Like many another high-toned writer, I started journalistic life on the Express, initially the Sunday in John Junor’s long days, then the Daily under Roy Wright. Beaverbrook had been dead by then for ten years. The amiable son, who touchingly refused the title in a spirit of unaffected and perhaps warranted humility, reigned rather than ruled in his place and was known officially as Sir Max Aitken, unofficially, after his gallant war, as Biggles. He was widely liked, even loved; but though a civilised and kindly boss, he lacked the zest and edge of an ordinarily successful newspaper-owner, never mind the special, bottomless fund of vitality with which his father boiled. Best remembered for his description of the sport of sailing as ‘standing under the shower tearing up ten-pound notes’, he was nevertheless a superior article in every imaginable way to the brutish units of accountancy constituting the present.
All the successors, the amiable if cack-handed Victor Matthews, his feverish mayor of the palace, Jocelyn Stevens, and subsequent persons deepening the descent, still aspired to Beaverbrook’s peremptory ways, his habit of punting enthusiasms and nominating heroes. All that was missing was the flair. One can’t see Beaverbrook tolerating an instruction to Parliamentary reporters to pay especial attention to the coming man and likely successor in Downing Street, Cecil Parkinson. Beaverbrook was often wrong, oftener perverse, never that wrong or that perverse.
The years of the Express’s slow decline are worth a book to themselves, so instructive are they about what happens when a presiding despot of genius dies. Journalists who worked for Beaverbrook speak of him with a combination of awe and affection. James Macmillan and John Ellison, who were so much of the Daily Express for so long, describe this slow, mocking North American voice coming over the phone with approbation or a grumble and always creating a frisson. Both have said to me, ‘You would have liked him’; and I believe them. Asked why he liked him so much across a fair breadth of the political spectrum, the Guardian’s Ian Aitken, no relation, last of the old man’s Green Park walkers, answers: ‘Because he was so exciting and vital.’ As to Beaverbrook’s politics, Aitken defines them as ‘anti-Establishment. He despised the nobs and official people.’ There are good stories about Beaverbrook reserved and waiting until the prospective pleasures of the Aitken memoirs.
Given the quality of so much modern newspaper proprietorship, which combines Olympic dullness of mind with the employment of deep sea divers to empathise with, and sell to, the bottom of the mental sea, one looks back to Beaverbrook with nostalgia for a better class of monster – a pretty nice monster much of the time and at any rate an interesting one. Significantly, the chaste (but not dull) Rupert Murdoch prints semi-dirt and pursues a certain political line because in large social groups the breasts of Samantha Fox and the opinions of Margaret Thatcher combine effectively. Lord Beaverbrook, a loving, unfaithful husband who had women the way most people have buttered toast, kept the Express smutless, while he promoted only those politicians he either cared for or was in alliance with. And from Bonar Law to Hugh Gaitskell, he had better taste than the market sociologists, though Sam Hoare was a duff choice.
The clean, politically-motivated, pre-marketing Express was beyond comparison better-selling than the slightly soiled, politically auto-piloted and consultant-plagued Express of today. It also sold as well as and for longer than the Sun at its super, soaraway worst. Yet it did so under a proprietor who, candidly and truthfully, told a Royal Commission of Establishmentarians and nobs that he owned newspapers to make political propaganda.
The life which Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie have written begins with a piece of elegant writing, like a dream sequence. It is an unpublished piece written by Davie as a very young Observer reporter. It incorporates Raymond, Beaverbrook’s camp valet who would stamp his foot and say, ‘Oh, we are being difficult today, Lord!’, the current mistress, Marie-Edmée Escarra, later dismissed for drink, and a lethargic, affable, fat Lord Rosebery. They talk newspapers – the Observer is a good paper, David Astor ‘has flair. It’s not all done by luck’; ancient scandal – a lady-in-waiting of Queen Victoria thought to have been pregnant and a virgin; and best of all, Church politics:
‘Do you go to church?’ he asked. ‘Oh, Church of England. I see the Church of England is making overtures to the Church of Scotland. The Church of Scotland will not be swallowed up. “Call me a thief, a rogue or a scoundrel, but never call me a bishop.” That was one of Wesley’s more extravagant sayings.’ He grinned at me.
The life described in La Capponcina was privileged and lived between gardens and summerhouses with the old man, in white cotton gloves brought by Raymond, taking exercise by plying roses with secateurs. But it was neither sybaritic nor idle. At 77 he returned recurringly to the dictaphone with instructions to men producing a newspaper to his wishes. What is described here is the pleasant, good-humoured, late life of a quizzically menacing stylist. What did he think of the then US Ambassador Aldrich? ‘Deaf and dumb.’ Beaverbrook comes over as an absolute ruler, but not a bully. Davie was inquisited and cross-questioned (and soon after, like the outstanding talent he is, snatched up for the Evening Standard).
What impresses in every account of the man is that quality of being interested and interesting. It is a more attractive picture than his papers left, for all their then virtues. Beaverbrook had obsessions like his hatred of Mountbatten (not a bad man to hate), his rage at what we used to call the Common Market and other, shorter-lived preoccupations. Some of the nagging iteration of those day-on-day campaigns derived from Beaverbrook in vindictive mode, some from the limitations of serviceable men editing his newspapers in a spirit of literal-minded subordination.
He was vastly less confined than some of his lieutenants and knew it. Witness the irony that the same proprietor could employ John Gordon, editor of the Sunday Express, narrow, bigoted and self-righteous, who could have featured with minimal anachronism at a 17th-century witch trial, and Screaming Tom Driberg, no nicer but in quite different ways, promoting fellatio like the gospel? Both were horrid, both useful and both, if not always by advertence, amusing. The amiable cynicism with which Beaverbrook wore his Presbyterianism could accommodate balancing grotesques.
Chisholm and Davie have written a rattlingly attractive narrative of a rattlingly attractive life. The first fascinating thing about Beaverbrook is his origins, the second his rise. He was the son of William Aitken, a scholarly, but plodding minister who migrated to Canada from Torphichen in Fife. Young Max’s New Brunswick upbringing was one of paternal ineffectiveness and physical retribution from his mother. A classic non-adapter to school, he was the anxiety of the family: not up to university, how would Max get by in life? A group photograph shows six uninteresting familial faces three deep, and at the back this grinning changeling. Max emerges here as a child for whom childhood is an encumbrance.
Davie and Chisholm quote a local saying that the Aitkens would not move five miles for £100 (pre-Lamont) if they could scratch a living where they were. The defining ancestor seems to have been Joseph Noble, an aggressive Scotch-Irishman and Max’s maternal grandfather: unlike Max a fierce drinker, but one whose flair bought up most of Maple, Ontario.
Before his 32nd birthday in 1911, Max Aitken’s flair had brought him a knighthood to add to membership of the Westminster Parliament, friendship with Bonar Law, the key Tory backbencher Edward Goulding, and the Imperial moralist/moraliser Rudyard Kipling, as well as sundry millions of pounds. The money had come fast, very fast from Halifax, St John and Montreal. Starting in a financier’s equivalent of a garret, a hotel bedroom, he began his ten-year capital accumulation as an insurance man, acquired a vital contact in John Stairs, the seriously rich head of a shipping family and a dominant figure in Halifax, who gave him the task of ‘stealing a small bank’ in Windsor, Ontario. The takeover was accomplished and by 1901 Aitken, now a picked talent, was poised for participation in the financial world of the British Empire.
First as Stairs’s henchman, then as head of his own company, Royal Securities, he became profitably engaged in the municipal utilities of the West Indies through such companies as Trinidad Electric Company; he aspired to finance trams in Quito, Equador and got involved with equivalent enterprises in Brazil and Jamaica. The financial career only lasted ten years, was improvisatory at the corners and indebted to a tolerant view of insider dealing, but it wasn’t Maxwellian and it provided everything: La Capponcina, Cricket Malherbie in Somerset, Cherkley in Surrey and assorted other houses lightly picked up; the Daily Express and its sisters; a lifelong succession of mistresses genuinely attracted by the man, but a tidy overhead even when fascinated; and, of course, his stake in the game of power over the next fifty years.
Beaverbrook, more than Churchill or even Lloyd George, sounds like a character out of a book and was, as we are reminded by Chisholm and Davie a character out of at least four books: novels by Arnold Bennett, Rebecca West, Evelyn Waugh and William Gerhardie. The friendship with Bennett occasioned splendidly dry comments in the novelist’s journals: ‘Max B lunched with me yesterday. Asked “What about the Tory Party?” he said: “A is an idiot, B has sciatica, C is whoremongering and D is taking dancing lessons.” ’ Bennett, candid with criticism, had a direct effect on the style of the papers. Of the Evening Standard he wrote to its proprietor: ‘This is the only evening paper which appeals even a little to educated people, and it ought to be made to appeal a great deal more to them than it does. You can’t, in my opinion, get much prestige out of a yellow paper. Hence I wouldn’t let it be yellow.’ The edge of quality which the Standard retains (in other hands) owes something to that advice.
The Bennett friendship was an equal one: the novelist was never in awe of Beaverbrook, though he liked him, and never a henchman, though he worked for him. It was not a matter of collecting a celebrity, the press lord was fascinated by the process of writing both fiction and drama. Bennett for a while got him interested in music, quartets even, but music, in a life dominated by intelligent interest but marked with impatience, eventually had to go. This balanced friendship was in marked contrast with the tie to Kipling, which collapsed eventually over raw politics. The young Beaverbrook, not a little crass about the Stock Market however well he understood it, corresponded with the poet at his most intolerably sententious; parts of the correspondence read like Marxist propaganda. Kipling sends his truly dreadful war poem:
For all we have and are
For all our children’s fate
Stand up and meet the war
The Hun is at the gate.
With its grotesque ending –
What stands if freedom fall?
Who dies if England live?
In return for this evil tosh, which Kipling wants placed in the Canadian press, Beaverbrook, observing a mighty financial panic, writes: ‘Shall I try to collar you some gold?’ The discourse is Brechtian. Indeed, although Kipling would put splendid strutting words into the workaday mouth of his cousin, Baldwin, when the Express and the altogether more sinister Mail of 1930 ganged up on him, he was essentially too right-wing for Beaverbrook.
Instructively, while Beaverbrook plotted with the frenzied Right of the Tory Party in their ugly mood of 1910 (after the Parliament Act and Lloyd George’s Budget), and was influential in the rise of his friend Bonar Law, he was not of that grouping. The circle, which contained exciting people like F.E. Smith and Beaverbrook’s fellow Scotch-Canadian Bonar Law, whom he could manipulate but also truly cared for, was engaged in making trouble. But Beaverbrook, for all his causes and the chained knights who would later adorn the Express masthead for Imperial preference, was chiefly the cheerful rich man determined to stay that way; he lacked the anxiety of the Right. Despite the healthy contempt for bishops, Beaverbrook would not take up with the hatred for Catholics and the loathing for the Irish, more and more usual among his right-wing Tory friends as Home Rule loomed. Kipling who, for all his ability to burnish the commonplace, turns up here as a pretty poisonous character, wrote:
We know the war prepared
On every peaceful home,
We know the hells declared
For such as serve not Rome ...
There was much talk in this galère of the racial inferiority of the Irish, but Beaverbrook made a close friend of Tim Healy, most worldly of Irish leaders and best equipped to talk to Westminster. Through Healy Beaverbrook would become heavily involved in advancing the establishment of the Free State.
That piece of common sense alienated Kipling – no great loss. Beaverbrook was neither reactionary nor earnest. Imperial preference was logical for a Canadian, the Conservative Party a convenient home, but the friend of Bennett, Healy, Michael Foot, Rebecca West, and a string of eclectically chosen talented men and women, was too curious, too empirical for fanaticism. For all that he made the Express and drove it, he was more complicated and often better natured than his newspapers: the recurring element there both a statement of his own breadth and a counter to the monastic reaction of his regulars. He was also too humorous for the anchorites of politics. He was described by one mistress as greeting the climax with a great hoot of laughter. That may be the key to him: a lover laughing out loud, a financier vastly preferring journalism, a Canadian Presbyterian with a sense of humour – all terrifying combinations.