Nik Darlington

Supermac in eight anecdotes

The hardback edition of D.R. Thorpe’s Supermac is 626 pages in length (not including endnotes and index), 24cm x 16cm x 6cm in girth, and weighs in at more than one kilogram – on first appearances, not a book for a beach holiday. Or so I thought, because despite the corporeal hardships of reading this on a sunbed in mercury-popping heat, I was transfixed. And now I have the forearms to prove it.

Thorpe gravitates between dextrous prose and a judicial exposition of evidence, such as when taking the reader through the controversial Cossacks repatriation episode, or the quandary of royal prerogative during the handover to Lord Home. He not only sketches but paints vast masterpieces of the key stages in Macmillan’s private and public lives that we know well: the family publishing firm; his reputation as a Tory maverick and persona non grata; his very special relationships with a series of American presidents; Premium Bonds; the ‘winds of change’ as Britain’s gaze veered from colonies to the continent; Vassell, Profumo and the cusp of modernity; and the years in which Britain ‘never had it so good’.

Yet it is Thorpe’s mastery of anecdotes and aphorism – also one of Macmillan’s many talents – that kept me turning page after page. Supermac is full of quirky asides and fresh insights:

1. Bravery in war. During the Second World War, Macmillan was Churchill’s minister in the Mediterranean. In February 1943 he was in a dreadful plane crash in Algiers. The pilot, navigator and Macmillan scrambled through the emergency exit but Macmillan then re-entered to rescue the French flag lieutenant, escaping just before the plane exploded. John J. McCloy, President Roosevelt’s Assistant Secretary of War, witnessed the incident: ‘It was the most gallant thing I’ve ever seen and I’d been in the first war and seen plenty of gallantry then.’

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