BOOK REVIEW / Top of the Fleet Street pops: Beaverbrook: A life - Anne Chisholm & Michael Davie: Hutchinson pounds 20

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MANY YEARS ago Lord Rees Mogg caused a certain amount of misdirected hilarity among his colleagues, heedless and unreflecting men and women, when he published a letter to his new-born son. In it he counselled the babe, in best Polonian terms, that it would be a good thing, before setting out to make the best of English life, if he first acquired 'a modest competence'.

The young Max Aitken had the excellent sense to arrive in England, at the age of 30, having acquired something well on the sunny side of a competence by investment and stock manipulation in his native Canada, culminating in a stunning though dubious coup. His new biographers, after unravelling its intricacies in a fair-minded but determined way, conclude that, although Aitken covered his tracks cleverly, it was just as well it never came to court.

Within months of arriving in London, quite undeterred by the malodorous affair of the Cement Company, Aitken had fixed himself a seat in Parliament, put himself alongside his fellow Canadian of Scots lineage, the future prime minister Bonar Law, and swanned into the innermost political and social circles of Edwardian London, legendary for snobbery and exclusivity.

For the next half-century, as Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie record with good-homoured tolerance, yet with pitilessly clear sight, Max Aitken's rise and rise was a sustained commentary on the proposition that in England everything is for sale. In a society where for three generations the educated and the influential have been quite certain that they deserved to spend more money than they had, without the slightest idea of how to acquire it, how could it have been otherwise?

With effrontery, but also with puckish charm, Aitken went on to become, in no more than five years after arriving in this country, a political kingmaker, the intimate of such political heavyweights as Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George and F E Smith; a peer of the realm as Lord Beaverbrook; the master of a mass circulation newspaper, the Daily Express; and the lover of half a dozen beautiful society ladies.

He spread his money around with considerable crudeness, and with considerable crudeness the high-born ladies and gentlemen who ought to have known better popped his money into their reticules and their trouser pockets. Nor did they always wait to be bribed. At the very time when Beaverbrook, in the opinion of her best friend, was enjoying an affair with the former Venetia Stanley, previously the mistress of Asquith, who as prime minister used to write love letters to her from the Cabinet table, the lady's husband, the fastidious Edwin Montagu, did not hesitate to touch his new friend Max for a loan of pounds 7,000, worth, say, pounds 175,000 in modern money, which he failed to repay on time.

Gifts, loans, pensions, jobs for which they might or might not be qualified, parcels of shares, cases of champagne, invitations to Cap d'Ail or to the Bahamas, with a steady stream of ambiguous largesse for over 50 years he corrupted - it is not too strong a word - the politicians he wanted to recruit, the journalists he wanted to employ and the truly impressive number of ladies he wanted to sleep with.

He derived particular satisfaction from patronising left-wingers (Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot, A J P Taylor, James Cameron ) who wore his livery with more or less grace. But as this record of give by the Beaver and take by almost everyone else, from Tom Driberg to Lady Pamela Berry, accumulates, it is in the end the taking that seems more remarkable than the giving.

Certainly Beaverbrook liked to get value for his generosity. Like so many rich men, he enjoyed the power his money gave him to tease, to bully, to control. Yet generous he truly was, and in the emotional as well as the financial sense. Mean, he could be; but not on the whole mean-spirited.

He enjoyed many things in life, including plain food and fine wine. But his three great passions were women, politics and journalism. In all three fields of his endeavour, he was activated by greed and vanity, but not by vanity and greed alone. Nothing is more striking than the number of women with whom he had had an affair who became friends for life after that.

His politics were eccentric, sometimes frivolous, anything but those of an orthodox Conservative. 'In the last two decades of his life,' Chisholm and Davie write, 'Beaverbrook was antisocialist, anti-Marshall Plan, anti-independence for India, pro-Suez; he was against the United Nations, against the Cyprus settlement, against decolonisation in Africa, against German rearmament, against the Common Market, against higher service pensions. His only consistent themes were prosperity for all and imperial unity.' His political campaigns, for Empire Free Trade, for his own brand of appeasement, against the Common Market, were all failures.

And yet his political talents were formidable, and his political achievements not negligible. The part he played in overthrowing the Asquith government in 1916 helped to save his adopted country from defeat in the First World War, and his energising of the aircraft industry as Minister of Aircraft Production saved it from defeat in the Second.

As a politician, he had both a talent for intrigue and the energy for effective leadership as a minister. But his most significant achievement was also the most questionable. More skilfully and also more ruthlessly than any of his predecessors, he brought the weapon of publicity into high politics in Britain. His bitter enemy Stanley Baldwin might call it, in a speech written for him by his cousin Rudyard Kipling, 'power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages'. But Beaverbrook knew how to make it count.

His newspapers might be an incoherent amalgam of snobbery, political campaigning and the airing of their proprietor's unpredictable views. They were never dull. He was, in the opinion of most of the extraordinarily talented men and women who worked for the Daily Express, the Sunday Express and the Evening Standard, an interfering, prejudiced, tiresome old curmudgeon; he was also a journalist of genius.

Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie have written a biography on a grand scale. It does justice to the man's stature, outrageous, complex, impossible as he was. It is the first truly independent biography to be written, and it has therefore uncovered sins and peccadilloes, financial and sexual, that were previously unknown. It puts its preposterous hero where he deserves to be, at the very centre of a portrait of an age. For, in the kingdom of the broke, the man who never hesitated to spend his money was a kind of king.