Harper Press, £20 (272pp) £18 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Did You Really Shoot the Television? A Family Fable, By Max Hastings
Friday 12 March 2010
When Max Hastings's mother bumped into her husband in a hotel in Africa, she was furious; she thought he was in Berkshire looking after the kids. This was not "home alone", as they had a nanny devoted to young Max and his sister Clare, but it demonstrated again that this husband (for both it was the second of three marriages) was not exactly a family man. To be fair, she was not totally a family woman herself.
She was Anne Scott-James, a beautiful and fiercely competent journalist on her way to bang out a holiday piece for the Daily Mail. He was Macdonald Hastings, former war correspondent turned outstanding television journalist and fiercely incompetent alcoholic.
He was on his way to be a foolhardy castaway on a tiny island near the Seychelles for the People. When he finally returned to his dysfunctional family home, it was via a stretcher. Anne gave him his marching – or staggering - orders shortly after.
Relatives of memoir-writers are legally obliged to be exasperating and eccentric. Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard, has several generations to play with and he does them proud. His grandfather and siblings used to sell their saintly father's books to fund their nefarious activities, which included uncontrolled indoor explosions. Expelled from his Catholic boarding school, great-uncle Lewis lit off for South Africa on a sailing ship, later earning a Military Cross in the First World War and reporting overseas for the BBC in the Second.
A self-confessed delinquent at home and school, Max escaped expulsion from his hated Charterhouse by leaving immediately after his A-levels. The title of this highly engaging book refers to a boyhood mishap when he was fiddling about with one of his father's many guns. As if in mitigation, he says now that "it was not a big set".
Two previous autobiographies have covered his professional career. He now winds back the clock to cover his own fraught, formative years and his family's often bizarre history. He was unusually lucky in being able to consult no fewer than 40 books of autobiographical material by both grandfathers, a great-uncle, a cousin, his mother, his father and his stepfather (Daily Express cartoonist Osbert Lancaster). If heredity means anything, young Max was destined – or doomed – to be a journalist.
However good they were in their time, Macdonald and Anne seem, to judge by the parental paragraphs quoted here, to have produced a child who beat them at the writing game. Yet the best tale Max tells is based on his father's account of an expedition – undertaken for the boys' comic Eagle - to find the Lost Bushmen of the Kalahari. Hastings Senior's planning was lethally amateur and, as with his castaway catastrophe, he might never have made it back to Berkshire. It turned out that the Bushmen were not particularly lost, just the English journalist.
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