Tuesday 16 February, 2021

Quote of the Day

”We can applaud the state lottery as a public subsidy of intelligence, for it yields public income that is calculated to lighten the tax burden of us prudent abstainers at the expense of the benighted masses of wishful thinkers.”

  • Willard Van Orman Quine

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon & Ladysmith Black Mumbazo | Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes | Live (from the concert in Hyde Park


Lunch at Maxwell House

I’ve just bought John Preston’s Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell on the strength of the Economist review, partly because I was struck by these closing paragraphs.

The portrait that emerges is more subtly drawn than previous ones. For all his bombast, chicanery and revolting personal habits, and his vile treatment of pretty much everyone who was beholden to him, not least his family, it is hard not to feel a stab of pity for Maxwell as the end draws near. He seems always to have been running away from his terrible childhood, assuming new identities as he went. He abandoned Judaism until late in life, yet was haunted by awful guilt for not having been able to save family members from the death camps. He was incapable of personal friendship (perhaps the only exception was the man who used to dye his hair and eyebrows). Ceaseless activity masked his essential loneliness.

Maxwell left a trail of wreckage: this reviewer’s father was one of the Mirror Group pensioners he stole from. But was he any worse than the cynical lawyers, bankers, politicians—and some journalists—who fawned on, flattered and abetted a man long nicknamed the “Bouncing Czech”? Peter Jay, a former economics editor of the Times and British ambassador in Washington, who spent three miserable years as Maxwell’s “chief of staff”, has perhaps the book’s best insight: “There was something not so much amoral about him, as pre-moral. It was as if he was literally uncivilised, like some great woolly mammoth stalking through a primeval forest wholly unaware of things like good and evil.”

I only met Maxwell once and the encounter was a memorable one (for me, anyway). I had been recruited as a columnist for the London Daily News, the paper he founded to challenge the Evening Standard’s local monopoly, and the occasion was a lunch he hosted shortly before the publication of this ill-fated organ.

It took place on the day when the tabloid sensation du jour was the news that Prince Edward had quit the Royal Marines. Here’s how I remember it.


Upon arrival in the Publisher’s office at the top of the Daily Mirror building (via the special Express Lift guarded by a goon in the foyer), we were ushered by a butler into what Private Eye used to call “Maxwell House” – the unique blend of Louis Quatorze and Southfork decor which was Captain Bob’s London base. Cocktails were served to the assembled guests by servants in an atmosphere which resembled, in its hushed propriety, the prelude to a public hanging.

After a time, two double doors were thrown open and our host appeared. He went round shaking hands and saying “How you do? I’m Robert Maxwell” as if there might be some doubt about his identity. Then he looked round the company disdainfully, seeking someone worthy of his attention. His gaze alighted on Ken Livingstone, then at the height of his fame. Maxwell motioned briskly to him, much as one might summon a recalcitrant dog, and walked out of the room, followed by an obedient Livingstone. The rest of us talked quietly among ourselves.

After a while, the great man reappeared and invited us to join him for “luncheon”. This old-fashioned locution, by the way, seemed to be typical of his speech, at least when he was trying to be polite. On my way in I had passed him in a corridor, deep in conversation with two besuited lackeys. I caught a phrase as we went by: “We should issue proceedings forthwith,” he said. His English sounded oddly quaint, as if he had learned it out of that mythical phrasebook in which the postillion has been struck by lightning.

Lunch was served in the dining room where Cecil King used to plan his abortive coups against Howard Wilson. To my relief I found myself seated way below the salt and settled down to enjoy a quiet lunch. The food was excellent; the drink even better. Perhaps, I thought, there really was such a thing as a free lunch. Or at any rate a free luncheon.

But it wasn’t to be. Maxwell banged the table and boomed: “Ladies and gentlemen, I invited you here not only to make your acquaintance but also to ascertain from you what you think my new paper should stand for. So I shall expect you to sing for your suppers.

“And I shall start with you, Julian,” he said, turning to a startled Julian Critchley MP, who happened to be seated at his left. The grizzled parliamentarian muttered some elegant platitudes and passed the parcel to his neighbour who in turn added some high-minded sentiments. The paper should be truthful, should not invade people’s privacy, should be entertaining to read, and so on. Maxwell nodded his vigorous agreement with these banal propositions. I noticed that he had an unnerving habit of repeating every fifth word. It was possibly his way of miming politeness but it made him sound slightly batty.

This went on all round the table, each succeeding guest embellishing a portrait of a newspaper which was to be the publishing equivalent of Caesar’s wife. By the time my turn came I was too drunk and bored to conform.

“The purpose of newspaper,” I said pompously, “is to make trouble.”

At this a hush fell on the company. “How do you mean trouble?” asked our host. “Well,” I said, “first of all, for the government.”

He nodded.

“Then, trouble for the City of London.”

Again, he nodded. (He’d had a lot of trouble with that same City.)

“And thirdly,” I said, thinking it was as well to be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, “trouble for its Proprietor.”

At this, all that could be heard was a terrified whimpering of Mirror executives who had taken up defensive positions under the table.

“Would you care to explain?” asked Maxwell, in a voice of bottled thunder.

“Well,” I said, “if I had been writing my column today I would have said that it was high time British society decided whether a spell in the Royal Marines was a fit training for a chimpanzee, never mind a Prince of the Blood.”

Maxwell then gave me forcibly to understand that if I had tried to say such a thing in his newspaper he would have been very greatly displeased. Indeed, he would have spiked it.

At this, Magnus Linklater, the saintly editor of the embryonic newspaper, emitted a noise somewhere between a yelp and gasp. But, flushed with excitement – not to mention the Chateau Lynch-Bages ’75 – I was beyond redemption, even by a solicitous and humane editor. I cheekily requested an explanation of the proprietor’s repressive position.

“It is one thing,” boomed Maxwell, “for an unknown journalist like you to say such things, but if I were to publish such a column it would be tantamount to giving a message to the Youth of this Country that it is acceptable to renege on a commitment the moment the going gets tough.”

I sat there, flabbergasted at the pomposity of the man. The rest of the company studied their fingernails while judiciously plotting the line to the nearest exit. Silence reigned, until eventually another guest – Ms (later Baroness) Tessa Blackstone – spoke: “Bullshit, Bob,” she said.

I have had a soft spot for that woman ever since.


Afterwards I thought it would be fun to write this up, and I took it to the Editor of a magazine for which I then wrote a monthly column. As he read it, I saw the colour drain from his face. He handed back the copy to me, his hand shaking. “I want you to go away and burn this”, he said. He knew even better than I did that Maxwell was the most vindictive litigant then operating in London. So I put it in a drawer and only took it out on the night Maxwell fell (or was pushed?) off his yacht. And when my friend Sam Jaffa was putting together a book of reminiscences of Maxwell, with proceeds to go to the pensioners whom Maxwell had defrauded, I offered it to him and he published it.

Johnson is a tunneller as well as a leveller-up

Boris Johnson’s latest wheeze is a tunnel under the Irish Sea to link Scotland (currently in the UK, for the time being) to Northern Ireland (also currently in the UK for the time being). You do have to wonder what he’s been smoking.

Jonty Bloom isn’t impressed

The idea of a tunnel linking GB with NI has reared its head again, this is a subject that just gives and gives. In particular the lobbying by the construction industry is a joy, all about how the cost of digging tunnels has fallen massively, got far faster and easier. After all the industry is impartial and can be trusted, just like when they salivated over moving Heathrow to a marsh in the middle of the Thames estuary or a new bridge over the Thames.

But the real delusions don’t stop there, the Channel Tunnel cost its private investors pretty much everything they put into it and it links an island of 63 million to a continent of several hundred million. Construction ran massively over budget and ferries didn’t disappear but increased their competition, which hit projected income. A similar length tunnel linking 1.5 million people in NI to a remote part of Scotland is economically farcical. But it gets better.

Apparently the major benefit will be to by-pass all those annoying EU checks on the border in the Irish sea. Amazing that travelling by tunnel negates the NIP, who knew it only applied to boats and planes? So the UK will spend tens of billions building one of the longest, most expensive tunnels in history to avoid red tape it agreed to? In fact a deal it boasted about only weeks ago.

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