Writers Festival: A terrific determination

By Stephen Jewell

Stephen Jewell talks to esteemed British author Max Hastings about battles won and lost

Max Hastings with his dogs Jasper and Stanley at his home near Hungerford, Berkshire, Britain. Photo / John Lawrence, Rex Features
Max Hastings with his dogs Jasper and Stanley at his home near Hungerford, Berkshire, Britain. Photo / John Lawrence, Rex Features

When I meet Sir Max Hastings at a Sloane Square cafe I barely have time to sit down before the 67-year-old writer is regaling me with an entertaining anecdote about his parents' endearing eccentricities. As he wrote in his autobiography Did You Really Shoot The Television?, his mother - the one-time Harper's Bazaar editor Anne Scott-James - was fond of reminding him that all families are, essentially, dysfunctional. However, as proved by his father, Macdonald Hastings, a war correspondent-turned-BBC roving reporter, the Hastings household was more chaotic than most.

"My mother used to make some rather tough but on the whole sensible remarks about family, such as when she said to me, 'You still haven't forgiven me for your childhood'," he recalls wistfully. "But she was completely wrong about that, because I judge things by how they turn out, and my life has almost always been absolutely marvellous and whatever brains I've got I've probably inherited from her, so I don't feel any resentment."

Hastings admits he doesn't have particularly fond memories of his early years, which were mostly spent in the company of his nanny while his parents concentrated on their journalism careers. "I told my mother once that when I was 3 or 4 years old, we wouldn't have been able to pick each other out in an identity parade," he laughs ruefully. "She said, 'Do you know anyone who had a happy childhood who ever did anything with their lives?'

It's a terrible thing to say but there's a bit of truth in that, as there's a strand of anger in most people's ambitions, which is certainly true with me. When I was a child and a teenager, I was always being told how hopeless I was, so I ended up going out into the world with a terrific determination to show them that they were wrong."

Having followed in his parents' footsteps to become a leading journalist and author, Hastings hasn't done badly for himself. As a foreign correspondent for the BBC and Evening Standard, he was famously the first reporter to enter Port Stanley after the end of the Falklands War in 1982. After a decade as editor and editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph, he took charge of the Evening Standard in 1996 before retiring in 2002.

He wrote his first book, America, 1968: The Fire This Time, at the age of 23 and has since written a further 22 non-fiction titles, ranging from intensive military histories such as 1979's Bomber Command to more personal projects such as his first autobiography, 2000's Going To The Wars.

"My big sellers have been the war books but I've loved doing the other ones in between, such as my family book and my book about being a newspaper editor," he says, referring to his 2002 memoir, Editor. "It's all good fun but sometimes if you do a big book like my last one, All Hell Let Loose, you end up putting so much of yourself into them as you're thinking about huge issues and some of the greatest events of the last century. So you need a bit of recovery time after that."

Having written 10 volumes on World War II, Hastings has now turned his attention to World War I in his latest book, Catastrophe 1914, being published later this year. "I find it extraordinary that the British, at least, see World War I completely differently to World War II," he says. "Most British take what I call the poet's view of the war, which is that the whole thing was such a ghastly catastrophe that it scarcely mattered what the cause behind it was or who won. But that's a completely mistaken view, as Germany's aims in World War I were nearly as ambitious as they were in World War II.

"There was no plan to eliminate the Jews but they still wanted dominance of Europe. I believe that was a cause worth fighting for and the fact that World War I was such a disastrous military experience shouldn't be allowed to cloud that."

Hastings is aware of the significance that the 1915 Gallipoli campaign continues to hold in New Zealand. "I did a lecture in Gallipoli a few years ago and it was an extraordinarily moving thing," he says. "World War I was hugely important for both Australia and New Zealand as it gave them a stronger sense of nationality through tragedy, which they'd never had before. But Gallipoli is not such a big thing in Britain as, frankly, we've had so many military disasters."

Hastings is looking forward to attending next month's Writers & Readers Festival in Auckland, having previously praised the excellence of the Kiwi soldiers who fought in Greece during World War II. "I feel like I can look New Zealanders in the face because in All Hell Let Loose I talked about how the New Zealand infantrymen were probably the best allied fighting troops of the war," he says. "So cross fingers but I don't think there'll be any issues to fight about with people over there."

Hastings didn't receive such a positive reception across the Tasman when he controversially questioned the role Australian forces played in the Pacific War in his 2007 book, Nemesis: The Battle for Japan. "I had a terrible row in Australia because I pointed out that although some of the individual Australians fought very well, a lot didn't want to go to the war," he says. "A lot of them remained with the militia until they were made to go abroad in 1944-45, so Australia was much more politically divided during the war than many people realise."

Criticised by members of the Australian RSA and historians at the Australian War Memorial for suggesting, among other things, that Aussie troops had been on the verge of mutiny, Hastings found himself at the centre of a media storm as he was accused of disrespecting the country's heritage.

"That's something that I feel very strongly about and I haven't said anything about Australia that I haven't said about other countries, including Britain," he says. "But in the 21st century, it's not a point of being a debunker but we ought to be grown up enough to be willing to try and look honestly at what happened. One should never lose sight of the fact that our side was the good guy in the war and that our parents and grandparents deserved to win. On the other hand, it wasn't all absolutely perfect and not everybody was a hero, as some ghastly mistakes were made."

Max Hastings will appear at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival at the Aotea Centre, May 15-19.

- NZ Herald

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