Unlike Churchill, however, Amery, had not been born to the purple of Conservative politics. His father, a forestry official in India, disappeared after an acrimonious divorce from Leo's mother, a woman of Hungarian Jewish origin who was left to bring up her children with little money. After the reforms of the mid-19th century, it was possible for a clever, determined and lucky boy to work his way into the English ruling class. Leo was such a boy. He won a fellowship at All Souls, crammed his way through the bar exams in a few weeks and, as a journalist, sometimes wrote all three Times leaders in a single evening.
He attracted the attention of powerful men and was elected to parliament in 1911. The First World War, in which his two brothers were killed, brought him to the centre of British politics. He seems to have been remarkably sincere in his enthusiasms - for Irish Unionism and Imperial Preference and against appeasement.
Apart from writing bad poetry, Leo Amery had no obvious vices, but he did have a destructive virtue. Brought up to know no middle way between the embrace of a doting mother and the horrors of boarding school, he was a hopelessly indulgent father. This did no great harm to his younger son, Julian, who grew up smug and conventional. In 1940, Julian joined the Special Operations Executive and had a good, though not by SOE standards very dangerous, war. Later he became a Conservative MP, but in spite of an advantageous marriage to Harold Macmillan's daughter, he never got into the cabinet. The novelist Barbara Pym had a crush on Julian at Oxford and the only mystery of his life is what such an intelligent woman could have seen in him.
Leo Amery's eldest son, John, was different, recognised as odd and disturbing by everyone who met him. He grew up to combine the least attractive features of Sebastian Flyte (he often carried a teddy bear) and Toad of Toad Hall (he had committed at least 73 motoring offences before he was 21).
He stole, lied, consorted with prostitutes and "slacked at cricket". His father repeatedly bought him out of trouble, but it did no good. John's lies and fantasies were so extreme that it is often hard to keep track of what he was doing. He travelled on more than one passport and claimed to be married to more than one woman.
In 1942 John, who had been caught in France by the German invasion, went to Berlin. Though the Nazi racial law might have defined him as fit for the gas chamber, John denounced Jewish influence over England and tried to recruit Englishmen for a Legion of Saint George to fight on the Eastern Front. Why? Perhaps, as he later claimed, he was driven by a prescient understanding of what Communism would do to Europe; perhaps it was a way to keep himself and his mistresses in drink, or perhaps he just wanted to shock.
After he was captured by British forces in 1945, his parents pulled every string and importuned every influential friend in an effort to save John's life. Julian seems to have colluded in forgery trying to prove that John had renounced citizenship, and was thus immune from treason. All these efforts failed. In spite of the fact that he had broken his parents' hearts, John seemed quite serene when he went to the gallows. The Home Secretary had to intervene at the last moment to stop John from cocking one final snook by having himself hanged in Fascist uniform.
David Faber tells this story in a book about Leo, Julian and John Amery, subtitled "the tragedy of a political family", that is all the more striking for being cool and understated. He weaves the details of family life neatly into the political context. Sometimes he seems a little too respectful of his subjects' privacy. At one point Faber embarks on an interesting discussion of John's exotic sexual tastes only to end it with a housemasterly remark about "a more widespread lack of interest in his personal hygiene". Indeed, Faber, an Etonian, seems to believe that many of John's problems can be explained by his having been sent to Harrow. These are small quibbles. This is a rare example of a political biography that would fascinate even someone with no interest in politics.
Richard Vinen's 'A History in Fragments: Europe in thje 20th century' is published by Abacus
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- Divorce And Separation
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