BOOK REVIEW / A genuine article that stirred the popular press: 'Beaverbrook: A Life' - Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie: Hutchinson, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
APPEARANCES are notoriously deceptive: diamonds sometimes look like paste, and vice versa. Reading this excellent biography of one of the most celebrated twisters in newspaper history, one is reminded of Diana Cooper's remark about Brendan Bracken: 'Everything about him is phoney. Even his hair, which looks like a wig, isn't'

With Lord Beaverbrook, arguably it was the other way about. Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie convincingly present the old reprobate as, in many respects, transparently nave. Almost everything about him seems, rather surprisingly, to have been genuine: his famous parsimony, his equally well-known generosity, his weakness for society beauties, his egomaniacal belief in a Calvinistic God fashioned in his own image. Even his political crusades, which often looked as if they were designed merely to boost circulation, frequently turn out to have been sincere. The most genuine thing of all about Beaverbook was his puckish sense of humour - as though his whole life was a kind of practical joke, and that he was laughing at, as much as with, the British Establishment of which he was a maverick member. Perhaps this is what makes him the least unattractive of modern press barons.

'He was the only evil man I ever met,' Clement Attlee once observed, with uncharacteristic venom. It is not evil that suffuses these pages, however, but mischief. Compared with the mad Northcliffe, not to mention more recent press carnivores, Beaverbrook was a man of quixotic principle and warmth. Michael Foot gently called him Beelzebub; he was closer to a faun or cherub, or perhaps an incorrigibly naughty child, alternately teasing and seeking to be forgiven and loved. In this respect he had something in common with Winston Churchill.

As with Churchill, parental disapproval provided an initial spur to success. Born Max Aitken in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1879, he was the son of a patriarchal Presbyterian minister of Scottish origin. His mother beat him, and his father thought he would come to nothing. Not only the oddest-looking, but also the idlest and most troublesome of the large Aitken litter, Max failed the entrance exam to Dalhousie University and instead drifted into business, where he rapidly discovered an exceptional talent for making money.

Whether he was an entirely scrupulous entrepreneur remains a matter of controversy, carefully considered by the authors in an appendix which explores in detail the so-called 'Canada Cement Affair'. Their conclusion is that, like Lloyd George over Marconi at about the same time, Aitken had a lucky escape, though not a total one - rumours of a less-than-stainless Canadian reputation dogged him throughout his life, adding to the frisson his presence always created.

That Aitken's arrival in 1910 was not exactly triumphal makes his admission to the British ruling classes all the more mysterious. Chisholm and Davie attribute it partly to his wealth, and partly to the lucky coincidence that Andrew Bonar Law, a leading Tory politician, happened also to come from New Brunswick with Scottish Presbyterian roots. Even so, the acquisition of a Commons seat by the young immigrant within months of his arrival must certainly rank as one of the most spectacular pieces of sleight of hand in British parliamentary history.

Aitken's political life, however, contained more frustration than success. His craving for British Establishment baubles was possibly his biggest flaw. In 1911 - as a reward, so the authors suggest, 'for services to come' - he became Sir Max. The War, and the fall of the Asquith government, raised him higher still. When Lloyd George became prime minister at the end of 1916, Aitken accepted a peerage, and thereby limited forever his chances of obtaining high office. The rest of his life can be seen as a series of attempts to compensate for this self-inflicted disability.

He had abandoned elective politics, but not his appetite for publicity or desire to shape events. Following a spell as minister for information, he acquired the ailing Daily Express, and applied the Midas touch - producing, his biographers point out, 'a newspaper that would interest him; and discovering that his interests were those of the masses'. The Beaverbrook concoction was one that happened to fit the nervous times: nostalgia for empire, fear of war, adoration of the aristocracy and a Grundyish approach to personal matters. Sex was confined to the corset ads.

It was over the Express's prudery, the authors maintain, that Beaverbrook was guilty of hypocrisy. Allegedly, the newspaper proprietor's own private life was composed of a succession of liaisons with young upper-class women whom he courted, pampered and made love to, much to the secret despair of his long-suffering spouse. Yet the evidence of physical (as opposed to emotional) promiscuity is less than conclusive. The accounts of his flirtations by lady friends and others more often suggest sentimental than consummated relationships, and there is little enough before the death of his wife in 1927 to support the authors' claim 'that Beaverbrook in middle age had numerous love affairs'. Later, it was different. Yet, living the life of a sultan during his long widowhood, he seems to have enjoyed the companionship of women almost as much as sleeping with them.

In the Thirties Lord Beaverbrook became a noisy, wrong-headed and largely irrelevant campaigner. He encouraged appeasement (which needed little encouragement), was enthusiastic about Munich and denounced Churchill as a warmonger. He liked Ribbentrop, and he was privately anti-Semitic, calling the News Chronicle the 'Jews Chronicle' because of its anti-Hitler stance. Nevertheless, Churchill turned to him in 1940, valuing his genius more than he cared about his opinions. He was made minister of aircraft production, and charged with the building of fighter planes for the Battle of Britain. This was his most legendary role, though the authors suggest that there was as much myth as reality in the stories of his energising success.

He did not stay long. Repeated rows with the Prime Minister led to his resignation in April 1941. He stayed in the government, however, grumbling and intriguing against Churchill, with whom he remained on intimate terms. According to one observer, it was like a bad marriage: 'They quarrel, but cannot break away from each other. They feel a sense of repulsion, combined with an equally strong sense of attraction.' It was typical that, after sending Churchill a bitter memorandum of complaint, Beaverbrook followed it up a couple of days later with a gift of five dozen bottles of Deidesheimer Hofstuck 1937.

Beaverbrook found little role in peacetime. Though he lived for another 19 years, campaigning for Empire Free Trade and against the Common Market until his death, both he and his newspapers had become marginal to British politics. Perhaps it was always so. Stanley Baldwin's famous accusation against press magnates who exercised power without responsibility was wide of the mark in Beaverbrook's case. Though he yearned for responsibility, he seldom exercised real power; and his newspapers, staffed by the sharpest and wittiest journalistic talent in the land, exerted little political influence.

What the authors of this shrewd and fast- moving book show, however, is that Beaverbrook gave the British popular press a vigour which it has since sadly lost; and that, in every sphere of his intensely vital life, Max was an entertainer.