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Eager Beaver

Beaverbrook

by A.J.P. Taylor
Simon and Schuster, 712 pp., $12.95

An impartial biography does not exist. Biographies are full of autobiography, for who can push his way about in another’s existence without revealing what he likes and what he simply has to accept? Mr. Taylor hurries to state where he stands in this matter. At the very beginning of his very long book he confesses, “I loved Max Aitken Lord Beaverbrook when he was alive…the joys of his company were beyond description…. Now that I have learnt to know him better from his records I love him even more.”

Beaverbrook is lucky. Publisher of the Daily Express, Cabinet minister under Lloyd George and Churchill, a tireless political schemer, he had many enemies. The normal lot of such men is to be the prey of various and somewhat apprehensive biographers while living, which he was, and the victim of an authorized research team when dead. Instead, he has had Mr. Taylor to present a full, affectionate, brilliantly written, and highly readable case for him. Though the book is intended to be a monument it is not an entirely polite one. Much of it is a kind of secular hagiography in which the virtues of the subject constantly come up against the reader’s resistance, but it holds one’s attention throughout by its expert marshaling of a vast amount of detail. One reaches the last page murmuring, “Well, there must be something in it….”

The claim that the joys of Beaverbrook’s company were beyond description, for example. Perhaps they were to a distinguished historian able to place him against a balanced view of Britain during the twentieth century, yet they are something which most readers of this life will have to take on trust. The main attraction in this book is in finding oneself at such close quarters with a phenomenon, for Mr. Taylor evokes all the extraordinary features of his subject. The ball of fire bounces vividly, sometimes purposefully, through many of the big scenes in British life from World War I to the Common Market, and we are made to feel the whirl of it, if not the warmth.

The book is at its most fascinating in dealing with the way Max Aitken hurried from poor boy to very rich boy—he was making millions when still in his twenties—and from obscurity in Canada to London celebrity. In these chapters he is like a hero in a nineteenth-century political novel who has to be rushed to the central theme of the book and given riches, powerful friends, influence, and honors before the main plot can unfold. The rise was a dazzling achievement, the product of aplomb, good timing, and more hidden causes that could never have entered Aitken’s reckoning.

Aitken’s father had emigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1864. He was a Presbyterian minister and had received a “call.” The family had been working the same little tenant farm since the early seventeenth century and was typical of the stock from which most of Britain’s Scottish empire builders derived. When, many years later, Lord Beaverbrook tried to buy the humble building from his family’s hereditary landlord, the Marquis of Linlithgow, there was nothing doing, the Marquis preferring to let it fall down, which it did.

Beaverbrook himself did less than justice to his roots, insisting that he came from generations of farm laborers. He had no interest whatever in literature, and thus never absorbed the mystique of Scotland through its great writers. He was able to escape the romantic attraction of his origins. He was born Canadian, and although he lived in England for the greater part of his life and used Canada chiefly as his moneybag, he retained his Canadian nationality to the end. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

It was far from unusual, as Mr. Taylor says, for rich, ambitious young men from the Empire to seek social and political careers in London. Max Aitken’s arrival was unique only in the speedy manner with which he settled himself at the center of the scene. In 1910 he was thirty-one, a multimillionaire, four years married, slight, ugly, and dynamic. And quite unknown except to a handful of businessmen. He was also pursued by rumors of sharp practice connected with the Canadian mergers out of which, during the previous decade, he had made his fortune. Within a few months this extraordinary young man had set in motion all the principal agencies upon which depended his future fame.

First he bought the controlling shares of Rolls-Royce, even at this date a national monument. He then attached himself to the future prime minister Bonar Law, got himself elected to Parliament, and began to associate himself with a collapsing newspaper called the Daily Express. Eight years later he had become in turn a baronet, a baron, and a minister in Lloyd George’s government.

Lord Beaverbrook, as Max Aitken had now become, having taken his title from the stream near his childhood home in New Brunswick, liked to think of himself as a kingmaker in the mid-war crash which destroyed Asquith and brought Lloyd George to power; but, as Mr. Taylor shows, his role was peripheral. It was always to be so where British politics was concerned. One of the most interesting things about Taylor’s book is that it confirms that although Beaverbrook had convinced himself many times that he was central to Britain’s affairs, he was only on the edge of them. Indeed, there was a continuous attempt from King George V onward to keep him there.

Taylor’s book is also full of accounts of people keeping their distance, as it were. There was much recognition of Beaverbrook’s generosity and affability, and of his darting innovatory mind, yet there was also the determination on the part of many not to be seen as his man. “Max was a honey but he did not add up,” said Rebecca West.

Toward the end of the First World War Beaverbrook joined Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere in the popular description of press lords. This was by no means a complimentary description. Britain’s insatiable newspaper-devouring population is a legend; what is perhaps less well known is that the daily providers of the feast have never been easy to take. They have long been seen as manipulators of public opinion and makers and breakers of political reputations. Mr. Taylor shows how this sinister image of the press lords derived from the beginning of the century when Northcliffe first built up huge newspaper circulations for his papers. He excuses Northcliffe’s wartime journalistic excesses, surely some of the worst polemical rubbish ever printed, because they derived from his intense patriotism. When Beaverbrook took over the Daily Express he was viewed with fear by many people as another Northcliffe come to Fleet Street.

He was not. Nor was he a Rothermere. He produced a pretty near classless newspaper which he could use to exhibit his irresponsible individualism and for his romantic crusades, of which the greatest and most lasting was his famous Empire Crusade. This was his campaign for an imperial preference in trade, which had been given its first impetus by Joseph Chamberlain back in the days of Queen Victoria’s jubilees. Beaverbrook flogged this notion quixotically right up to the time when Edward Heath and others were negotiating Britain’s entry into the European Common Market.

More interesting and more important for upper, lower, and middle-class readers of the Beaverbrook press during the last half-century had been the superb group of cartoonists—including Strube, David Low, Vicky, Giles, Lancaster—and William Hickey’s gossip column begun by Tom Driberg in the Thirties. The cartoonists in Beaverbrook’s lifetime were allowed to attack anybody, usually from the left—except a press lord. “Dog does not eat dog,” said Beaverbrook. He paid the highest salaries in Fleet Street, hardly ever visited the office but badgered his editors incessantly from afar, wrote millions of words himself, and though he was the model neither for Citizen Kane nor for Evelyn Waugh’s Lord Copper, he gave frequent lifelike imitations of both. More than anything else, Taylor says, “Beaverbrook was an advertiser, rating publicity above all virtues.”

Others did not and their relations with him were inhibited by what they thought he might print about them. Leading Socialists, most of whom up until the end of the Second World War retained the idealism in which the movement had been fostered, reacted puritanically to Beaverbrook’s blandishments. Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot were each sufficiently sophisticated to cope with him, and Foot was his friend, but men like Ernest Bevin hated him and said so. Bevin excused Churchill’s fondness for Beaverbrook—something which Mrs. Churchill tried to undercut during the Twenties—with, “He’s like a man who’s married a whore: he knows she’s a whore, but he loves her just the same.”

As with politicians, so with kings. While George V had no time for Beaverbrook, Edward VIII sought him out when he needed the help of the press during the abdication crisis. Keeping King Edward was the subject of one of Beaverbrook’s three main crusades. It was entirely unsuccessful, but to have the King pursuing him with telegrams for help was flattering and romantic. In addition, as Mr. Taylor says, it pleased the fixer in him. Soon after this Beaverbrook began his crusade against getting into World War II, his isolationist instincts making him side with the men of Munich. The moral seediness into which countries sometimes flop, the vulgarity of their thinking at such a time, and the helplessness of those who have been compromised are all very evident here. Beaverbrook opposed the war right up to the declaration on September 3, 1939, which found him just back from Canada.

He had left instructions that the Daily Express was to be sold—for three million pounds. He had apparently walked out of England as casually as he had walked in thirty years before. “I shall not be back again,” he had written, “except as a visitor.” But in the time it takes to turn around, he was back. As leader of the informal political lobby of hobgoblins (his term), he had decided to face up to what he most detested, Britain showing its obligations to Europe. Had he not once confessed that his principle was, “take a trick when you can and go on with the game”?

Very soon the game people were playing was how to unseat Neville Chamberlain. Admirers of Beaverbrook’s self-inflated role during the leadership crisis of the First World War were now eager to have him repeat his tactics. “Dear Kingmaker,” wrote one, “Why have you given up your job? You did the trick in 1916 and, by getting rid of old Squiff [Asquith] at the right moment, you enabled us to win the war….” Beaverbrook’s answer to this was euphoric journalism supporting Chamberlain and assuring everybody that the Maginot Line was impregnable and that “we may hope” London would never be bombed.

Two days later Germany by-passed the Maginot Line by invading Holland and Belgium. The following day Churchill became prime minister. Beaverbrook immediately went to him and was given the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Describing Beaverbrook’s contradictory support for political opposites, and particularly his promotion of certain conspicuous political leaders, his biographer says that he was always inclined to encourage men of strong views, whether he agreed with them or not.

Nineteen-forty was his hour, as it was for so many other people. He rose to it with panache, running his new ministry “in a blaze of publicity or, as his critics called it, ballyhoo.” But at least he ran it fast, stirring up the aircraft factories and providing a stream of fighters for the Battle of Britain, he himself fighting the air marshals, who were bomber-obsessed. He worked by hunch, with minimal consultation, displaying the motto “Organisation is the Enemy of Improvisation” on his office wall. The eccentric means by which the few received their Spitfires is now all part of the great epic. The British adore a casual note in their victories and the sight of an amateur snatching the palm from the professionals.

The full account of Beaverbrook’s war against Hitler has a kind of comic splendor. The quarrels, the boredom, the nuisance campaign for a Second Front, but above all the willingness to play court jester to Churchill’s king make Beaverbrook a kind of keyhole through which one spies on a war in which egotism ran riot. Stalin told him that statesmen talked too much in England and paid too much attention to the newspapers. Reading this book, one has to agree.

Beaverbrook was in the government as lord privy seal when, with elephantine memories of the Tories’ behavior during the Depression, the country swept Churchill out of office in 1945. The two men became a familiar sight, particularly during Churchill’s miserable last years when, like some ancient priest whose departure heralded national disaster, he was returned to office yet again. They spent holidays together in the démodé south of France. A yacht dipped in the bay and further along the rocks might be glimpsed “the actress”—Garbo. While Churchill sank into senility, Beaverbrook sparkled along to the very end. At eighty-five he said, “You don’t want to take Success [one of his books] too seriously. It’s only newspaper stuff.”

Mr. Taylor’s book is forebearing to a degree. Bonar Law’s last words to Beaverbrook were, “You are a curious fellow,” and so he was. And so, for the most part, have been the rest of Britain’s press lords. Beaverbrook preached joy-through-boom. Even in derelict 1932, with vast numbers of his readers hardly able to afford the penny for his paper, he still preached that prosperity was in the reach of all. “Why should there be empty seats if the entertainment is good?… As for money—it is just as scarce as we make it!” His life was a firework display of contrary advice and opinions. A crackling cheerfulness prevailed and the world was invited to turn its back on the long shadows.

Mr. Taylor has supplied some of the real political scaffolding for Beaverbrook’s pyrotechnics, and points out what was of importance in the big set pieces and what was a kind of licensed fun. He demonstrates how, time and time again, Beaverbrook drove ahead without taking others with him and how often he would take up a cause “at a moment’s notice and imagine that everyone would switch on the new light as abruptly as he did.” The slightly grim common sense of the English was for Beaverbrook a lumpen force which he could never budge. It is doubtful that he ever realized this.

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