WHEN the naked, 22-stone corpse of Robert Maxwell was fished out of the Mediterranean, off the Canary Islands, on November 5, 1991, his manner of death was regarded as a mystery. Did he fall off the back of his boat accidentally, possibly while having a pee, was he murdered by Mossad (a theory advanced in an Israeli book) or did he commit suicide?
Suicide became favourite a few months later when it was discovered that the Daily Mirror pension fund had a £460 million hole in it and that his whole empire was on the brink of collapse. The theory was that he must have killed himself out of guilt or to avoid the global humiliation and likely imprisonment that would follow his fall from grace.
I came across Maxwell many times over the years and never believed he would take his own life and would certainly never have felt guilty, or afraid, about anything.
John Preston’s new biography, which has been widely admired, supports the theory of accidental death after falling off his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine. Preston reports that the Israelis, before Maxwell was buried like a revered head of state on the Mount of Olives, did a second post-mortem and found a badly torn muscle in his side, suggesting that he had clung to the boat’s rail after falling off, possibly for many hours, until exhaustion or a heart attack finally broke his grip.
I first heard of Maxwell in the mid-1960s when highly polished promotional material for his Pergamon Press, which published scientific books and journals (which he had picked up cheaply at the end of the war in Germany) would regularly cross my desk when I was editing a paper in Malawi. Each handout would be accompanied by a picture of the extremely handsome Captain Maxwell in his war-time uniform and wearing his Military Cross. It was said later that the MC was about the only thing about Maxwell that wasn’t fake, having been pinned on by Monty himself for “showing no fear for his life” in battle.
A decade or so later, when I was editing The Observer, I found that one of his companies printed our colour magazine. So I would meet him from time to time when I visited the printing works in the west country, when he would turn these occasions into a celebration of his company’s relationship with the paper. I remember sitting next to his French wife, Betty, and being surprised that she was such a highly civilised person, totally unlike her braggart and bully of a husband.
I used to be invited to his family parties at Headington Hill Hall the stately home he rented from Oxford city council. My then wife didn’t approve and would rarely go with me, but I took the view that as a journalist it was useful to get to know the famous people we wrote about if the opportunity was offered. I took the same view about meeting Richard Nixon.
Some of these evenings were hilarious, though they weren’t meant to be. I remember the ambassador for Bulgaria standing up on one occasion and praising Maxwell as if he was a saint. On one of their wedding anniversaries each of his children stood up in turn and said what a loving father he was and how proud they were of him. They didn’t mention that they were often slapped around and shouted at and were scared to death of him. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t risk asking my children to stand up in public and say what they thought of their old Dad.
It was remarkable how many otherwise sensible people were happy to work with and for Maxwell, even though they knew he was a “wrong’un.” Peter Jay, a former British ambassador in Washington, worked as Maxwell’s chief of staff, yet said of him later: “He was not so much immoral or amoral as pre-moral – wholly unaware of things like good and evil.” Bankers and lawyers were only too glad to take the substantial fees he generated. One of them, Jacob Rothschild, is said to have told a friend after helping Maxwell with a complicated takeover deal: “It was 3.15 in the morning when I realised that my client was a crook.”
On a visit to Moscow I had lunch with the then British ambassador, who fulminated at the fact that he couldn’t get access to Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, while Maxwell could simply waltz into the Kremlin to see him whenever he liked.
Once I fell out badly with Tiny Rowland, whose company owned The Observer, over an article I had written exposing Robert Mugabe’s atrocities. This was a serious commercial embarrassment to him, since Lonrho had huge interests in Zimbabwe which my article had put at risk. Rowland threatened to sell the paper when he found that the conditions attached to his purchase (mostly drafted by me) prevented him from sacking me, and was seen having lunch with Maxwell at the Savoy Hotel. Up to that point I had the support of the journalists, but when Maxwell became their potential boss they began to back off, as did the printers, who were terrified of him taking over.
I knew his meeting with Maxwell was just a bluff, and so it proved when we finally made up with one of the most absurd public statements ever made. Rowland and I said: “We have three things in common. We both love The Observer. We both love Africa, and we love each other.”
While a Maxwell takeover still seemed possible, he was interviewed about his plans for The Observer. He was asked: “What will you do about Donald Trelford?” After a pause he replied: “I’d stamp on him.”
The Daily Mirror gave their old boss a heroic front page send-off: “The Man Who Saved the Mirror..” It turned out that he had nearly destroyed it. When Michael White of Guardian appeared to welcome Maxwell’s demise, the Mirror’s political correspondent, Alastair Campbell, threw a punch at him. Campbell was soon to find another hero in Tony Blair.
You heard it here
Only last week I questioned who would bat at number three for England against India and bemoaned the fact that Jonny Bairstow, who had played valiantly in a role in Sri Lanka, had been sent home to rest. I assumed that the selectors would give the job to Zak Crawley, who had failed in all four Test innings as an opener in Sri Lanka. That was their plan until Crawley fell and hurst his wrist.
So they were left with no established number three and sent in poor Dan Lawrence, who had only played in two Tests and never batted at number three. The result: he got a duck, leaving Joe Root to face two overs before lunch in which he nearly ran himself out. Come back, Jonny!