Eminent Elizabethans, By Piers Brendon. Jonathan Cape £17.99


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The Independent Culture

Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918) pioneered a revolution in modern biography. In four short satirical essays he knocked some revered monuments of the previous generation – Cardinal Manning, Thomas Arnold, Florence Nightingale, General Gordon – off their pedestals, making it impossible for historians ever again to treat national heroes with fawning discretion. In 1979, Piers Brendon published a sort of sequel, Eminent Edwardians, in which he gave the same deflating treatment to another four icons.

The problem for Brendon in trying to pull the same trick again is that nowadays we have no heroes, so are not shocked to be told they have feet of clay. His four new subjects – Rupert Murdoch, Margaret Thatcher, Prince Charles and Mick Jagger – are all still alive and have all been the subject of innumerable hostile and dignity-shredding books. By trawling these to assemble a catalogue of unflattering anecdotes, he has written a very entertaining book. But it is all a bit too easy.

The best is the piece on Mrs Thatcher, as it alone has some new material. As a former keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre at Cambridge, Brendon has been able to draw fruitfully not only on the Thatcher papers but those of Neil Kinnock, Lord Hailsham and several others for striking contemporary impressions. These lend this chapter some respectability as history as opposed to gossip-mongering.

The same cannot be said of the other three. Murdoch is portrayed simply as a cynical Aussie whose sole purpose has been to debase journalistic standards to expand his global empire; Prince Charles as a self-deluding hypocrite; and Jagger as a posturing womaniser interested only in making money. All three characterisations may be correct. But Murdoch's devotion to newsprint has saved a lot of failing newspapers; and it is surely only Jagger's business sense – as well as his music, which barely gets a mention – which has kept the Rolling Stones on the road for 50 years. Demolishing reputations is pointless if you do not recognise achievements. The most sympathetic of Brendon's portraits is poor Prince Charles, who has no major achievements to disparage.