Eminent Elizabethans by Piers Brendon

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Eminent Elizabethans by Piers Brendon

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: In the tradition of Strachey's 'Eminent Victorians', a quartet of critical mini-biographies of four major personalities of our time - Rupert Mudroch, the Prince of Wales, Margaret Thatcher and Mick Jagger
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: September 2013
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099532637

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Eminent Elizabethans is in effect a descendant of the author’s Eminent Edwardians. The latter, a volume of short biographies of four British iconic figures of the early twentieth century, was in turn inspired by Lytton Strachey’s barbed 'Eminent Victorians', published in 1918, a debunking of four Victorian heroes whom the iconoclast Strachey wished to demonstrate had feet of clay.

In our less deferential age, it might be said that Brendon’s quartet of Elizabethans were never really heroes, except to a minority. Over the years press baron Rupert Murdoch, royal heir-in-waiting Prince Charles, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Big Chief Rolling Stone Mick Jagger have all come in for many a verbal lashing. The author is not at pains to try and rehabilitate any of them. His portraits of each are critical if not exactly one-sided, but nobody will pick up this volume expecting one paean of praise after another.

Perhaps it is a contest to see which one emerges as either the most unpleasant or most insignificant. It need hardly be said that few people have a good word for Murdoch – and most of those that do are or were prominent politicians at Westminster. Enough said, perhaps. Lest any of us try and persuade ourselves that the Australian newspaper king is not all bad, Brendon seems barely able to find a redeeming feature with which to lighten his pen portrait. He is presented as a charmless, boorish individual with scant regard for the truth, the man who only has to snap his fingers for British prime ministers to stand to attention, the puppet-master who prides himself on making and breaking politicians. After Gough Whitlam came to power in his native Australia, Murdoch declared that he elected the ministry, but now he was not too happy with them - so he might remove them. (A latter-day Warwick the Kingmaker and Kingbreaker. We understand.) Perhaps we should lay part of the blame on his father Keith, a similarly ambitious journalist in an earlier age who claimed with considerable exaggeration that he had exposed the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 as an incredible blunder. The British cabinet had already worked that out for themselves and did not need a cocky slip of a stringer to tell them.

An unashamed republican, Murdoch’s campaign against the royal family in the 1990s and pitiless exposure of their weaknesses before and after the annus horribilis was a major factor in their declining popularity (and of course the corresponding rise in his papers’ circulation figures). This provides a link with the next subject in the book, the Prince of Wales. Charles is portrayed as the hapless victim of unsympathetic parenting, a man unsure of his role in the world, except perhaps to be pilloried by the media every time he dares to say something remotely controversial. Brendon’s portrait conveys some sympathy for the man who thought he was marrying a docile, compliant, adoring girl, but woke up to find she had become a determined young woman who would rant and rave if she did not get her own way. Diana, whose mind was ‘unblemished by education’, does not escape lightly either, shrieking at him as he drives away in his Land Rover to treat her like garbage, ‘run off and have lunch with your precious Mummy’. We see the contradictions inherent in a man who parades a cheery kind of egalitarianism in public, yet insists on total deference in private. Perhaps it could hardly be otherwise in someone constrained by his own upbringing in ‘an isolation ward of flattery’, bullied mercilessly at a boarding school he hated, and the only man in Britain destined to reach pensionable age with no sign of succeeding to the job or position for which he was ultimately born.

When the hardback edition was published in 2012, Margaret Thatcher was still alive. A minor adjustment was necessary in this paperback reissue to mention her death and funeral. His assessment of her life and years in power is reasonably even-handed if generally critical in tone. Those of us who can recall clearly at first hand every major incident of her life as party leader as breaking news, from her taking on a dismissive, thrice-defeated Edward Heath in 1974, to her resignation sixteen years later, can appreciate that hindsight now allows historians to assess the pros and cons of what she did. One can hardly argue with the assessment that the Falklands War ‘was the making and the breaking of her’, and that subsequent euphoria obscured the cost in human lives and money in fighting for islands that her government did not want. It is balanced by a few personal asides, notably her confession to daughter Carol that she had a deep fear of failure – a comment markedly at odds with the public image.

However, events have rather overtaken the final portrait in the book – that of Mick Jagger. Two years ago, the general perception was that he had outgrown and lost interest in the Rolling Stones and that they were about to fade into the ether. Recently their fiftieth-anniversary celebrations and tour (or should we call it the Stones’ golden jubilee for short?) and a much-lauded appearance at the 2013 Glastonbury festival have silenced most of the doubters. Nevertheless, this is a portrait of an astonishingly contradictory chameleon, a man who was once the arch-subversive yet later received a knighthood, the articulate, well-educated and well-read dilettante who can play the insolent, barely coherent yobbo at the drop of a hat. His constant collaborator, groupmate and sparring partner Keith Richards, who allegedly threatened to slit his throat if he toured without the group and performed their songs on stage, once summed him up as ‘a bunch of guys’ and ‘it’s up to him which one you meet’. Brendon’s musical knowledge (or lack of it) lets him down, however, when he confuses Jagger’s third solo album with an earlier one by the Stones and calls it ‘Undercover Spirit’.

Although the book tells us little that is new, it makes for a very enjoyable read about four of the most controversial figures of our time. It must be said though that little debunking of each figure was required – that had already been comprehensively done by others. Perhaps a second volume with a searching spotlight on John Lennon, Princess Diana, Tony Blair and Robert Maxwell would be a fitting sequel.

For further reading on each of the subjects, may we recommend

The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch by Michael Wolff

The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown

Below the Parapet by Carol Thatcher

Life by Keith Richards

Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen

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Buy Eminent Elizabethans by Piers Brendon at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Eminent Elizabethans by Piers Brendon at Amazon.com.


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