Book review: Eminent Elizabethans, by Piers Brendon

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WHEN George VI died in February 1952, Rupert Murdoch, heir to his father’s Australian newspaper business and ardent republican, was a month shy of his 21st birthday.

Eminent Elizabethans

By Piers Brendon

Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £17.99

The new Queen’s first-born, Charles, was three. Margaret Roberts (soon to be Thatcher), the newly adopted Conservative candidate for Dartford in Kent, was 26. And Michael Jagger, classmate of tearaway Keith Richards at Dartford’s Wentworth Primary School, was coming up for ten. Funny to think of Rolling Stone Mick being so much older than the Prince of Wales, or of the noble Baroness Thatcher once being Mick’s constituency MP.

Piers Brendon’s chosen new Elizabethans – newspaper magnate, heir to the throne, Iron Lady and Rolling Stone – are still (some more than others) alive, despite being written about in the past tense. Whether they are the four individuals best suited to sum up the second Elizabethan era is open to debate, but they certainly fit the thesis here: that at a time of unprecedented social change we were all ambivalent about it. Rupert, Charles, Maggie and Mick simply illustrate the point – each “tilted against the old order to maintain the status quo”.

Brendon took Lytton Strachey’s irreverent Eminent Victorians as his model back in 1979 when he penned vignettes of a newspaper magnate (Lord Northcliffe), a prime minister (Arthur Balfour), a women’s suffrage campaigner (Emmeline Parkhurst), and the founder of the scouting movement (General Baden-Powell) in Eminent Edwardians. The book was warmly received at the time for its brevity and wit and has not been out of print since – as Brendon mentions in his introduction.

Of the pithy, 60-page profiles in this follow-up, the most instructive is that of the man Clive James once likened to a gorilla come to snatch your daughter: Rupert Murdoch. Brendon’s account of how the Australian bullied, fired, sired and conspired his way to would-be world domination is funny, fresh and gloriously unequivocal. The media emperor is evil incarnate and his eventual fall – signalled by his rambling 2011 performance at the Leveson Inquiry – is likened to the Fall of Lucifer.

The profile of Prince Charles manages in 60 pages what a forest of biographies have attempted in the 60 years of the Prince’s weird existence as heir to the throne: it is strangely enlightening. There’s the unhappy childhood, the bullying at school, the Cambridge years, the “Charlie’s Angels” midnight encounters, the Diana disaster, the post-Diana years, the infamous “Black spider” letters to people in power… The tone is fearlessly irreverent as Brendon stacks up his (possibly obvious) case: that for all the talk of alternative medicines, disestablishmentarianism and organic farming (his mother apparently called him a fool when he briefly took up yoga and gave up eating meat), the Prince is a true blue traditionalist at heart.

Of the four profiles, Sir Mick Jagger is the most relentlessly critical. Jolly quips of the “Rolling Stones gathering moss” variety do little to mask Brendon’s disdain for the singer’s early “masquerade of mutiny”. He paints the Sixties rocker as a graceless, misogynistic, sex-crazed, acquisitive social climber. “Not for nothing was he seen as a singing accountant,” he writes. Jagger the revolutionary, he suggests, was actually a typical Home Counties Tory who once even considered standing for Parliament.

The Jagger-Thatcher parallel is one of the more obvious of many running threads from profile to profile here. But the woman Murdoch’s Sun dubbed “Maggie Thatcher Milk Snatcher” in 1974 had parallels elsewhere, too, as we are reminded in a gripping account of the former prime minister’s rise, decline and fall. There were the little things: like Murdoch and Prince Charles, she had problems with the personal pronoun – most famously, her “We are a grandmother” pronouncement. More worryingly, like Murdoch, she was defined by her ruthlessness in pursuit of power, and ultimately doomed by her abuse of it. She too claimed to be revolutionary while working to maintain the established order.

Brendon’s book is itself a bit of a paradox: another triumph of brevity and wit, but with footnotes, an index and an extensive bibliography. For anyone who has lived through a fair chunk of the new Elizabethan era themselves, there’s something forlorn about it, too – the four flawed characters here, like their monarch and a good many of her subjects, have long since reached the top of the hill and set off down the other side. Would a different choice of traveller have made a better guide 
on the journey? Is Brendon’s whole thesis flawed? Let the arguments begin.