This book could have been a classic. It starts as an account of the author’s family, no better, no worse than many such; but then, amongst the grandparents and the uncles, one figure starts to shoulder his way through the rout of characters, slowly at first, but then, perhaps two thirds of the way through, you realise he is dominating everything. Macdonald Hastings, the author’s father, is one of the great comic, and tragic, figures of our time.
Without him, the book would have been Henry IV, Parts I and II without Falstaff, a chronicle of events and people doing extraordinary things. With him, the writing quickens, the perception deepens, and you really begin to care about this fascinating, formidable, totally absurd man. Had Max Hastings chosen to write a biography of his father, given his love for him, and his exasperation, this would have been a great book.
I grew up with Macdonald Hastings. Boys did in the 1950s, at least those boys who read the Eagle comic, whose Special Investigator he was. The idea was so whacky for a start: that a comic, instead of the usual fictional cast of super heroes, should have a real grown-up, or at least someone masquerading as a real grown-up, embark on feats of heroism. And Hastings looked so wrong, being awkward and bespectacled and middle-aged, it was impossible for us to think of him as a hero.
Yet there he was, week after week, off to the Yukon, off to the Kalahari, down to the bottom of the sea, in between becoming a lumber-jack, a snake-charmer, and a gold-miner. I can remember one of his sentences now. ‘Without wasting any precious time I asked the knife-thrower if he ever missed. The man replied that no man was infallible.’ It is the ‘without wasting any precious time’ that is so wonderful; it is the true comic hero speaking, deaf to self- knowledge and humour. And if you doubt what he went through, above is the photograph of Macdonald Hastings against a board as the knives go in. He is still wearing his spectacles, though his eyes, in a rare concession to common sense, are closed. Now look again. See how close the knives are to his head? Bloody hell.
There was a remarkable sentence in one of the early, and very loopy, Nazi newspapers, to the effect that ‘Man is a hunter and a warrior. Unfortunately he also has to be a citizen.’ Hastings wanted to be an old-style English gentleman, a shootin’ and fishin’ man; unfortunately, given his means, he also had to be a journalist. He was, according to his son, ‘a fantasist of heroic proportions’, which meant that life to him became an inventory. His wife, the journalist Anne Scott-James, once overheard him say at a party, ‘I’ve got the three things I wanted most — a Churchill gun, a Hardy rod and a beautiful wife.’ When he proposed to her he said, ‘I mean to hook you.’
Guns he loved (dear God, the man had an arsenal, which included a machine gun, also functioning muskets made by the great Joe Manton, the Regency gunsmith), with all of which, he and his wife being away so much, his son played. This is how Max Hastings, aged 11 and watching television alone in a London flat, came to empty an automatic pistol into Perry Mason. In another time, and a different social class, he would have been taken into care. Instead he went to Charterhouse, and became a military historian.
You hear a lot about ‘courage’ in this book, for it too is part of the inventory, a commodity which Macdonald, and apparently his son, laboured long and hard to acquire, for there is a photograph of a young Max Hastings clinging to a ladder, a factory chimney far below him, as he researches an article on steeplejacks. To put yourself in danger for your country might still, just, be considered noble; to do so for the Evening Standard might bring the men in the white coats hurrying.
Macdonald Hastings’s last hurrah, and a chapter of comic brilliance on the part of his son (something with which I had never associated him), came when, for the People and £5,000 (the Inland Revenue being after him at the time), he decided to have himself marooned like Alexander Selkirk on a desert island. He was then 50, smoked 50 cigarettes and drank a bottle of gin a day, and had not thought it necessary to get into any kind of physical shape. In fact his one concession to this was to leave the fags and the gin behind (along with his wristwatch), taking with him only a shot-gun, a dog and a giant turtle called Fifi. The turtle brought some sanity to what followed by refusing to put its head out of its shell throughout; Hastings was brought home on a stretcher, passing his wife in the hallway as she departed for a holiday in the South of France. The marriage did not last. But the articles on the desert island got written. The articles always did get written.
I met Macdonald Hastings once. I was writing an article on the Eagle, and at the suggestion of its old Special Investigator we went down the village pub where he refused to let me buy him a drink on the grounds, he told me grandly, that he had an account there. Many men run up slates at their local pub, but Hastings was the only one I have met who had an account there.
Anne Scott-James I never met; though, after an article she wrote on higher education in the Daily Mail, I became the laughing stock of my college for weeks — that same college from which her son had the nerve to do a runner after a year, something that impressed me no end. Above the caption ‘Oxbridge selects the cream, produces the elite’, Miss Scott-James had used a very large photograph of me.
Max Hastings did not have a happy childhood. His parents did worry about him from time to time, his mother writing to his first employer, ‘He is not good with people.’ Luckily Conrad Black recognised his talents and made him his editor at the Daily Telegraph, where, Black noted approvingly after a round of sackings, ‘Max is very good at drowning the kittens.’
I heard him give a lecture on D-Day once, which was well-received, being written and delivered with his usual clarity. It was at a lunatic asylum in Northampton.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 13, 2010Tags: 20th Century, Biography, Family, Military, Non-fiction