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Life on board the pirate ship

15 March 2003

12:00 AM

15 March 2003

12:00 AM

CAP'N BOB AND ME: THE ROBERT MAXWELL I KNEW Eleanor Berry

The Book Guild, pp.172, 15.95

When, in 1825, Harriette Wilson began her Memoirs with ‘I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of 15, the mistress of the Earl of Craven’ an avid readership settled down to revel in what was clearly going to be the work of an old pro. So perhaps it is as well for Eleanor Berry’s personal reputation that at the end of Cap’n Bob and Me the reader feels somewhat short-changed.

Many, of course, taken aback that the ‘Bouncing Czech’ could be an object of wild sexual desire to anyone, will be relieved that the wilful Miss Berry spares us the details – if details there were. It is enough to know that time has not dimmed her adoration for the man who threw her into his swimming pool on their first encounter and 23 years later took the plunge into altogether deeper water himself.

As befits the granddaughter of F. E. Smith, Eleanor Berry has a sharp turn of phrase and a talent for upsetting people. Her exhibitionism will entertain those who enjoy a sub-Mitford romp. Maxwell was impressed by her prettiness but also by her flirtation with the Communist party, which he thought showed ‘guts’. Campaigning for him in the 1970 general election, she climbed to the top of the town hall to unfurl the red flag. Since this was in Buckinghamshire it may not have helped Cap’n Bob’s cause. That she had voted Conservative that morning might be considered to fit into the long tradition of British eccentricity.


If this account has a purpose beyond simple entertainment, it is to demonstrate that contrary to what you may have heard, Robert Maxwell was really a wonderful man: kind, thoughtful and loving. Beside the great measured biographies, there should always be a place for the more human, if less balanced, eye-witness accounts by those close enough to see the trees but not the wood. The market for this is considerable. There is, for instance, competition between I Was Churchill’s Shadow by Ex-Detective Inspector Thompson and Edmund Murray’s I Was Churchill’s Bodyguard. No doubt a small firm in Leatherhead is poised to announce the publishing sensation of the year – the secret diaries of Hitler’s chauffeur. Perhaps we really have been robbed of learning how the European Commission operated at the end of the 20th century because RenZ Berthelot died before he could pen I was Edith Cresson’s Dentist.

But I fear it will take something more substantial than Cap’n Bob and Me to rescue Maxwell’s reputation. Despite having a father who owned the Daily Telegraph, Eleanor Berry accords no more significance to the fact that Maxwell was a media mogul than to his being chairman of Oxford United. She may have found his fondness for her endearing, but to the rest of us, the flirtation looks like the creepy indulgence of an old man. In any case, leaving aside the wilder allegations, the principal charges against Maxwell concern not personal accounts but financial ones.

Of course, understanding how Maxwell’s empire operated defeated many of the greatest business minds. But it merely invites ridicule to dismiss the charges against him by writing, ‘The public forgets that he only had two years’ formal education and no training in accountancy’, or that ‘the Board of Trade published a report, so called, in 1969 or 1970’ – for the author’s sake I can reveal it was 1971 – stating that he was ‘unfit to be at the stewardship of a publicly-quoted company, owing to a misunderstanding about the sale of a few encyclopaedias’. Perhaps he did relocate his employees’ pensions, but you see, the poor thing, he was suffering from emphysema at the time and had started referring to monkeys as ‘minkeys’.

On the other hand, nothing Miss Berry writes competes with the preposterous eulogies offered up by world leaders when Maxwell died for which the graveside sentiments of Shimon Peres will suffice: ‘He lost his breath in the vast sea, but not his soul.’


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