The cult the Beaver built
Britain s prickliest writer, an old jousting partner of Lord Beaverbrook, has a theory that the Canadian millionaire is trying to buy control of a large piece of modern history. This is Muggeridges frankly prejudiced account of what he found to confirm this suspicion when Maclean s sent him to Fredericton, N.B., where memorials to the Beaver outnumber churches
ANY TRAVELLER is familiar with places where some local celebrity, some saint or sage or poet, is ubiquitously celebrated. However one may admire his or her achievements, one comes to turn with a shudder from yet another memorial, another bust or tablet or commemorative window. Such overdone adulation has at least the excuse of being posthumous. Its object is dead, and cannot be held responsible for posterity’s excesses. How extraordinary, then, to find a case in which someone still living has been memorialized to a degree which might have been considered excessive if accorded to Napoleon in Corsica, or to Shakespeare in Stratford-on-Avon.
The case in point is that of Lord Beaverbrook, and the place the Canadian province of New Brunswick where he spent his childhood and youth; notably Fredericton, the capital, and Newcastle, the small town where his father, the Reverend William Aitken, was for some twenty-five years minister in charge of
the Presbyterian church of St. James. Lord Beaverbrook has conferred many benefits on New Brunswick, but not by stealth; his right hand has not only known what his left was up to, but has eagerly co-operated. It may be said, without exaggeration, that his name is as prevalent there as in the columns of his newspapers, and that its mention is liable to produce among Frederictonians the same faint twinge, the same perceptible lowering of the voice, as among his journalistic employees. In New Brunswick Lord Beaverbrook is his own personality cult.
From the moment that, at Fredericton Airport, I was advised to stay at the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel, the name rang constantly in my ears. On the way into town my driver drew attention to the various local Beaverbrook benefactions. As he continued with his seemingly inexhaustible tale, I ventured to suggest that probably in due course the town itself would come to be renamed Beaverbrookton.
The suggestion did not strike him as jocular or facetious. He carefully considered it, doubtless asking himself whether the change might not serve to direct Lord Beaverbrook's munificence through too narrow a gauge, and so in too fierce a jet onto the capital, and whether the course of prudence might not rather be to rename the province itself New Beaverhrook.
Along from the Lord Beaverhrook Hotel, in a tasteful riverside garden, stands a bronze statue of Lord Beaverhrook. The sculptor, it seems, was an Italian with the singular name of Apap. Lord Beaverhrook is wearing his robes as chancellor of the University of New Brunswick, a seat of learning to which he has presented, at different times, a reading room, a gymnasium, and a residence for men students. It cannot truthfully be said that, even so attired, he has a majestic air. Rather, Signor Apap has endowed him, as in real life, with an expression of vague puzzlement, as though he were wondering how he ever came to have put
on those robes, and to be standing there in bronze beside the St. John River.
At night the statue is floodlit. 1 found myself drawn several times to go and look at it. Did the bronze boots, 1 wondered, bear traces, like the marble feet of some of the statues of Our Lord in Rome, of the respectful embraces of the devout? If so, no trace remained. It might be that in years to come aspiring financiers and newspaper proprietors would prostrate themselves before this memorial to one of the most successful of our time in both spheres. Or, of course, like Stalin's huge statue in Budapest, it might be overturned, leaving only the boots on display upon the pedestal. Or, saddest fate of all, but not uncommon among memorials prematurely erected, it might just tarnish with the passage of time, its occasion forgotten, with only from time to time some passer-by idly wondering who on earth was Beaverhrook.
Along from the Beaverbrook Hotel in the
other direction is the Beaverhrook Art Gallery and the Beaverhrook bird bath, a recent donation in the shape of a stone fountain from some elegant English eighteenth-century garden. Opposite is the Beaverhrook Playhouse, completed, but not yet opened; a comely building, but, to my jaundiced eye, full of sombre possibilities in the way of Olivieror Gielgudstyle declamation. I wanted to steal out in the night and chalk on its walls: “Old Vic, Go Home!” Nearby is the Beaverhrook Skating Rink, and on a pleasant eminence, the buildings of the University of New Brunswick, also borne down with the weight of massive and various Beaverhrook endowments.
In the Beaverhrook Reading Room a portrait of Bonar Law was on display. The mild features of this dim and largely forgotten British prime minister, also a native of New Brunswick, seemed vaguely surprised at being preserved at all. In life he had been inextricably involved in Lord Beaverbrook’s ferocious ego-
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When Beaverbrook dies will his sycophants rise and rend him?
tism: now he was posthumously, too. caught up in Beaverhrook's passion to he remembered. They first met, Lord Beavcrbrook has recounted,
when he called on Bonar Law to try to sell him some bonds; when Bonar Law lay dying. Lord Beaverbrook discovered that he was worrying about the shaky state of some copper shares he held, and obligingly instructed his broker to buy them in. thereby pushing up their price and enabling Bonar Law to die in peace. Greater love hath no man than this.
In the adjoining room are the papers of a former Canadian prime minister, Viscount Bennett, present-
ed to the University of New Brunswick by Lord Beaverbrook. The Bonar Law papers were likewise at one time deposited here, but, as I learned from Dr. Gertrude Gunn, the amiable librarian and a former Beaverbrook Scholar, they had been later recalled by their donor. This was, to me, a little disappointing. I had hoped that Lord Beaverhrook’s large, and ever-growing, cache of contemporary documentation would all be deposited in Fredericton. Then, scholars who
wanted access to it would have had to make their way to New Brunswick and stay in the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel; a diverting enough spectacle when one thinks of what scholars are commonly like.
Lord Beaverbrook, it would appear, is engaged in cornering the market in contemporary documentation as once, when young, he cornered the market in cement. In the former case, his motive was to become rich; he had observed. he tells us. that money was an essential ingredient in the acquisition of power. In the latter case, what he is after would seem to be the freehold in a slice of history which he can shape and order, or have shaped and ordered by others, to his own particular specifications.
It is difficult to think of a parallel to so audacious an enterprise. Often enough people have faked their own memoirs, dry-cleaned and pruned their own letters and diaries. But to set out to acquire control of the documentation of an age, especially one as turbulent and loquacious as ours, is surely quite exceptional. Perhaps the nearest equivalent is Stalin, but he possessed resources not at Lord Beaverhrook's disposal. He could kill as well as buy historians; a whole press echoed his sentiments instead of just the newspapers he happened to own. Even in Stalin's case, it is worth recalling, a reaction set in after his death, and the legend so laboriously and bloodily enshrined was shattered by his successor. Will there be. one wonders, an equivalent of the Twentieth Party Congress at the Express newspapers after their founder’s demise? Will former sycophants get up and rend their former chief and benefactor as Khrushchov did his? Will Lord Beaverhrook's name be expunged as assiduously and thoroughly as Stalin's has been from the streets and towns and textbooks of the USSR?
Lost in the Beaver’s jungle
Not surprisingly, in view of his large investment in memorials of himself, Lord Beavcrbrook is (to use United Nations parlance) a “presence" in New Brunswick. Politically, economically and culturally, his influence makes itself felt, especially, of course, in the capital. If anyone can be said to embody the Beaverbrook “presence" in his own person, it is undoubtedly Brigadier Michael Wardell, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Fredericton Gleaner. This estimable man I had known some thirty years ago when he was Lord Beaverhrook's vicar on the London Evening Standard, and I a mere deacon; one of several engaged on what was then one of the newspaper’s leading features, the Londoner’s Diary. In those days Brigadier Wardell was invariably referred to as the Captain (as, indeed, for some impish reason of his own. Lord Beavcrbrook refers to him still); a well turned-out, one would have thought typical, upperclass Englishman, belonging to the best clubs and mixing with the smartest social circles. A black eye patch, like the Hathaway Shirt Man's, lent a touch of distinction to a face which recalled the Duke of Windsor's before he teamed up with Mrs. Simpson, or almost any Conservative member
of parliament with a reasonable expectation of becoming president of the Board of Trade, or at any rate First Lord of the Admiralty.
How the Captain strayed from his natural habitat in St. James's Street into the Beaverbrook jungle has never been fully disclosed, but stray he did, providing Lord Beaverbrook with a convenient middleman between himself and his editorial staff, with infinite possibilities in the way of mutual irritation. I was too lowly a figure to play much part in this internal punchup. At one point, however. 1 was called in to provide a tiny flick-knife in the shape of an article pouring scorn on an Eton education. The article got into type, and one always knew when the Captain had fallen under proprietorial displeasure because word would come through that the occasion for using it had perhaps arrived. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, it never was used. The Captain, I need scarcely add, had been at Eton.
He very kindly gave me dinner in his suite in the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel. We began, as people do when they meet after a long interval, by eyeing one another for intimations of decrepitude, each assuring the other that he scarcely looked a day older. I was, I confess, vaguely surprised to find the Captain living in a hotel, without an establishment of his own. As I recalled him, he was the sort of man who might be expected to have a cosy, grace-and-favor sort of existence, with some faithful retainer or retainers to minister to his domestic requirements, and generally take care of him. And here he was domiciled in a hotel; despite its distinguished name, not one of the greatest establishments of the kind even in North America.
There was, I decided, something engaging in this divergence on the Captain's part from what might be taken as his allotted role. The room itself was littered with photographic equipment, which he would pick up and lay down as he talked; especially a lens which he extended until it reached a truly enormous length, then squinted at me through it. Thus squinting, he described to me how, on Lord Beavcrbrook's advice, he came to acquire financial control of the Gleaner, and some of his early experience in running it. Did I hear, as he talked, a sardonic chuckle from some ghostly Third Man who was with us in spirit?
It is part of the Beaverbrook technique to involve unlikely persons in his own manias and enthusiasms, and then, at a carefully chosen moment, to, as it were, pull the rug from under them. They advance, as they suppose, behind him to an exposed position, only to find, when they arrive there, that they are quite alone. Thus I remember, in the old Evening Standard days, an unfortunate from the Foreign Office who was lured across to join us. He came with all his diplomatic service mannerisms, his knowingness, his elegant attire and ways, and, either genuinely or out of expediency, warmly supported the then Beaverbrook line that there would be no war. Imagine his confusion when, on a social occasion, Lord Beaverbrook trumpeted to the assembled company this opinion of his, and invited him to explain just
how he had reached the conclusion that there would be no war. There was a deathly hush.
In the same sort of way, perhaps, the Captain, having been induced to share Lord Beaverbrook's enthusiasm for the Empire (an enthusiasm which has in no wise abated as a result of the Empire’s decomposition, and virtual disappearance), finds himself in Fredericton trying to promote the Gleaner among a sparse, stubborn and mostly penurious population, by
descent largely French and Scottish, two of the most obstinate and recalcitrant races on earth. Does he sometimes, in the harsh winter months, think of the Great Empire Crusader sunning himself on the Côte d’Azur? If so, he never lets on. His newspaper is full of Lord Beaverbrook’s praises, as is his magazine, The Atlantic Advocate, on whose cover New Brunswick’s most famous citizen makes more frequent appearances than he does among Frederictonians in the
flesh. Lord Beaverbrook gets a good press in New Brunswick altogether.
After dinner the Captain kindly took me across to look at the exhibition of contemporary painting in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, which was shortly to be opened by Lady Beaverbrook. The pictures were mostly abstract, not to say bizarre, and little to the Captain’s taste, or, for that matter, to mine. We stood looking at them, wearing a quizzical expression of men afraid to jeer but loath to praise. The
Captain took the view that, since distinguished experts like Sir Kenneth Clark were content to applaud such pictures, and millionaires like Lord Beaverbrook to buy them, they must be good. I, on the other hand, contended that experts were almost invariably wrong about everything, especially pictures, and millionaires more easily deluded than ordinary mortals. It was, in any case, comforting to reflect that the artists whose work was exhibited were for the most part, not hotheaded youngsters, but old fellows in their seventies, and even eighties. Like their latest patron, Lord Beavcrbrook, their best years were behind them.
The Captain and I parted amicably, and I continued to brood intermittently on the unexpectedness of his present case. He had come to New Brunswick too late or too early. The timing was wrong: he was out of sync. Some sprite, some Robin Badfellow, I felt, had lured and bemused him, as Ariel did Trinculo and the other shipwrecked sailors at Prospero’s behest in The Tempest.
The next day I drove to Newcastle. It was a perfect day, and the countryside green and gleaming, with a few trees already beginning to turn. The first Beaverbrook exhibit was the Enclosure, a piece of land acquired by Lord Beaverbrook, and presented by him to the people of New Brunswick in memory of his parents, who were fond of taking a stroll there. It overlooks Miramichi River; in the bright sunshine, and with the water smooth and serene, a tranquil spot, and, not surprisingly, once the site of a chapel and a graveyard. A few graves still remain, one of them that of the earliest English settler in those parts. It is thought that Lord Beaverbrook may elect to have his own bones laid there.
In Newcastle itself, some three miles away, as in Fredericton, there is a Beaverbrook theatre and a skating rink, a library in what was once the Manse where he lived as a child. There is also a Beaverbrook statue in the town’s centre, this time a headand-shoulders bust. It had, I thought, the same air of being a letter delivered to the wrong address as the Fredericton one.
The Manse is a roomy house, and scarcely supports the accounts Lord Beaverbrook likes to give of the “abject poverty” in which his childhood was spent. Dr. Louise Nanny, the kindly and perceptive lady who looks after the library now installed in the
Manse, and generally supervises Newcastle Beaverbrookiana, remembers the house when the Aitkcns lived there as being one of the town’s more spacious and hospitable establishments. St. James’ Church nearby is in the timbered style of the locality. Its Beaverbrook chimes merrily sound the hours, and its Beaverbrook organ provides sonorous accompaniment to the Sunday singing. The Reverend William Aitken (in his photograph, a bearded figure of great solemnity) was accustomed, Dr. Nanny told me, to hold forth in the pulpit morning and evening, for two hours at a stretch. One could not but wonder how the future baron in the peerage of the United Kingdom sustained this ordeal, to whose full rigors, as a member of the family, he must have been subjected.
There can be no question, in any case, but that the experience deeply influenced his diction, if not his conduct. It also gave him an enduring passion for hymns. In his entourage of sycophants, buffoons and tame celebrities, Lord Beaverbrook has been accustomed to include someone capable of providing piano accompaniment for nocturnal hymn-singing sessions. As all who have worked for him know, Lord Beaverbrook has in his make-up a strong strain of religiosity which has survived a life predominantly dedicated to mundane pursuits. His financial manipulations, his endless reiteration of imperialist zeal for a nonexistent Empire, his crackpot causes and relentless vendettas, have scriptural undertones and echoes of Presbyterian earnestness. He is a spoilt evangelist; he has fought the bad fight with all his might, in the manner of a Moody and Sankey revivalist.
How far any actual Christian faith or belief has survived in him can only be a matter for conjecture. Lord Beaverbrook’s single contribution to Christian apologetics, a study of Christ's Ministry (The Divine Propagandist), does not suggest any particular understanding of, or belief in, the New Testament. He sees Christ as a sort of Palestinian Lord Beaverbrook, who, in spite of lowly origins and other handicaps, put Himself and His message across with fabulous skill. His life, thus envisaged, becomes a success story, comparable with Sir Philip Dunn’s or Bonar Law’s, or Lord Beaverbrook’s own life; from a poor carpenter's son to sitting on God's right hand is a record. Lord Beaverbrook suggests, of which anyone might be proud, and one which supports the Daily Express' s endlessly reiterated insistence that glittering opportunities await whoever has the shrewdness, energy and pertinacity to seize them.
Though the finer points of the Christian faith would seem to have eluded Lord Beaverbrook, it is by no means fanciful to suppose that some of its more ferocious dogmas retain their old dominion over his mind and heart. Heaven, as propounded in St. James' Presbyterian Church. Newcastle. may have receded from view, but I suspect that Hell remains disturbingly plausible. When Tom Driberg was working on his life of Lord Beaverbrook 1 happened to sit next to him at luncheon, and remarked that his subject always seemed to me to bear out the essential truth of the
Faust story, which, in one version or another, crops up from age to age, in literature or popular mythology. Souls, after all, can be sold for good money, and the higher the price the more fearful seems the reckoning as it approaches. Driberg was taken with the notion, and developed it in his narrative. When, as a result of legal arrangements between his publisher and Lord Beaverbrook’s lawyers, certain passages were being excised, this one making the parallel with the Faust story was the first whose excision was demanded. The incident, when Driberg told me about it, seemed significant. Out of those long hours of paternal sermonising some flavor of the sulphurous fumes of everlasting damnation would seem to have persisted through the years of wealth and power and influence.
It was quite curious, on leaving Fredericton and New Brunswick, to find no statues of Lord Beaverbrook about the place, no skating rinks or art galleries named after him. Again the Stalin parallel suggested itself. I remember so well the first time I crossed the Soviet frontier outwards, and the sense of release, almost of ecstasy, at being delivered from the sound of that name, the sight of that mustached face and squat body. Looking along the train, I saw that others were similarly affected; some actually leaning out of the windows and shaking their fists and gibbering in the direction of the last Soviet sentry in his long grey greatcoat.
It would be preposterous to suggest that Lord Beaverbrook's Personality Cult in New Brunswick is seriously comparable with Stalin's in Russia. One might as well compare a pair of old-fashioned bellows with a hurricane. Yet the principle is the same, the passion of a human ego to occupy
the wide open spaces of history, to ensure that the notice achieved or enforced in life shall endure after death. Stalin’s effort was based on the expense of blood. Lord Beaverbrook’s on the expense of money; the one hacked and killed his way into history, the other has tried to buy his way in — a more comical, and infinitely more innocuous procedure. Rome, to this day, is full of the battered busts of forgotten emperors, all similarly bent. History, like fame, is a wayward mistress, and the sacrificial offerings of flesh and treasure piled up on its altar are frequently disregarded.
Yet it must be admitted, of Lord Beaverbrook’s effort, that it has been most carefully planned and scrupulously executed. The documents have all been put in order, the witnesses coached, the appropriate affidavits sworn, in preparation for history’s assizes when his case is heard. What can go wrong? Only this. History itself may take a quite different course from the one he has envisaged. These seemingly mighty pillars round which his ego has twined itself like ivy — Lloyd George and Churchill, the captains and the kings of his time — may themselves prove pasteboard, and the seemingly mighty events — the world wars, the empires which have waxed and waned, and elections which have been won and lost —turn out to deserve, not whole chapters, but only a meagre footnote. In such a footnote, despite his extensive and meticulous advance preparations, Lord Beaverbrook’s chances of receiving a mention are small indeed. Like an actor, made up, word perfect, in all his drag, he will be standing in the wings of what he confidently expects will be a gala performance, awaiting a cue which may never come. ★