Once Fleet Street's Most Feared Editor, He Now Speaks for the Countryside. but Can He Ever Learn to Be a Gentleman? (Profile: Max Hastings)

By Byrnes, Sholto | New Statesman (1996), August 26, 2002 | Go to article overview

Once Fleet Street's Most Feared Editor, He Now Speaks for the Countryside. but Can He Ever Learn to Be a Gentleman? (Profile: Max Hastings)


Byrnes, Sholto, New Statesman (1996)


If anyone thought when Max Hastings stepped down from the editorship of the London Evening Standard that their hearing was now safe from the Hastings boom, or that his noxious cigars would trouble their nostrils no more, they couldn't have been more wrong. The picture byline of the newly knighted Sir Max is to be seen everywhere, pontificating not only from the usual pulpits like the Daily Mail and the Spectator, but also from such uncharted territory as the Observer.

As the recently elected president of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, Hastings is beating the drum for the countryside and has declared that he will be holding his head high (very high, given that he is nearly 6ft 5in) in next month's Liberty and Livelihood march in London. His views on the countryside are well known, although the vehemence with which he is wont to express them seems to have caught the CPRE off guard. A recent broadside, in which the Hastings blunderbuss peppered not only John Prescott's ample backside but also the slimmer cheeks of the Shadow Chancellor, Michael Howard, carried the rider: "This article reflects his personal opinions, not those of the council."

But it is his new book, The Editor, to be published in October, that will attract most attention. The magnum opus chronicles his ten years running the Daily Telegraph, and, according to Macmillan, his publisher, "it is unblushing about the author's failures and embarrassments as well as his successes". No one doubts Hastings's willingness to record his successes--witness his ubiquity in coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Falklands war, at the end of which he was the first man into Port Stanley. There have been some achievements of note; even his fiercest critics acknowledge his role in revitalising the Telegraph. Former colleagues and employees are entitled to wonder, however, just how much space will be given to the failures and embarrassments?

It is unlikely that Hastings, 56, looks back on his early years with enormous fondness. Although he worshipped his father, the war correspondent and gentleman journalist Macdonald Hastings, relations with his mother, Anne Scott-James, were troubled. A former editor of Harper's Bazaar and one of the first female personality columnists, Scott-James was divorced from Macdonald Hastings in 1963 and later married Sir Osbert Lancaster. A friend of Max says he used to complain that she holidayed on the Riviera whereas he went to Butlin's with the nanny. Even today, one who moves in Lady Lancaster's circle declares: "Max has nothing to do with his mother."

Of his time at Charterhouse, he has hardly a good word. He wasn't sporty--"my left leg never knew what my right arm was doing. I was a disastrous schoolboy"--and describes the experience as "hellish".

The school cadet force led to a stint with the Parachute Regiment in the year before Oxford. This was not a great success, either; he is said to have earned the disapproval of his peers by bribing a Cypriot boy to bring him water while on exercise. But the experience clearly cemented his passion for matters military, which later led him to write some highly praised history books. So proud is he of one of them that when Evening Standard executives opened their gifts at a Christmas dinner Max had thrown, they found they had all received the same present--an inscribed copy of Bomber Command.

Despite winning an exhibition to University College, Oxford, Hastings departed from the banks of the Isis after only a year. There then followed reporting jobs at the BBC and the Evening Standard, columns, despatches from war zones and, most notably, the Falklands. After striding into the Upland Goose and "recapturing" Port Stanley, the spotlight was shone on two of Max's foremost traits--ambition and ruthlessness. Other journalists loathed him, especially after their pooled report (entrusted to him) failed to get through while the Hastings exclusive did. …

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