Max Hastings’s diary: The joys of middle age, and Prince Charles’s strange letters

Plus: A golden age for TV interviewing, and the need for better spies

4 April 2015

9:00 AM

4 April 2015

9:00 AM

I am living in rustic seclusion while writing a book. Our only cultural outing of the week was to Newbury cinema to see, transmitted from the National Theatre, Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, object of rave reviews. We respected the piece but did not enjoy it. Granted, appreciation of all major works of art requires an effort by the viewer, listener, reader. But a pleasure of getting older is to be unafraid of waving the white flag. We resist modern-dress Shakespeare or worse, opera. We will cross continents to avoid the music of Harrison Birtwistle or the art of Damien Hirst. We are ardent Trollopeians, incorrigibly middlebrow.

John Hatt, founder of Eland Books and a life-enhancer to all fortunate enough to know him, sent me the DVDs of BBC TV’s 1960 Face to Face interviews, saying that he had enjoyed them so much he wanted to try them on us. They are compelling. That old rogue Lord Boothby seemed intelligent and curiously appealing. Adam Faith, then 20, handled himself brilliantly, while Simone Signoret was a bore. We marvelled that such a repellent human being as Evelyn Waugh could have written the best English novels of the past century. Gilbert Harding, supposedly a monster, appeared movingly vulnerable. A BBC veteran with whom I discussed the programmes said the only subject for whom John Freeman formed a violent dislike was Martin Luther King.

Lord Hailsham, not seen to much advantage in his Freeman appearance, enthused about shooting. Any modern politician who did the same would be Twitter toast: the only advice David Cameron ever accepted from me, back in 2009, was to put away his gun. I was brought up to regard the sport as part of the warp and woof of the countryside. It has played a big part in my life, though I have become increasingly more interested in working my gundogs. A young Radleian told me recently, however, that many of his schoolfellows would rather handle cat poo than a dead pheasant, and think killing them barbaric. I doubt the sport in its present form will survive another half century. Or could it? My father predicted doom for field sports back in 1945, yet I have done far more shooting than he did.

I am writing a book about intelligence in the second world war, my first venture into the world of spooks. It is striking how many of the characters involved seem to have been unhinged. While MI6’s then chief Sir Stewart Menzies was not clever, at least he was intermittently sensible. Among the indictments on Tony Blair’s charge sheet is that he appointed John Scarlett to head MI6, presumably from gratitude for his role as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, assisting Alastair Campbell to compile the 2002 WMD dossier that took us to war with Iraq under false pretences. The current ‘C’, Alex Younger, who made his first public appearance on Monday night, unveiling a plaque to SIS’s founder, Mansfield Cumming, is the most impressive appointment to the job for years — and needs to be. A century ago the secret services played a marginal role in national security, but today they are central. In 1945, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s scorn for the stupidity of his SIS superiors was a matter for laughter. In 2015, the service needs the brightest and best.

An American foundation paid for me to fly first class to Washington to give a lecture. The outbound flight was held on the tarmac for seven hours with technical trouble before we were offloaded into a Heathrow hotel overnight. Next morning I was shoehorned into the only available Club seat on a plane which was two hours late. Nobody at BA offered a vestige of an email apology. BA is better than most airlines, and its pilots appear sane, but a computer should be programmed to grovel in its name when appropriate.

I notice an online howl of anguish from a Kentucky professor of biology who faces demands from local evangelical Christians that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in his classes. This, it seems to me, parallels the Prince of Wales’s successful lobbying for some NHS funds to be diverted from conventional medicine to homeopathy. I have beside me a copy of a letter allegedly written by him some years ago to a cultural institution, asserting the conviction that ‘there is a DIVINE Source which is ultimate TRUTH… that this Truth can be expressed by means of numbers… and that, if followed correctly, these principles can be expressed with infinite variety to produce Beauty’. The heir to the throne is entitled to believe such things, but if he aspires to influence public affairs, he has no claim to keep his interventions secret. The Supreme Court last week reached its only credible decision, by acceding to the Guardian’s demand that his lobbying correspondence should be published.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Max Hastings is a former editor of the Daily Telegraph. His most recent book is Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914.

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  • mikewaller

    Regarding MH’s recommendation that BA go in for automated apologies, I just received the following acknowledgement from “him”. As I detect something of a non sequitur in its content, would I be right in thinking that he might be leading BA by example?

    Dear Mike Waller, Thanks so much for your kind words, warmly appreciated. Best, Max Hastings

    —–Original Message—–
    From: WordPress [mailto:frommaxhsite@grantdonovan.co.uk]
    Sent: 30 March 2015 18:56
    To: rachlawr@hotmail.com
    Subject: Review of Mark Urban book

    Message body:
    I agree 100% with what you had to say. Please could you use your high profile to drive into British skulls the fact that Putin gave the Ukraine absolute territorial guarantees in return for giving up its nuclear weapons, a mistake we would be lunatics to repeat. Needs to be checked out, but a contributor to the Spectator’s “Coffee House” claimed that Moscow’s WW3 scenario included extensive us of tactical nuclear weapons save only against France and UK. I wonder why?

    This mail is sent via the Max Hastings website

    • mrsjosephinehydehartley

      It’ll probably be the effect of an algo rhythm type set up..actually worse than the homeopathic thing, given homeopathy has no known side effects.

      • mikewaller

        It is the kind of experience that puts me in mind of Thomas Carlisle’s famous dictum “No man is a hero to his valet”. A brief glimpse of how the life in question is actually lived usually disappoints.

  • Peter Robinson

    ‘The heir to the throne is entitled to believe such things….’, and we are entitled to mock him for his ludicrous and mad beliefs at every opportunity in the hope that he will learn, or be told to keep the output of his small brain to himself.

    • mikewaller

      I find much of what he says quite sensible but even were it all nonsense as you seem to think, I would take the view that one’s response should be governed by the principle that “mocking the afflicted” is never the behaviour of a gentleman.

  • Terence Hale

    “Britain needs better spy’s”. One of the greatest dangers to British interest are the
    Dutch. The Dutch royal family colluding about the Falklands and in June will
    lobby M. Obama his regarding. They own shell.

  • James

    Worrying that known terrorists have been able to evade special services to commit crimes and a there has been a pattern of spies defecting or getting caught – if you think Blair put too many plebians in civil service, what state did he leave MI5/6?

  • evad666

    Britain also needs to learn how to use publicly available information on the internet.
    Oh and be far more careful on what it posts.

  • Perseus Slade

    The sovereign should be a “right marker” to form up on.
    It should be like the figurehead of a ship, no control but symbolic only.

  • Suleiman

    In the last few months we have been witnessing a media conspiracy to print only bad news about UKIP. It is, though, too early to bury Nigel Farage, politically or otherwise. Don’t worry : Nigel Farage will win the Thanet seat. Local people are more patriotic and with more common sense than the chattering establishment. They will vote for the best candidate, which is Nigel.

  • pp22pp

    You mean the poll that you hope spells the end of Farage. The Speccie is part of the Cathedral.

  • Oddsbods

    The only poll that could “spell the end for Mr.Farage” will be the big poll on 7th May and I think that one is going to go very well for him.