Sir Max Hastings interviewed by Katie Jarvis

PUBLISHED: 13:49 18 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:44 20 February 2013

Writer Sir Max Hastings at home.
Photography by Anna Lythgoe.

Writer Sir Max Hastings at home. Photography by Anna Lythgoe.

'To be born English is to draw the best card in the pack of life,' says Sir Max Hastings

An Englishman at home

Fayed later claimed that I took against him because I was a snob. Oddly enough, at various times the same allegation was made against me in print by Robert Maxwell, Mary Archer and Dame Shirley Porter. A colleague observed briskly: Right charge. Wrong example.

Editor, An Inside Story of Newspapers, Sir Max Hastings.

When I was about 15 or 16, my father gave me two pieces of advice, Sir Max Hastings tells me. First of all, he talked to me about the challenge of a blank sheet of paper which, at the time, meant nothing to me but which came to mean a lot. Even to this day, one feels a thrill, sitting down with a blank screen to fill it with words that, with a bit of luck, somebody will want to buy. But his other piece of advice was to marry a girl with fat legs because theyre better in bed. He said that to me when I was at an age when I wasnt old enough to have any experience of girls with either thin or fat legs - but that was father at his battiest.

Were sitting in the study-cum-library of Sir Maxs country home outside Hungerford. Its a nicely-proportioned room, warmed by a woodburning stove, given personality by a myriad family photographs, and intellect by a varied array of tomes neatly packed on shelves and aesthetically stacked on tables: Hilary Mantel nuzzles a history of the Horse Guards.

And were discussing his latest book, due to be published this spring, engagingly and somewhat curiously entitled Did You Really Shoot the Television? (the answer, by the way, is yes, he did). One thing this autobiographical foray makes clear is how entirely he adored his eccentric and adventurous father, who lived a Boys Own life long after most of his contemporaries had become Something Big in the City. Indeed, his fathers advice is the kind of quote you want to start an interview with, no matter where it comes in the conversation. To the outsider, its an endearingly-mad sentiment straight from an Evelyn Waugh. Idiosyncratically posh. On darker nights, however, one might well ponder the effect such advice could have on a real-life beneficiary.

I remember mother saying once to me, Your father wrote brilliantly about slight subjects, but the more serious the subject, the more ridiculous his view of it. She wasnt entirely wrong about that.

His father was the journalist and war correspondent Macdonald Hastings; while his mother was the somewhat formidable one-time editor of Harpers Bazaar, Anne Scott-James, who died in her mid-90s last year. After a divorce from Hastings, she went on to marry cartoonist and writer Sir Osbert Lancaster. In short, his parents were both larger-than-life personalities.

And I think I felt I couldnt live up to them. I was a coward at school, especially on the games field. My father wrote for the boys paper Eagle, doing death-defying stunts each week: as a knife-throwers target, riding the Cresta Run, parachuting and so on. Looking back on it, its all pretty silly, but I was obsessed with my father. I spent the first few years after leaving school doing all sorts of stunts around the world because I felt one had to overcome my own natural cowardice. It took me years to realise that, although I adored father no less, one did come to realise he was pretty batty.

Since those long-ago childhood days, Sir Max has unerringly followed his fathers first piece of advice and filled blank paper and computer screens with millions of words, as a journalist, editor and historian. Even his keenest of detractors credit him with steadily pulling back The Daily Telegraph from the brink of disaster during his 10 years editorship in the 80s and 90s. One might argue that Sir Max has shown an intellectual courage throughout his distinguished career more than equal to his fathers daringly gung-ho (though strangely compelling) journalism.

He demurs slightly. I was lucky in that Im a pretty weird combination of both my parents, he compromises.

Although he professes to eschew linear autobiographies hes so far written three, but in no particular order he says hes probably enjoyed writing this latest book as much as any Ive ever done. Amateur psychologists (and a few professional ones, no doubt) might well imagine this insight into his early years - into his excitingly odd family - provides the best chance yet of understanding this intriguing man. Indeed one could conclude he overcame, rather than benefited from, his privileged start in life to become todays distinguished man of letters.

Meeting him in the flesh, hes as physically daunting as his reputation. If he were a mountain, hed probably be Everest: near six foot-five tall with a peak habitually shrouded in mists though in his case, thats cigar smoke, of course. But theres no blast of glacial air from the summit: sang-froid, definitely; coldness, no. He exudes gentlemanly kindness, with none of the reserve one might expect of an editor used to catching and snaring unwary victims with their own words.

Bugger off, dogs, he booms, folding himself into his easy chair, though Jasper the spaniel and Stanley the black labrador take a defensive stand and entrench by his feet. My wife suggested Stanley on the basis that Port Stanley has paid for so much dog food over the years, he says, with wry deadpan. Its a reference, need one elaborate, to possibly his most famous moment, as the first journalist to enter Port Stanley after its liberation at the end of the Falklands War. (Though more of that later.)

But back to the latest book, with its somewhat odd title Did You Really Shoot the Television? Where did that come from? When I was a child, I did have something of my fathers recklessness - I was always jumping out of bedroom windows to try and emulate Hopalong Cassidy. In those days, which was quite soon after the war, people were really careless about guns; when I was 11 or 12, I was watching television and simultaneously stripping and reassembling fathers German Luger war souvenir. I put it together again, snapped in a magazine, and then the television erupted before my eyes. It was pretty scary but certainly the ensuing row, even by the standards of our family, was a corker. I think at that point even I realised there were limits to everything.

Its a fun book that Sir Max hopes will make readers laugh - though theres also a serious side: I didnt want my father to be forgotten, because he had played such a large part in my life. And perhaps theres a catharsis a note to self in there, too. Certainly, he relates a story to me that is more than the sum of its parts. In 1960, father had himself cast away on a desert island in the Indian Ocean for five weeks and it nearly killed him. He hadnt done any homework about how to survive; he got scurvy and every kind of tropical disease going and eventually was brought home on a stretcher. About five years ago, the Daily Mail rang me one morning and said, Weve just had a wonderful idea; you should go and repeat your fathers exploit on a desert island. I said, Youre bonkers. Theres simply not enough in Lord Rothermeres piggybank to persuade me to go and do that. And I thought, well thank goodness; I did inherit some of my mothers hard headedness. Although Ive had plenty of adventures, Ive never done those sorts of things.

The adventures he has undertaken are impressive in different ways, and include working as a foreign correspondent all over the world, in numerous war zones, for the BBC and the Evening Standard. At the end of the Falklands War, he was the first journalist into the capital just after it had fallen to the British: it was a moment that changed his life. Indeed, he himself doubts he would ever have become editor of the Telegraph had it not been for his victory walk. I remember looking up the road to Port Stanley, to the Argentine lines, on that morning in June 1982 and thinking very consciously, If I can walk up that road and live, then I can bore everybody to death for the next 30 years talking about it. I was terrified because I really did think there was a fair chance the Argentines would shoot me; in fact, a parachute regiment colonel, who was commanding the battalion Id gone to the edge of Port Stanley with, afterwards expressed the fervent wish that the Argentines had shot me. He thought I deserved it. But I just knew that, if I could get up that bloody road, it was going to be the greatest story of my life. And it was extraordinary things did work out in that way.

In 1986, aged 40, he was appointed editor of The Daily Telegraph, a successor to the legendary Bill Deeds. It was a time of great crisis for the paper, which desperately needed to appeal to a younger audience a transition Hastings managed with consummate skill and judgement. Although he may give the superficial appearance of being a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, hes much more of a Liberal realist (if thats not an oxymoron): I used to say to my executive, you would like to think that the typical Daily Telegraph reader lives in an old rectory, goes on holiday to the West Indies and has two children at Eton; thats not so. The typical Daily Telegraph reader lives in a suburban bung-y outside Woking, with a caravan in the garden. And you just have to keep that in mind. He may be a self-acknowledged snob (as quoted at the start of this piece), but hes a snob who can talk sense and do much good for a wide range of people: he established a trainee scheme, for example, specifically for journalists from black or Asian backgrounds.

In Editor, An Inside Story of Newspapers, (dedicated to his mother), he gives a clear-sighted account of his Telegraph time, writing with as much vivid detail of his mistakes as his triumphs. The former range from his misjudgement in withdrawing the Telegraphs correspondent from Baghdad during the Gulf War, to a woefully embarrassing inability to keep down a large lunch during a trip in a Tornado that both he and the RAF came to regret. He was knowingly entranced by Diana, whom he met on several occasions, but had no time for the Prince of Wales with his increasingly tenuous connection with planet Earth.

From the Telegraph, Hastings moved of his own volition - to edit the Evening Standard, though he never had the same affinity with this latter role. And now, of course, hes a popular Daily Mail columnist and regular contributor to other nationals. He is also a distinguished historian, whose knowledge of Churchills war leadership is encyclopaedic. His latest tome on the subject, Finest Years, Churchill as Warlord 1940-45, was published to great acclaim last autumn. In fact, for no really logical reason, it comes as a surprise to discover that the two men never met.

I once dreamed I met him. Judging by the clothes he was wearing, it must have been around 1910. When I woke up, I realised Id done all the talking and hed just listened, which would never have happened. Churchill was notoriously bad at listening to what other people had to say. He is proud of and highly values his friendship with Mary Soames, Churchills daughter.

Hes already embarked on his next book - a huge one-volume history of the second world war which, he thinks, will be his last on the subject. Dont imagine, though, in spite of the bellicose focus of his works, that Sir Max is a lover of war. I was talking to a young man the other day who lost both legs in Afghanistan. I was sitting there, looking at this very bright, very attractive young man of 27, and I was thinking of the days when I used to go to wars and find them exciting; but when youre brought face to face with the human cost, no one but a madman can possibly think these are a good thing.

Hes an interesting man to listen to: well informed, non-judgemental, objective. As always in these interviews, theres too little room to cover all the bons mots, but our conversation ranges over subjects far and wide: the limited attention span of the national psyche: Its so difficult to sustain a developed argument when people are not willing to read long items or to look at long items on television; we talk about the future of the press, his fears for the countryside, his love of shooting and fishing, his patriotism: My father brought me up to believe that to be born English was to draw the best card in the pack of life. Although it may sound ridiculous to say that in the 21st century, I certainly grew up feeling that way and, in some ways, I still do.

We discuss his disillusionment with Blair, and his fears for Cameron. One of the huge problems, if he becomes Prime Minister, is going to be generating public support for making tough choices; its going to be hard for Cameron to mobilise popular support. The view that everybody must win, and everybody must have prizes, is one that weve all lived with for a very long time now.

So how can we cope with the very real challenges of the next decade? Should we be searching for another Churchill?

He laughs. Well, yes, sometimes people do ask, Where are the Winston Churchills de nos jours? But, actually, I dont buy that at all. We have to thank God that, however great our problems, theyre not bad enough to need a Winston Churchill. If you do, you really are in deep trouble.

Did You Really Shoot the Television? by Max Hastings is published by HarperPress, price 20.

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