This new biography has to establish that it adds to Taylor’s work. It certainly does not replace it. But Williams writes fluently and wisely, and judges the Beaver’s reputation in the new light of a declining press, a low and dishonest political class, and 21st-century sensitivities about race and gender which would have baffled the young Max Aitken. As for new material, the chapters about Aitken’s business conquests and dealings in Canada are detailed, fascinating and often shocking – Taylor’s grasp of the laws of the takeover jungle was much less expert. Williams also discusses Beaverbrook’s private life, an area Taylor left mostly unexplored.
If you feel under-informed about the early Canadian cement industry — in which Aitken made his first cheeky fortune — here is your manual. Dominion Wire Manufacturing, Canada Screw and the Canada Bolt and Nut Company: all lurk in these pages. Yet context is probably useful. The tedium of Canadian business (not to mention likely lawsuits) encouraged Aitken to emigrate to Britain, as he does on the 86th of this volume’s 517 pages. Beaverbrook is remembered in Fleet Street for telling reporters to “keep it short”. Lord Williams’s editor should have done the same... Despite Williams’s humdrum prose — he starts too many sentences with “to be sure” — it becomes exhausting to contemplate Beaverbrook’s prodigious energy, even while he suffered chronic asthma. We may think Brexit an upheaval, but Beaverbrook lived through endless political crises, from the brinkmanship of national governments to the general strike, Abyssinia, the Abdication and world wars.