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Sir Max Hastings interview

PUBLISHED: 08:33 23 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:36 20 February 2013

Historian and campaigner Sir Max Hastings' latest book looks back at his blissful West Berkshire childhood. Nick Channer met him at his home near Hungerford

Sir Max Hastings love of the countryside is well known. In 2003 he was made President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, holding the post until 2007, and his war on what he calls clone towns the homogenisation of English high streets has attracted much attention and support.


Over the years Sir Max, who lives just outside Hungerford, has written extensively about his life. In two volumes of autobiography, 'Going to the Wars' and 'Editor', he recalls his days reporting from some of the world's best-known trouble spots and the pressure and responsibility that go with being a newspaper editor - a post he held for 16 years.


Now, to complete the story, comes the third and final book about Max's fascinating life - this time dealing with his childhood and his relationship with his parents. Did you Really Shoot the Television? is described as a family fable in which the sudden death of a television set was only one highlight.


We meet at his rambling country house. He shows me into his book-lined study and lights a cigar before we settle down and Sir Max drifts back into his 1950s rural Berkshire boyhood in a world still coming to terms with the brutal effects of war- a world that now seems far removed from our own.


Life for young Max was pleasant and privileged. His parents led glamorous lives - his father, Macdonald (Mac) Hastings, was a broadcaster on the BBC's popular Tonight programme and founder of the magazine Country Fair, his mother was journalist and gardening writer Anne Scott-James, a one-time editor of Harper's Bazaar.


While they were busy working, Max spent much of his time at the family's country retreat, Rose Cottage at Aldworth, between Newbury and Streatley, looked after by a nanny whom he readily admits he adored. Nanny was already a woman approaching 60 when she began looking after Max. The job lasted 18 years and the two were close.


When Max thinks of her today, his mind drifts back to school holidays in the depths of rural Berkshire. Everything was incredibly primitive back then but wonderfully so, he explains. As a child I was never very happy in London but I adored Aldworth. Oscar Wilde was completely wrong when he said it's difficult to be naughty in the country. If you were a small boy with access to almost unlimited quantities of tools, weapons and toys of all kinds, you could make any amount of mischief.


Once Max's parents got the message that he was much happier in Aldworth than the capital, they left him to get on with life in the country. Nanny, my younger sister, Clare, and I would co-exist perfectly well at Rose Cottage, he explains, adding: Often it was just the three of us for weeks on end. And very happy we were.


Max paints a fascinating social picture of country life more than half a century ago. Everybody in the area still used bicycles. Hardly anybody had a car, even in the '50s. One could ride a tricycle along those Berkshire lanes without much danger - unlike today. Most people still worked on the land and seldom went to places like Reading. They certainly had never been to London. Life today is by no means perfect but a lot of things have got better. Even in comfortable middle-class households you were often cold in the winter, cars were always breaking down, the telephone system didn't work very well and finding someone to cash you a cheque at the weekend was a nightmare.


Max recalls the days when a steam train ran from Didcot down to Newbury and beyond, stopping along the way at various stations and tiny halts - Compton, Hampstead Norreys and Hermitage among them. I remember being put on the train at Compton to go back to prep school at Horris Hill, just to the south of Newbury. I also well remember when Nanny and I went shopping. We'd climb aboard the daily bus at Aldworth and travel all the way to Newbury. It seemed like a real adventure.


Sir Max also recalls afternoon trips to nearby Goring and Streatley. They were still terribly Victorian places in those days, he remembers. You could hire these wonderful wooden rowing boats. The three of us would go out on the river. It was terrific and very English.


Nanny spoilt me rotten and let me do pretty much what I wanted. My abiding memory of that time is the wonderful freedom I was allowed. It doesn't really exist today. Nobody ever thought about muggers or child molesters. You just roamed the countryside and wallowed in the excitement of it all.


Sir Max was a solitary small boy who blamed his parents for not creating a proper social life for him. In reality I probably wasn't very good at getting on with other children, he says. It didn't help that my sister was an exemplary nice little girl and I was regarded as the complete opposite - a pretty naughty small boy.


Young Max's mischievous streak was the inspiration for the new book's rather intriguing title. His father had long been fascinated by firearms. One day while at the Hastings's London flat, Max sat in his room and, with an episode of Perry Mason showing on the television, he stripped and reassembled Mac's Radom pistol, which he had managed to acquire and secret among his possessions. His attention perhaps caught by the programme, Max managed to fire the pistol at the television screen, shattering it into millions of pieces. It was a moment never to be forgotten in the Hastings household.


While Sir Max was growing up, Macdonald Hastings and Anne Scott-James lived separate lives within their marriage - he enjoying country sports and running his beloved magazine, she busy in London as magazine editor and, later, columnist for various national newspapers. They were totally unsuited and really had nothing in common, says Max. My mother even stated once that "all families are dysfunctional". There are hardly any photographs of them as a couple and none of us as a family unit.


Max talks fondly of his father. He was tremendously romantic and sentimental. I don't think that my mother or anyone else for that matter would ever have described him as a good parent. First of all, he was wildly eccentric, secondly he took his responsibilities as a husband and father seriously - but only spasmodically. The rest of the time he'd do his own thing and not think about his duties as a parent. He loved country life and he sincerely believed - and imbued me with this belief - that to be born English was to draw the finest card in the pack of life.


By the mid 1960s village life in Aldworth had begun to change forever and so had Max's own world. To the dismay of his parents, he left Oxford after only a year. They were both absolutely furious when I left University, Max recalls, especially my father who had a rather exaggerated respect for such institutions. I loved my gap year when I worked for the BBC. Some of the most exciting things in Britain were happening then and I had a wonderful time at the Corporation. I loved that adult world. I loved working and I loved earning money. I hated the idea of being a broke student.


So did he regret not gaining his degree? He smiles. I think I'd have regretted leaving if I thought if I had stayed I would have got a first but I don't think I would.


By leaving, Sir Max quickly found a world that suited him - television and newspapers. 'By the time I was in my middle 20s I was able to travel all over the world, working for the BBC and the Evening Standard. It was terrific.


The pressure may be off these days but Sir Max, 64, is still in demand. He has a contract with the Daily Mail and his regular column focuses on all manner of contemporary issues - from the wonders of electronic books to the lack of adventure in the lives of today's children. He regularly reviews books for the Sunday Times, lectures in the United States and rents a farmhouse in Kenya during the winter where he can write without interruption. It's an incredibly beautiful place, he explains Max. It's where I can get on with work without the telephone ringing all the time.


Mostly, Max and his second wife, Penny, are to be found at their country home in West Berkshire. It suits us both very well to be here, he says. I usually start work at about 7am and I spend most of the morning on books. I have lunch with Penny, perhaps do a bit of gardening and then do newspaper work in the afternoon.


Max has no plans to put down his pen and retire. When I was editing newspapers - the Daily Telegraph and then the Evening Standard - I was a relatively important player and anyone from the Prime Minister downwards would take my telephone call. It would be naive to think that were still true. Every morning when I sit down at the computer screen, I get a real thrill out of what I'm doing. I loved what I did then and I love what I do now but I'm more of a bit player these days.


At present Max is working on another book, a single, one-volume history of the Second World War. After that, I'm committed to doing a book on 1914, marking the centenary of the Great War. All of us ever want is to go on being wanted.


Max explains the pleasure he took from producing this last volume of autobiography. I wanted to enter into it in the right spirit, he says. To write about what fun I had rather than trying to pay off scores or writing about what a hard time you had. Anybody who has had as much luck in their life as I have has no right to complain about anything really.


Max returns to the subject of his parents. After divorcing, they both remarried. Anne, who died last year, aged 96, was a merciless realist. Mac, on the other hand, was 'a heroic fantasist'. He died in 1982. I adored father, admits Max. He never had as comfortable a life as I do but our tastes are similar. I enjoy country pursuits just as he did and every time I land a salmon, I look up at the sky and I think of the pleasure it would give him to see me do it.


Did You Really Shoot the Television? by Max Hastings is published by Harper Press at 20.



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