Battle Honours for the Word Warrior

Max Hastings reckons he would have made a lamentable soldier.  His brief stint in uniform soon revealed that his left foot never knew what his right arm was doing.  Still, there are compensations for the journalist turned military historian.  His latest book on the second world war has been hailed as one of the finest written about the conflict.

Practice makes perfect, they say.  Wellington got his eye in by defending a succession of hillocks before his climactic victory against Napoleon on the slopes of Waterloo.  Alexander the Great honed his skill of leaping into battle from a chariot until he was ready to take on the world.  Hastings has plugged away at the last world war in eight acclaimed books and this time, by all accounts, he deserves a victor’s laurels.

“Unquestionably the best single-volume history of the war ever written,” Dominic Sandbrook proclaims in The Sunday Times today of All Hell Let Loose, a global portrait of the conflict, as well as a human story replete with the details of ordinary people’s lives.  Patrick Bishop, reviewing the book in Standpoint magazine, writes that Hastings can claim to be “our pre-eminent military historian”.

Infuriatingly, the 65-year-old former editor and war correspondent makes it all look so easy – as effortless as sauntering up the road ahead of the Parachute Regiment to “liberate” Port Stanley, which made his name in the 1982 Falklands war.  An unusually tall man, whose stoop encourages a swatch of dark hair to fall across his forehead, Hastings fires off words at such prodigious speed – 2,000 before breakfast and 6,000 in total on a good day – that completing the 760 pages of his new book left lots of time for a siesta followed by a newspaper article or two and a spot of hunting or fishing.

Staff at The Daily Telegraph recall how he managed to splice his angling zeal with editing the paper for almost 10 years.  “He used to zoom off to some pond somewhere for two or three hours and arrive back at the paper to slap several fish down on the table,” said one.  Then he would rattle off a leader article.

A dedicated countryman who admits rural life can be “pretty dull” and a supporter of foxhunting who finds its participants “completely obsessed”, Hastings is a mass of contradictions.  He fought fierce battles over South Africa at the Telegraph yet uses such phrases as “as long as you play the white man by me”.  Most of his set are Tories, yet he voted for new Labour twice and describes himself as “an aggressive wet liberal”.  He has berated the incompetence of British generals in the second world war – a theme to which he returns in All Hell Let Loose – but many of his shooting chums are army officers involved in the interventions he deplores in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

Despite a bark designed to carry across grouse moors and a professional ruthlessness that earned him the sobriquet “Hitler Hastings”, friends describe an insecure man obsessed with money.  “He’s got a perpetual anxiety about money,” said one.  “I remember him being furious about Boris (Johnson) not paying a debt to him.  I think it’s because his father died in poverty and his family were writers but none made a bean.  Max has always been impressed by rich people, and some of those bad values infected his attitude.”

His parents left Hastings an emotional battlefield.  He worshipped his eccentric father, Macdonald Hastings, an author, journalist, television presenter and special investigator for the Eagle comic.  In the last role, he crossed the Kalahari desert in search of bushmen and nearly died while living as a castaway on a desert island.  Hastings came to realise that his father was not only “bonkers” but an alcoholic who smelt of gin and whose hands “were shaking most of the time”.

He never warmed to his mother, Anne Scott-James, a pioneering Harper’s Bazaar editor, columnist and gardening writer, whom he blames for inflicting “savage emotional wounds”.

He once said: “I think we frightened each other.”  She was one of his sharpest critics.  “His mother obviously had the brains, and he is much more like her than he would like to admit,” said a friend.  “She was ruthlessly ambitious, which is why she dumped him with a nanny.”

When Hastings told his mother he was getting a knighthood in 2002, she said: “I suppose Roy (Jenkins) fixed it for you.”  Hastings remembers little parental affection.  It was no surprise when his parents’ “sustained rancor” ended in divorce in the early 1960s, but the teenage Hastings did not take to his mother’s new husband, the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster, and he became bitter.

The mellowing of Hastings is credited to his happy second marriage, to Penny Levinson.  Although he met her when he was 17, she eluded his advances and married Michael Grade, the television executive, by whom she has two grown-up children.  He took a country wife, Patricia Edmondson, with whom he had three children.  He and Levinson got together in 1992, married quietly in a register office seven years later and live near Hungerford, Berkshire, a haven where he has found time, amid his copious writing, to watch birds and build a Wendy house for his grandchildren.  He is haunted by the death of his eldest child, Charles, who jumped from the sixth floor of a hotel in Ningbo, China, in 2000, aged 27.

Hastings also has a house in Fulham, west London, from where he sallies forth by bicycle to Brooks’s club in central London.  According to his wife, he is a public menace on the road because he looks so comical.  But then he was never any good at games.

Born on December 28, 1945, Hastings was a spoilt but lonely child in a household beyond his parents’ means – a rented London flat near Harrods, where the family shopped.  His lack of co-ordination counted against him as a boarder at Charterhouse school, which he hated.  At one stage it looked as if he would become the black sheep of the family, like his great-uncle Lewis, an adventurer who shot game and Germans in southwest Africa.  Hastings’s prep school headmaster reported: “His contemporaries do not like him, and they are not bad judges of character.”

Forever skulking in his room, detonating fireworks or throwing snowballs through drawing-room windows at horrified partying adults, Hastings once overdid it by shooting a television set.  He was playing with a Radom pistol, which he had stolen from his father, when the gun went off and he blasted Perry Mason, the fictional attorney, who was on screen at the time.

Study at University College, Oxford, held his interest for a year.  He left to become a foreign correspondent, eventually reporting from 11 war zones.  His independence paid off with his moment of madness in the Falklands.  As a military historian and author of the 1979 bestseller Bomber Command, Hastings had earned the respect of the army, which gave him a head start on the resentful media pack.

At the end of the conflict, he found himself outside Port Stanley.  “I thought: if I can walk up that road and live, I can bore everyone to death for the next 30 years with it – which indeed I have,” he told the Telegraph last week.  “I don’t think we deserve any admiration for being that way, but a strong streak of egotism is essential to journalists.”  He certainly won the admiration of Conrad Black, the Telegraph’s former owner, who asked him to become editor.  “When he arrived, he thought the place was dead,” a former staff member recalls.  “He thought it was a great national institution that had been allowed to stagnate.  He was a very good editor who understood the need to modernise the Telegraph by grandmother’s footsteps – a step-by-step transformation so that no one would notice.  Two years later the readers woke up and had an entirely modern paper.”

According to one staffer: “What inspired the people who worked for him was that he could do absolutely anything that he asked others to do.  And he could do it quicker and better than any of us.”  As a boss he got on better with women, he has admitted, although he found Barbara Amiel, Black’s wife and a columnist on the paper, disturbing.  “Terrifying – too sexy,” he told a friend.  He did not always live up to his good intentions.  One young journalist, taking Hastings at his word that any prospective employee could approach him for a job, made his pitch in the lavatory at Brooks’s – and received a two-word reply.

Disagreements with Black, who wanted the paper to be more right wing, ended with Hastings moving to take the helm of the Evening Standard, where he had once edited Londoner’s Diary.  After his retirement in 2001 he became president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, relinquishing the role in 2007.

To envious hacks, Hastings is a brilliant all-rounder who rarely puts a foot wrong.  “I would say he’s simply the most outstanding journalist in Britain,” said a newspaper editor.  Betraying no signs of slowing down, the intrepid writer is, he said last week, happier than ever – “I’m doing what I love.”