Lord Beaverbrook was an extraordinary man , who as a politician and much more importantly owner of the Express and Evening Standard was highly influential in the first half of the 20th century. He was a man who aroused extraordinary strong opinions he was described by Atlee and Rebecca West ( one of his innumerable mistresses) as “evil” and by Field Marshall Lord Alan Brooke as “an evil genius who exercised the very worst effects on Winston”.
This new biography “ Max Beaverbrook: Not Quite A Gentleman” by Labour peer, Lord Charles Williams is a welcome addition and certainly gives us plenty if insight into his character – his extraordinary ability to make a room come alive , his relentless and often mischievous energy and his extraordinary ability to seduce – and then treat abysmally, a vast number and range of women.
Beaverbrook had a meteoric rise – born the son of a poor Canadian clergyman of the Church of Scotland by the age of 30 he had made a fortune. Williams makes a valiant attempt to explain how the fortune was made through his skills in merging and reorganising companies but at the end of the day his defining deal , which made him C$5m remain obscure. It was dodgy enough though to mean he had a very poor reputation in Canada and he came to Britain where in 1910 he became a Tory MP and then in 1917 a peer. He had bought the Express on a whim and built it into the UKs best selling paper – and one which Beaverbrook used to carry on his vendettas and push his ideas for Empire free trade – some of which have many resonances with the Brexiteers fantasies today – though to be fair to Beaverbrook we did at least have an empire in those days.
His finest moment came in 1940 when Churchill made him Minister of Aircraft Production – a job in which he was said to have made a big difference in winning the Battle of Britain by doing whatever it took to increase production if fighter planes. That is certainly the story put about by Beaverbrook and the hagiographic official biography by AJP Taylor but the coverage here is disappointing – a chapter of 19 pages much of which is not concerned with the MAP job. It is clear that the main claim of AJP Taylor that “ it was Beaverbrook who made survival possible” is wrong as the effect of Beaverbrook’s changes didn’t come through until 1941. But it would be been good to have a much more detailed look at what Beaverbrook did in this role – and whether it was on balance positive or negative.
One area it would have been nice to have more of it is how his (often very bad ) relations with colleagues in Government were affected by the knowledge that if they fell out with him, his newspapers would turn on them and more about how he controlled his newspapers.
So how evil was he ? Just like his famous charm this doesn’t really come across. It was perhaps the combination of ruthlessness, cynicism and a delight in trouble making which combined with no qualms at all about using his papers to help his friends and punish his enemies.
I can recommend this book -its not perfect and perhaps Beaverbrook needs a really heavy duty biographer – but its an excellent read for anyone interested in the politics of the period – or the use of power.
Lyndon Johnson was one of the greatest US presidents and the 4th volume of Robert Caro’s fantastic biography of him, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson is about his becoming VP, then President and how he used his incredible political skills to push the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act through the Senate – the very body which had blocked civil rights since Reconstruction and in which Johnson had been a member of the Southern caucus – the group which would do anything to block any Bills which helped black Americans and who has blocked every attempt by JFK to help black Americans.
There is no doubt Johnson was in many ways a terrible man. His abuse of his staff and his wife, his casual racism, his cheating in elections, his corruption, all stand against him as of course does the Vietnam War. But he knew that civil rights would destroy the Democratic Party in the South (it did) and did it anyway – probably no other man could have done it but him, with his knowledge of the Senate ( from having been its leader), his background in the South and his total and utter ruthlessness.
You can buy it here.
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Robert Caro is the author of one of the great political biographies – his 4 ( eventually to be 5) volumes on President Lyndon Johnson, works of quite extraordinary thoroughness famous for the huge amount of research he and his wife Ina ( his only researcher) carried out.
This book is a collection of previously published and new pieces and also covers how he wrote ( it took 7 years) his quite extraordinary biography of Robert Moses – the never elected, but immensely devious and uncaring official who build 627 miles of roads on New York and its suburbs as well as 7 major bridges.
There is a very powerful piece about how he decided to write about the effect of one of Moses’s expressways – a road which displaced meant the demolition of 54 apartment blocks – whereas an alternative route would have mean the demolition of 6. Moses could have slightly changed the route and affected far less people – but that would have displeased powerful Democratic politicians who secretly owned a building which would also have been demolished.
An example of Caro and his wife’s dedication to their craft is that in order to understand what LBJ’s upbringing in the very poor Texas Hill Country was like , they went to live there for 3 years – which also meant they built far better relations with LBJs relatives who began to tell them what his upbringing was really like – and how many of the stories about LBJs upbringing were falsified and what he was really like.
This is really a book for those who have enjoyed his biographies and what to understand how get gets his extraordinary results. It might also be of interest to aspiring journalists and biographers – though I imagine some may find it rather depressing to realise the extraordinary commitment the producing work of the quality of Caro’s requires.
If anyone wants to sample Caro’s work I would recommend the 2nd volume on LBJ Means of Ascent which focuses on how he won his Senate seat – in part by persuading Texans that his opponent ( the totally reactionary Coke Stevenson , was secret communist) and then by simply stealing the few hundred votes he needed to actually win. Despite that it’s a book anyone interested in running a successful election campaign should read !
To buy the book (or to go to Amazon) click here
There have been plenty of books published about Winston Churchill but this one by by David Lough covers a whole new area – his money. Lough is a former banker and uses his skills to follow the trails of the great man’s efforts to make money – and even more importantly to shelter it from the Inland Revenue. Churchill spent enormous amounts of
money -on wine , cigars and gambling as well as more conventional household expenses – before the First World War he was spending £5,000 a year and the need to earn money accounted for his extraordinary literary output.
In later years his biggest problem was taxation and the need to avoid at ( at some points it was 97%) which involved him in some remarkably complicated manoeuvres and more or less outright deception.
He came very close to ruin on a number of occasions, particularly after losing huge amounts gambling on US shares in the late 1930s when he was rescued by Sir Henry Strakosch, without which he may well have gone bankrupt and lost his seat – and the history of the world would be very different.
Anyone interested in 20th Century politics, of the life of Churchill will enjoy this book.
To order the book from Amazon please click here No More Champagne: Churchill and his Money
Nick Clegg’s book on the Coalition ‘ Politics: Between the Extremes’ was well reviewed when it came out ( though at nearly 600 pages was rather long for some tastes).The great virtue of the book is his frankness about what went wrong-and what he should have done differently. Ironically when Clegg was writing the book he would have had no idea that result of the referendum would give him a new role, ideally suited to his skills leading the examination of the May Government’s ‘plans’ for Brexit. To order the book from Amazon click Here
Ken Clark is one of those Tories who Liberals have often thought is really one of us. His new biography doesn’t really convince that’s the case – his praise for Mrs Thatcher for example – who he describes as ‘the best prime minister I ever worked with’ but he comes across as an interesting, urbane man with whom it would be a pleasure to indulge in his favourite brandy and cigars.
Its currently on sale with Amazon for a remarkably good value of £6.99 – a saving from the £25 RRP. You can buy a copy here