BOOK REVIEW / A titan nibbled to death by mice: 'The Expense of Glory: A Life of John Reith' - Ian McIntyre: HarperCollins, 20 pounds
Saturday 02 October 1993
Reith himself had not done all of this single-handed. But with others he had built a great institution: perhaps the last to be built in this country. He was a man of legendary force: upright, downright, demanding, dynamic, moral and moralistic - in short, Reithian.
One thing everyone knows about John Reith is that he enforced the strictest standards of his father's Scots Presbyterian values, and his father was Moderator of the Church of Scotland. Those named in divorce proceedings, says the legend, were instantly dismissed as unworthy of the corporation.
It comes as little surprise, perhaps, to learn from Ian McIntyre's new biography, which makes skilful and sensitive use of the diaries Reith kept for almost 60 years, that the stern moralist did not live by the standards he demanded of his subordinates. Reith's private life was, well, less than Reithian.
McIntyre reveals from the diaries and from his own tactful interviews that Reith was passionately in love - there is no other word for the intensity of the friendship - for 10 years with a young man. He proposed to his wife at a time when, and perhaps because, she was strongly attracted to this male beloved. Throughout his life he was involved in a series of love affairs with young women, some of them very young women indeed. It is not clear how physical the expression of these passions was. Some, it would seem, were physically fulfilled, others not; all were unmistakably sexual. The cold sins, as always, are more shocking than the hot. Reith treated his wife, his son and especially his daughter with disdain and cruelty. He habitually rubbed his wife's nose in his friendships with younger women.
When he fell out of love with his Charlie, and no longer wanted to lie late in bed talking to him or kneel and pray together, he cut him out of his life and his heart with the most repellent brutality.
Reith's ambition was almost insane. He confided to his diary that there were only two jobs he really wanted - the Washington embassy and the Vice-Royalty of India. At one time, having been dismissed by Winston Churchill from his government, Reith volunteered and served as a lieutenant commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. (He was embarrassed to find that, deprived of a limousine and chauffeur, he could not find his way from Baker Street to Paddington.) But in fact he didn't do too badly after he left his beloved BBC, and it is one of the merits of McIntyre's biography that he restores the balance by giving due attention to the 30 years after the fall from Broadcasting House, the expulsion from paradise.
In the remaining years of his life Reith was in succession, and usually with lavish salaries, the chairman of Imperial Airways, Minister of Information, Minister of Transport, First Commissioner and then Minister of Works, head of a big wartime procurement agency, for almost a decade chairman of the Colonial Development Corporation, a job which allowed him to take his girlfriends on almost vice- regal progresses round the Empire, and director of several large companies, at least one of which gave him a Rolls-Royce.
From time to time he affected strongman talk, opining that what Britain needed was a dictatorship and intimating broadly that he was the man for the job. Like many bullies, he could also be an abject toady, wheedling his powerful acquaintances for jobs, honours and financial favours of various kinds. He succeeded in manipulating a job for one of his girlfriends, who was utterly unqualified, as headmistress of a famous girls' school] To the end of his life he hoped to return to the BBC as Chairman.
However monstrous the chasm between Reith's moral pretensions and his actual behaviour, however, no one could possibly miss the sheer misery in which he existed. At times, Ian McIntyre admits in his preface, reading the two million words Reith entered in his meticulous small hand in his diaries, he came close to tears: 'I did not dream . . . that I would encounter so much raw pain.'
This is no psychobiography. McIntyre does not try to provide a pat explanation of why Reith tormented himself as he did. A brother was confined in a mental institution. Reith was the youngest child of elderly parents. He was brought up in the fear of hellfire. Make what you will of all that. The fact is that from an early age there was a ferocity about his ambitions, but also about his will to impose the moral code he had learnt from his father.
Reith was in every sense except the psychological one a strong man. Over six and a half feet tall, with the craggy authority of his face enhanced by the scar left by a German sniper's bullet, he had many of the qualities that would have made him a success in, say, the 12th century. He was a decisive executive, an inspiring speaker, a ruthless organiser and always a combative fighter.
As the head of the BBC, Reith's demons were sublimated, or at least harnessed to the task. Once he had been eased out - and McIntyre does not accept the theory, advanced by an earlier biographer, Andrew Boyle, that he was the victim of a Tory plot - Reith was almost unhinged by frustration. He knew that he possessed prodigious gifts, and he was driven into a persisting low-key rage by the waste of them.
He specially resented his dismissal as a minister by Churchill, whom he referred to in his diaries as 'that loathsome cad', 'that shit' and even 'that cur'. He carried his resentment to ludicrous lengths, for example, refusing to listen to Churchill's great 'we'll fight on the beaches' speech and then maintained he could have done better. 'If Churchill had any inspiration or imagination or spiritual vision in him, he could make an immortal utterance about Hitler and Mussolini. It's utterly beyond him. I would do it on the lines of an additional canto to Dante's Inferno.'
After the war, characteristically, he wrote to Churchill to express his anger that he had not been 'fully stretched': 'There has been the sterility, humiliation and distress of all these years - 'eyeless in Gaza' - without even the consolation Samson had in knowing it was his own fault.'
Churchill replied like the great gentleman he was, among other things. He understood Reith's pain, he said, 'as I was myself, for 11 years, out of office before the war'. He had always admired Reith's abilities and energies, he said, but on the occasions when he had considered him for various posts, he had encountered opposition on the ground he was difficult to work with.
And therein lies, surely, the real tragedy. For, egotistical, hypocritical and 'impossible' as Reith certainly was, he was also a man of prodigious talent, energy and courage. He asked only to be allowed to lavish those gifts in the national interest - and, of course, as we all do, to be rewarded in proportion to his own estimate of them. His tragedy was part of a larger one that is all of ours. He was born a titan into a country where the pygmies were taking over. He was nibbled to death by mice. And that, of course, has also been the fate of the institution he helped to create, and may yet be the fate of the country.
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