two trips to Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Coincidentally, a Russian translation of A Married Man was published in Moscow at the time, and Natasha impressed upon my interviewees that I was not a journalist but an author. Through her, following this approach, I secured interviews with the principal protagonists. It was a unique moment when Russians had lost their fear of the KGB but had not yet learned to put a price on their co-operation: it was also a time when a US dollar went a long way. Natasha had told me to bring with me to Russia an assortment of western consumer goods – razor blades, tights, bottles of Whisky – and she was adept at discreetly using these to secure unobtainable berths on overnight trains or rooms in full hotels.

Securing interviews, visiting Chernobyl and the ghost town of Pripyat, were combined with a crash course in nuclear science, Soviet history, and matching a large cast of characters with their unpronounceable names. When I delivered the book to my editor in London, he was disappointed. He had hoped for something apocalyptic but instead I had concluded that the consequences of the accident, while serious, had been exaggerated to discredit and demolish the Soviet Union. Today, the conclusions I reached are widely accepted but at the time it was not what the public wanted to hear and so, despite favourable reviews, Ablaze sold no more copies than my second novel published 25 years before.

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