Do what you wish, du Maurier

E.S. Turner

  • Maxwell by Joe Haines
    Macdonald, 525 pp, £12.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 356 17172 8
  • Maxwell: The Outsider by Tom Bower
    Aurum, 374 pp, £12.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 948149 88 4
  • Maxwell: A Portrait of Power by Peter Thompson and Anthony Delano
    Bantam, 256 pp, £12.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 593 01499 5
  • Goodbye Fleet Street by Robert Edwards
    Cape, 260 pp, £12.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 224 02457 4

A reviewer faced with 1,155 pages about Robert Maxwell is entitled to look at the pictures first. Joe Haines’s biography contains over eighty photographs of his hero, many in colour. Mostly they show him hobnobbing with crowned heads, presidents or prime ministers, with a pop star or a footballer thrown in. One picture, more puzzling than some, is captioned ‘Maxwell and team, about to leave Ulan Bator in the Mirror jet’. What can conceivably be the Mirror’s interest in Outer Mongolia? Why does the Mirror need a globe-girdling jet? And is it not a bit tricky getting permission to fly a private aircraft across the more remote people’s republics? Then there is a picture of an uncommonly orgulous vessel captioned ‘Lady Ghislaine, Mirror Holdings’ ocean-going yacht’. Where is she normally berthed? (Not in Liechtenstein, that’s for sure.) On what missions is she normally employed? Is she ever used for Mirror works outings? Is she perhaps a ‘nice little earner’ when chartered to Arabs? A picture with a cosier domestic appeal shows the one-time home of Lady Ottoline Morrell, Headington Hill Hall, near Oxford, now the ‘council house’ seat of Robert Maxwell, lit up by rockets at night, with a huge illuminated sign saying ‘Happy Birthday Bob’ suspended from a tall tree. Perhaps because the picture does not show the full dimensions of Maxwell’s leased Escorial, there is also a view of Headington Hill Hall in the snow.

The photographs are not the only part of the book calculated to divert the reviewer from his task. Appendix Four contains the esoteric roll-call of Maxwell’s scientific journals, nearly four hundred of them, with titles like Acta Geologica Sinica, Electrochimica Acta, Biorheology, Ecotass, Tetrahedron, Advances in Enzyme Regulation, Annual Review of Chromopharmacology and the like, with an odd man out called Holocaust and Genocide Studies. When Maxwell lies on his bier it will be fitting if these titles are recited over him, as were the innumerable, if more mellifluous honours of the Duke of Wellington.

Haines’s great thick book has to be held forcibly open, otherwise it springs shut like a man-trap. It is, of course, the authorised version and Maxwell is entitled to protest that he did not want three simultaneous books about himself. Haines, former press secretary to Sir Harold Wilson, was leader-writer of the Daily Mirror when Maxwell bought it and confidently expected the sack, especially after he had publicly voiced scorn for his new master. Attitudes are quick to be struck and unstruck in Fleet Street. Somehow Haines persuaded himself to stay, having been assured he would not have to write anything he did not believe. Then, because ‘there was no point in staying on a half-hearted or churlish basis,’ he accepted the title of assistant editor and is now Mirror Group Political Editor. When asked to write this book he said he would first like to know about ‘the mystery of Liechtenstein’ (home of the Maxwell Foundation). Maxwell’s reply was: ‘Certainly. That is easy. There is no mystery.’ Of this, more later.

In an earlier book, The Politics of Power, Haines wrote so candidly about his Downing Street years that Wilson is said to have called it ‘a dedicated hatchet job’. In his opening survey of the contradictions and paradoxes that make up Maxwell, Haines certainly tells the odd unflattering anecdote: Maxwell once faced down a Mexican police lieutenant who held a pistol at his stomach to prevent him boarding an overbooked aircraft and, after half an hour, was allowed with his companion to displace two passengers already seated. Those of us who have been victims of overbooking and who, like Maxwell, suspected sharp practice may be tempted to cheer. A few pages on, the temptation subsides as we find him in New York releasing a box of giant fleas (mysteriously obtained from a health institute) in the lift-shaft of a hotel which did not meet his standards and which then had to be evacuated. As the book progresses such tales appear less often, though we hear plenty about Maxwell as a ‘telephone terrorist’.

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