‘The Beaver’ public history and Canadians

Author David Adams Richards on media mogul and outsider Lord Beaverbrook

In the song “Wave” Alejandro Escovedo recounts the various dimensions relating to the internal and external migration of Mexican peasants and proto-proletariats seeking work elsewhere. The workers left homes and families based on the illusion of better opportunities in some ill-defined mythologically constructed other place where “the sun shines brighter there and everyone’s got golden hair.”

Naturally things didn’t work out for many of these people. The result was ongoing ostracism exploitation cultural isolation and social marginalization due to the intersection of race and class within the prevailing social relations of production. (A condition by the way still experienced by many temporary foreign workers in Alberta due to the government’s limited support of workers’ rights specifically and human rights in general.) Escovedo’s song poignantly captures the implications of the idea of things being better elsewhere and the notion that all we need to do is arrive.

The novelist David Adams Richards makes the same point in his recently released biography Lord Beaverbrook (Penguin Canada 204 pp.) looking at the New Brunswick media mogul political operator and consummate outsider. Max Aitken better known as Lord Beaverbrook never seemed to fit in regardless of context and was thereby almost pathologically impelled by a desire to find success — and more importantly belonging — somewhere else. As noted by Richards “The idea that the world is your oyster comes from the fact that you haven’t found where in the world your oyster is.”

This just about sums Beaverbrook up. He enjoyed moderate political and financial success in Chatham and Saint John New Brunswick Calgary and Edmonton Alberta and Halifax Nova Scotia. However a cloud of questionable moral ethical and financial behaviour always served to overshadow these endeavours and ultimately led to his inability to fit in and gain acceptance into the higher reaches of the so-called social and economic “elite” — his ultimate goal. As a result he was constantly moving on to the next big thing — a socially useful but unfaithful marriage relocating to England ascendancy in the Conservative Party entry into the House of Lords appropriating the life of a country gentleman advocacy of Empire Free Trade creating a media empire a symbiotic and important wartime partnership with Winston Churchill and funding art and higher education in his (and my) much beloved New Brunswick.

Despite these not insubstantial steps Richards argues that Aitken never felt that he had really succeeded or belonged. He never came to terms with his physical moral political and theological sense of place. Ultimately this was true. Beaverbrook was always viewed as an outsider and according to Richards was “considered unsavoury and unethical.” He had “an eclectic personality that repelled people.”

The book one of 18 in the series Extraordinary Canadians edited by John Ralston Saul provides a solid and fluidly written overview of Beaverbrook’s life and legacy if largely in the “Great Man” historical tradition. It recounts his successes such as in the direction of wartime materials production and his failures such as his promotion of a second front resulting in the ill-conceived action at Dieppe. The book gives the standard facts names and numbers.

However this isn’t what makes the book valuable. As Richards readily admits much of this information can be found in the more standard biographies provided by writers such as Roy Jenkins and A.J.P. Taylor. “Everything else has been said” says Richards. What makes it interesting and useful in addition to the beautiful writing we have come to expect from Richards is his almost psychoanalytical presentation and analysis of “the Beaver’s” life. For example Richards argues that Beaverbrook was used by a number of older men — Andrew Bonar Law R.B. Bennett and David Lloyd George — in his pursuit of a father figure to replace his own distant and theologically rigid father and to do the actual dirty work of both politics and finances.

Richards provides a sympathetic yet insightful and balanced biography of Beaverbrook. “He has been condemned enough” for his wealth politics sins of omission and commission and his colonial origins says Richards. He recognizes the flaws of his subject and is willing to show how Beaverbrook himself caused many of his own problems. He was a psychologically complicated character (outward appearances to the contrary) and was never the master of his own fate (financial and political advancement to the contrary). In many ways he was compelled by failure or at least a sense of failure and marginalization. Richards puts Aitken’s life into context when he quotes the words of Robert Browning: “Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”