Edward Pearce

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.

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