There’s a never-ending pleasure in seeing one’s work in print. When the excitement fades you have ceased to be a journalist. I first had the thrill as a teenager when I won an Evening Standard competition (first prize £5!) more than 70 years ago. I relived it over the past few days when Grosvenor House delivered my latest (and last) book. If I had to line up my supporters and detractors over the years,
especially when I was press secretary to the prime minister Harold Wilson, I fear the result would be as close as Theresa May’s first attempt to get her Brexit deal through the Commons. Unlike her, I wouldn’t bother to try again. And as I refuse to subscribe to Twitter or Facebook I wouldn’t even know about most of them.
Staring at the ceiling
I didn’t write the book just to see my name in print. I am healthy except for the fact that years ago my kidneys stopped working, and from now until I am no more I have to spend 15 hours a week on a dialysis machine, unable to move my right arm, condemned to read a Kindle or watch a silent flat-screen TV suspended from the ceiling. My powers of composition would be stretched beyond bearing to describe how incredibly boring it is. Still, the nurses are wonderful and some have bought my book.
My wife is housebound at present, the renal failure restricts my mobility and I had to do something. Writing was the obvious answer. About what? I had seven years with Harold Wilson and he deserves a better reputation from history than he had when he was prime minister. But I had visited that period twice already. I also spent seven years with Robert Maxwell and had written his biography. When his enormous thefts were discovered, the Sunday Times demanded to know why I hadn’t exposed them then. My defence, as it is today, was that I had written his life story in 1987 and his crimes were committed in 1991. Mind you, I did excuse one crime: when he was a captain in the British army in 1945 he shot the mayor of a German town who approached under a white flag. He told me he had done it because the Germans had done the same to members of his unit.
White flag to a bull
Victor Sassie, the late celebrated Birkenhead-born owner of the Gay Hussar Hungarian restaurant – who seems to have had a mysterious earlier relationship with Maxwell, including selling goods from the back of a car in Petticoat Lane in London – told me that particular crime had been carried out by Maxwell on several other occasions too. Waving a white flag before him was like waving a red flag at a bull. My wife and I had lunch in Malaga four years ago with Maxwell’s secretary, Jean Baddeley. She was a Maxwell Encyclopaedia and could have written the definitive study: I tried to persuade her to do it, but she was adamant that I should. I didn’t know that she had just been diagnosed with cancer, from which she passed away some months later.
My book, entitled Kick ‘Em Back: Wilson, Maxwell and Me, tells how a boy from the Rotherhithe slums – the son, grandson, cousin and nephew of dockers, fatherless at two, born and brought up in a bug-ridden, damp house, and whose regular schooling ended at 11 when the war started – managed to end up at 10 Downing Street and as a columnist, political editor, chief leader writer and director at the Daily Mirror; and regular but reluctant adviser to Robert Maxwell.
The answer is that I had an overwhelming ambition to be a journalist. The title derives from an episode when I was about five or six. I came home crying and my mother, at the doorstep, demanded to know why. “Harold Shaw kicked me,” I sobbed. She placed her hands on my shoulders, turned me around and said, “Go and kick ’im back” – which I did: an unforgiving, unbiblical precept that I followed, sometimes with regret, for much of my life and which got me into numerous scrapes. She was a tough nut, my mother, and fiercely protective of her children. One Saturday night a neighbour warned her that my grandfather, who lived with us, was drunk, which meant trouble. She locked the front door. Undaunted, he, a 15-stone docker, tried to climb through the front window. My mother, an eight-stone cleaner in the local hospital, waited until he was balanced on the sill and then pushed him out again. She was charged at Tower Bridge Magistrates’ Court with assault and fined five shillings.
Taking lessons from Harold
I’m often asked how Harold Wilson would have acted in Mrs May’s position. The answer is that he wouldn’t have been in that position. One of his laws of politics was, “Never enter a room unless you know where the exit is.” He went round Europe with Jim Callaghan, the foreign secretary, produced a white paper outlining the (largely cosmetic) concessions he had gained and then held a referendum in 1975 on EEC membership. Ministers were told they could vote and campaign as they liked, provided they didn’t speak against the government in the Commons. Only a buffoon, Eric Heffer, broke that rule and he was sacked immediately. Everyone else got the message.
This article appears in the 03 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers