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’.

The ‘bouncing Czech’ (a description in which he is said to revel) was born Ludvik Hoch of peasant parents in Ruthenia, the least-known part of that far-off country of which we know little. On the outbreak of war he made an adventurous roundabout escape to Liverpool, where he was briefly interned. After a spell in the Pioneer Corps he became an infantryman under the name of du Maurier (borrowed from a cigarette packet). If Haines is right, he was on oddly familiar terms with senior officers. It is hard to picture a scene in which Sergeant du Maurier ‘shouts at’ a brigadier and the brigadier replies: ‘Do what you wish, du Maurier.’ In the invasion of Europe du Maurier was commissioned as Maxwell and won a good Military Cross. Haines records a later episode which, if it had appeared in one of the rival, writ-beset biographies, one would have hesitated to mention. In a letter to his newly-married wife Maxwell described an attack on a German town the mayor of which was persuaded to organise a surrender. After the white flag went up an enemy tank opened fire, ‘so I shot the mayor and withdrew.’ Haines cites this as an example of the ruthlessness which enabled Max well to mention the incident ‘casually to his wife, without apparently wondering whether she might think summary execution was a harsh punishment for an official who had misled him’. It was, of course, a time when not only mayors but their townsfolk were being liberally expended under Allied air attack.

By the war’s end Captain Maxwell was speaking good standard English, as well as several other languages. In the Control Commission in Germany he made many useful commercial contacts. Demobilised, the man who had once sold trinkets in Bratislava became a trader in London, handling everything from cement and caustic soda to kapok and neon signs. Then, in a vision splendid, he saw that an abundance of scientific journals was the key to the brave new world, so he began buying up all available copies (including valuable German back numbers), taking over existing titles, backing and inspiring new ones, in an ever-expanding business which became Pergamon Press. Many could have told him, and probably did, that cornering scientific works was no way to make a fortune. Do what you wish, du Maurier!

All three biographies rake over in detail the wearisome financial struggles which now dogged Maxwell’s career, wrangles which taught a generation of investigative journalists their trade and showed them what a writ looked like. The famous report by Board of Trade inspectors who said that Maxwell was unfit to run a public company stemmed from the attempted take-over of Pergamon by the American firm Leasco. It is now widely thought that the inspectors exceeded their powers, and the rules have been tightened up. Subsequent to this, he was voted out of the Pergamon chair.

As Labour MP for Buckingham from 1964 to 1970, Maxwell had brazenly insisted on making his maiden speech a couple of hours after taking his seat. For a long spell he was hyperactive in the Commons, but the day came when the Wolverton Express, his constituency paper, asked why he spent so much time travelling the world selling encyclopedias. Maxwell has the Clean Air Act of 1968 to his credit.

When the fortunes of Pergamon had slithered alarmingly, the scientific editors rallied round to call for Maxwell’s reinstatement, which in due course came about. Soon Pergamon was flourishing exceedingly. But Max well’s publishing ambitions now embraced Fleet Street and the rest of the story concerns his adventures in that snake-pit. He was beaten to the ownership of the News of the World by Rupert Murdoch, was denied the Observer but eventually picked up the ailing Mirror Group. The editors, who had all looked askance on Maxwell, now decided quickly on which side their bread was buttered. Only one left. The new owner’s hand on the tiller was soon to be both heavy and clumsy. The Mirror was saved financially but sadly disfigured by his self-promotion and promises of vast wealth for the readers: assuredly, he lacked the newspaper sense of a Beaverbrook. At least he was against any proliferation of nipples. The new broom had his principles and had given evidence against the publishers of Last Exit to Brooklyn.

The slackness, decay and corruption in the Mirror organisation, temple of left-wing virtue, had been spectacular, or would have been if the spectacle had been open to the public. Haines sails into the unions with gusto, exposing many unfamiliar insolences which he says were not so much old Spanish customs as Sicilian ones. Morale was abysmal. Journalists looked on printers as greedy gangsters and printers looked on journalists as pampered alcoholics. The previous chairman had failed to understand why men earning £500 a week should want to strike. The ‘simple answer’, says Haines, was that they wanted £600. It was Haines who drafted, and Maxwell who signed, the ultimatum: ‘The gravy train has hit the buffers.’ Haines had come a long way. As Mirror Group Political Editor, he was involved in the bidding for the story of Sarah Keays, former secretary of Cecil Parkinson. ‘One of the attractions of her story to the Mirror and its publisher was the fact that it would be available for publication at the same time as the 1985 Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool.’ Forward with Britain! Such are the duties of a political editor.

Throughout the book Haines makes scornful references to his master’s enemies, from the ever-suspicious Sunday Times ‘Insight’ team to the thrawn radicals obsessed by the ‘Scottish identity’ of the Glasgow newspaper they tried to run as a co-operative with Maxwell’s encouragement and the benevolent patronage of Tony Benn.

So what of the Liechtenstein connection? Haines passes on, and is clearly satisfied by, Maxwell’s explanation. Originally, by this account, a small foundation was set up there to safeguard himself and his family from threatened litigation by Leasco to the tune of $22 million. Liechtenstein offered unrivalled secrecy. It is now the home of the all-embracing Maxwell Foundation, which has several charitable and philanthropic objectives. ‘It means,’ says Haines, the simplifier, ‘that the poor boy from Solotvino, whose daily bread often depended on the charity of others, is now returning the wealth he has helped to create to the professionals who supported him; to help find peace in the country which is the Jewish national home; to the young who need the chance he had to make for himself; and to promoting for others the education which he never had.’

The rival biographers do not see the Liechtenstein connection in the same rosy light. Tom Bower, observing that the Principality is the ideal location for amassing and dispensing a fortune, describes the link as Maxwell’s ‘poisoned chalice ... the obstacle to his final ambition of success in America’ (where much harder questions are asked). Thompson and Delano, musing over ‘the secret cache in the Alps’, wonder if he has walled himself into Liechtenstein instead of walling others out.

Bower’s book bears the mark of two foreign connections, having been ‘set in Hong Kong, printed in Finland’. This, apparently, was part of a security plan by the publishers to conceal the operation from the largest printer in Europe. (The largest printer in Europe got the Haines book out in three weeks, colour plates and all.) A hard delver, with a cool and sceptical approach. Bower was clearly the fancied candidate for Sunday Times serialisation. Maxwell will hardly care to read that the London Daily News failed for a reason nobody dared tell him, ‘because of its parentage’, or that the portents for his ‘last dash for glory’ are both favourable and ominous. Which dash for glory would that be? He is capable of a good many yet.

Thompson and Delano were both senior Mirror executives under Maxwell. Their book is flashier and more colourful than the others and, like Bower, they do not hesitate to poke fun at Joe Haines. To show their worldly knowledge, they describe the offices in the grounds of Maxwell’s headquarters as ‘like some joyless Bible Belt seminary transplanted to the wrong side of Checkpoint Charlie’. Unlike Haines, they tell us about the yacht Lady Ghislaine (Maxwell has a daughter Ghislaine), which they say was formerly owned by Khashoggi and is based on Majorca. Their tale of how its new owner, on the Riviera, used it to fulfil a dinner engagement at a near-by hotel is in the tradition of ‘Bend’Or’, Duke of Westminster, who ordered his yacht down from Norwegian waters to carry his guests from Cannes to Monte Carlo for tennis.

With Robert Edwards’s Goodbye Fleet Street we end up again in Maxwell land. At dinner, the tycoon took a large cigar from his pocket and asked Edwards’s wife: ‘Is that your red wine?’ It was. ‘Without asking whether she wanted to drink it, he reached across the table, took the glass and dunked one end of the cigar in it. Then he lit the other end.’ Mrs Edwards was surprised at what seemed ‘an unbelievably hostile and aggressive act’. But Edwards, an old Fleet Street hand, who had seen everything, was ‘greatly amused’. As the blurb says, this is an ‘affectionate’ book. Besides, Edwards had served under Lord Beaverbrook and presumably knew that megalomaniacs could be relied on to redeem themselves by outsize displays of charm and generosity.

Edwards comes late to the task of describing the pleasures and humilations heaped on Beaverbrook’s favourites when summoned to play courtier at Cherkley, La Capponcina (near Monte Carlo) or even in Jamaica: nevertheless he adds some pungent details. Like many of Beaverbrook’s elect, he was a left-winger, having worked on Tribune before joining the Evening Standard. It was, of course, the Canadian’s peculiar pleasure to employ left-wingers on his right-wing papers. Edwards made an ideal walking companion. As such, the young man was able to study the old man’s habits, not omitting his frequent urinations (he would desecrate his own lawn at Cherkley, in full view of the house). When he wanted to shock people, we are told, he interviewed them from the lavatory scat.

Robert Edwards edited the Daily Express twice and was also editor of the People and the Sunday Mirror. His justification, as an ex Tribune man, for working on a right-wing paper was that he could temper the more extreme views of the proprietors. When Randolph Churchill, who had collected £5000 libel damages for being called a hack, expressed the view that Edwards was one, Edwards called in his solicitors and pocketed enough to cover the upstairs floors of his house with second-grade wall-to-wall carpet, ‘I have noticed down the years,’ he says, ‘that those who hit the hardest sue the most.’ He is by no means the only one to have noticed it. There is a pleasing self-portrait of Edwards rising from his meal in the Savoy Restaurant to watch the Aldermaston marchers, led by Michael Foot and others, and saying to the carver, as he returned to his salmon: ‘I put them up to that.’

No one will learn from Goodbye Fleet Street how to edit a national newspaper or how to raise its circulation, two feats at which Edwards excelled, by the standards of the game. The reader will, however, learn much about the drinking and feasting, the plotting and the back-stabbing inseparable from the trade. Presumably there was always someone sober enough to get the paper out. The author seems proudest of his Sunday Mirror story telling how the future Princess of Wales was supposed to have met Prince Charles secretly in the royal train in a country siding. It was denied outright by Buckingham Palace, but the editor refused to retract. Jokingly, or perhaps not, he suggests this may have cost him a knighthood. If an editor can be knighted for editing only one paper, what should be the reward of one who has edited four? Mrs Thatcher recommended Edwards for a CBE.

As Lord Deedes has pointed out, Edwards could have said more about those old Spanish customs which Lord Beaverbrook was happy to encourage, hoping that ever-mounting costs would eventually break his rivals. Did he ever raise the ethics of such a policy on his long walks on Hampstead Heath, when the old man stopped to piddle? As it was, the old Fleet Street almost collapsed under a weight of greed, waste, corruption, Luddism and bloody-mindedness. The Times and Sunday Times deserved Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mirror deserved Maxwell. In this industry the Saviour comes in the guise of Beelzebub. Now a new race of journalists sits squinting at computers on the dingier banks of the Thames. There is room for a book called ‘Good Riddance Fleet Street’.