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I wanted to like this book; I want to like all the books in the Extraordinary Canadians series, due to an inexplicable patriotism, central to my character.  However, this was not to be with Extraordinary Canadians: Lord Beaverbrook by David Adams Richards

It’s been almost a week since I finished reading this rather short, rather sycophantic biography and I have spent much of that time trying to think how I would phrase this review, trying to determine what exactly about the book repelled me.  Was it Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook himself?  Or was it David Adams Richards, who can’t seem to see past the chip on his shoulder?

Lord Beaverbrook was rarely mentioned in my history classes.  A background figure, most of us know him as a ‘the first baron of Fleet Street’ for the press empire he amassed and for the tabloid journalism style his papers championed.  Evelyn Waugh, one of his former employees, based the character of Lord Copper in Scoop on Beaverbrook.

Here, we learn much more about Lord Beaverbrook’s early life as New Brunswick’s Max Aitken.  Son of a Presbyterian minister, Aitken was trouble from the start.  Lying, cheating, stealing – all perfectly acceptable means to achieve his ends.  When R.B. Bennett, a future Canadian Prime Minister, was running for local office, a 17 year-old Aitken ran his campaign.  Bennett won but, after the election, was disgusted by the gross falsehoods Aitken had used to win votes, promising everything to everyone.

It’s easy to amass a fortune if you have no morals and Aitken certainly did.  He made his first million still in his twenties, but then left the country hastily; if he had stayed, he would most likely have been charged with securities fraud over his role in the Canadian cement scandal (sounds scintillating, doesn’t it?  What could be more scandalous than cement?).  Instead, he went to England, where he won a seat as an MP.

Aitken lied and cheated in his business dealings, so it’s no wonder, really, that he lied to his family and cheated on his wife Gladys.  Gladys was his greatest asset in the social circles he aspired to, a graceful, mannered woman who, said another MP of the time, would be welcome at any table or court in Europe.  Not so with the loud, rather gauche Aitken.  Not only did Aitken cheat on his wife, he flaunted it, taking his mistress out to dinner with friends, installing her first in his city apartment and then, when his family demanded to be moved up from the country after discovering the affair, into the country house his family had just vacated. 

David Adams Richards, who seems to identify with Aitken a rather alarming amount, holds him up to be the most important Canadian of the 20th Century.  This argument was never proven to my satisfaction.  Richards seems to feel all the slights against Aitken very personally, claiming that he was hated because he was rich and powerful.  Perhaps.  What seems more likely is that, rather than hating him because he had pulled himself up and made his own fortune, they hated him because he was an odious man, with no morals or manners, uncomfortable to be around and impossible trust.

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