Max Hastings.

Did You Really Shoot the Television?: A Family Fable

Did You Really Shoot the Television?
A Family Fable
Max Hastings

For Charlotte, Harry and Calypso: the next generation

Table of Contents

Cover Page

Title Page



One The Tribe

Two Lewis and Basil

Three Stagestruck

Four Mac

Five Anne

Six War Work

Seven The Odd Couple

Eight Success Stories

Nine Rural Idylls

Ten Bush Fever

Eleven Mac on the Telly

Twelve Castaway

Thirteen Late Editions

Fourteen Headstones



By the Same Author


About the Publisher


I am the least significant character in the story which follows. But it was an enquiry about the fate of the TV set in the London family flat of my childhood which prompted me to embark upon it. Throughout the long life of my mother, the journalist and gardening writer Anne Scott-James, I wrote little about our tumultuous family experiences. In 1986, featured as the castaway on the BBCs Desert Island Discs, I dodged tricky questions about parental relations. I incline to my mothers view, that All families are dysfunctional. However, when she enjoyed the same experience on DID in 2003 and of course, most of us find it pleasing to talk about ourselves in such a context at the age of ninety, she was much less inhibited. To the audiences delight and my toe-curling embarrassment, she regaled Sue Lawley with tales of our old squabbles, and of my admittedly pretty frightful childhood behaviour. For weeks afterwards, people came up to me in filling stations and other unlikely places, demanding: Ere did you really shoot the television? We shall address that question in due course, but I want to make plain immediately that it was not a big set.

The latter part of the book evokes personal memories of my parents and childhood, partial and fragmentary as all such yarns are.

Until we reach the 1950s, however, I have sought to sketch some of the doings of the Hastingses and Scott-Jameses who came before me. Their experiences, journalistic and adventurous, fed my own aspirations. The tale is not founded upon delusions that our family has been important. The bylines of Macdonald Hastings and Anne Scott-James, which were modestly celebrated in the mid-twentieth-century media, are quite unknown to a younger generation, as is the way of the world. Most of us have been nearly people. Some of the clan, indeed, barely kept their heads above water. We have spasmodically proved capable of making a little money, but never of hanging on to it. Though our collective experiences all over the world in the past century of war and peace have been varied and picaresque, other English middle-class families can boast similar excitements. What is unusual, I think, is that our lot wrote it down. Even the least materially successful were highly literate. They committed to paper what happened to them at school and at home, in fashion studios and newspaper offices, on battlefields, in the African bush, and even on a desert island.

The story is based upon published and unpublished autobiographical material assembled by its principal characters. Beyond the miscellany of family papers which I possess back to the 1850s, my grandfather Basil wrote a book entitled Memoirs of a Child; his brother, great-uncle Lewis, published an anecdotal autobiography, Dragons are Extra; Lewiss son, cousin Stephen, likewise wrote The Drums of Memory. My father, Macdonald Hastings, published Jesuit Child and Gamebook, together with accounts of his most memorable journalistic exploits The Search for the Little Yellow Men and After You, Robinson Crusoe. My mother wrote Sketches from a Life and In the Mink, which professed to be a novel, but was an almost undisguised memoir of her time in the fashion business. Her father, Rolfe Scott-James, published mostly literary criticism, but left a manuscript account of his relationships with some literary idols of his day. My stepfather, Osbert Lancaster, wrote a memoir of his childhood, All Done from Memory.

In addition, they produced millions of words of journalism, more than a few about themselves. Wherever possible here, I have allowed them to tell the tale in their own words. Such an approach is not a formula for objectivity. Leslie Stephen, creator of the Dictionary of National Biography, observed that No good story is ever quite true. But this is a book designed to divert and entertain, rather than to enrich the annals of the times.

A very ordinary familys doings attain interest when its domestic details are preserved from a century ago. There are lots of gaps things which I have been unable to discover. For knowledge of feuds and scandals, for instance, I am dependent upon anecdotage rather than documentary evidence. Tolstoy famously observed that all happy families are alike, while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. That line prompts me to recall a sally of my mothers, one day as we were lunching together, when she was a mere adolescent of eighty. You still havent forgiven me for your childhood, have you? she said, with her customary abruptness. I replied that she was quite wrong about that. One should judge things by how they turn out. Most of my life has been uncommonly fulfilled. I probably inherited from her whatever talents I possess. I added, however: If you try a different question did I enjoy my childhood? the answer is no. When I was three or four, I doubt that you and I would have recognised each other in an identity parade. Mumsy paused for a moment, brooding. Then she said: Whoever did you hear of who did anything with their lives who had the next bit in tones of withering scorn a happy childhood? She claimed that Frank Muir, her fellow panellist on the 1960s and seventies BBC radio quiz game My Word, was the only clever man she ever met whose domestic life appeared satisfactory from the cradle to the grave.

There may be something in what she said, though I doubt that its moral would deserve a place in a manual on child-rearing. On my side, there seems merit in writing a book like this at sixty-three, rather than at thirty-three or forty-three. Whatever follies Mummy and Daddy committed, I have had time to learn, as we all do, that the only privilege of children is to make different mistakes from those of our forebears. I have so often failed as parent, husband and everything else that I now understand, as few of us do before middle age, how hard it is to get things right.

Some details: in the text below, I refer to each family member by name rather than relationship. Thus, my parents are Mac and Anne, rather than Father and Mother, except when I write explicitly about our dealings with each other. I have mentioned money a good deal, because when I read books about other peoples lives I like to be told how they did, or did not, make ends meet. Trollope shocked his contemporaries by itemising in print the earnings from each of his novels, but posterity is grateful. I have said less about my sister Clare than her part in the family experience deserves, because it would be wrong to associate her with my perspective and judgements. Six years younger than me, a big gap in childhood, she saw things in her own way, invariably more temperate and less jaundiced than my own. Mac, Anne and I alike owed her more apologies than ever got expressed, for many and various injustices which we inflicted upon her. Likewise my half-sister Harriet Hastings, born in 1964, near the conclusion of the story told in these pages, has plenty to forgive us all for. I am happy here to make my own act of contrition to both siblings.

I have not written much about my own schooldays, which were disagreeable in the usual banal way. This is the story of a family, not about the miseries of English boarding education for boys who are no good at games. I have described in earlier memoirs Going to the Wars and Editor my experiences first as a foreign correspondent, later running the Daily Telegraph for a decade. Did You Really Shoot the Television? is a prequel. I have written it in fits and starts, and held back from publication until my mother, last of her generation of Hastingses and Scott-Jameses, was dead. My admiration for her will become plain, but she never appreciated my jokes.

I grew up with an exaggerated pride in my familys journalistic and literary heritage. I only realised in adulthood how modest this is by the standards of serious writers. At the outset, I was obsessed with sustaining it. At seventeen, I had read almost all the forty-odd books which the previous two generations of Hastingses and Scott-Jameses had then published. Like most children, I passed through a phase of awe towards my parents, into one of scepticism which persisted for several decades. Today, I can enjoy the memory of my own mistakes alongside theirs, and draw pleasure from the fact we alike experienced adventure, editorship and authorship. A condescending critic might say that we scrambled on the lower slopes of literary endeavour. I prefer to think of us all as reporters, sharing many of the same thrills and spills three generations in turn discovering that you are as good as your last story, until finally, as Tourneur observes, That which would seem treason in our lives is laughter when we are dead.

Max Hastings

Hungerford, Berkshire

ONE The Tribe

Lots of families possess delusions of grandeur about their ancestry, and ours is no exception. Tess Durbeyfields feckless peasant father liked to indulge a fantasy about his descent from the grand Dorset family of dUrberville. Some modern Hastingses of our branch of the name cherished a notion that they should be earls. Both my father and his cousin Stephen were at pains to assure me that if there was any justice in the world, the Huntingdon peerage would rest in our hands, rather than in those of the upstart Hastingses who possess it. They wasted several hundred pounds, significant money fifty years ago, on a joint attempt to prove as much, with the aid of professional genealogists. Steve, a veteran Tory MP and Master of Foxhounds, married en secondes noces into the grand Fitzwilliam family. In old age, he became rather cross when I suggested that in truth and as the evidence shows our paternal ancestors were a pretty humble lot. Though some important people in British history have been called Hastings, it is impossible to trace connections between them and us. Walter Pater, asked if he was related to the French painter of the same surname, answered: I hope so; I believe so; I always say so. This is charming, but silly.

I have no idea what our family did with itself before the nineteenth century, when we emerged as small-town Northern Irish Catholics, in an era from which few records of such people survive. Since Hastings is not an Irish name, I would surmise that some ancestor crossed from England in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, perhaps as a soldier. The first of my forebears of whom I know anything is James, who lived at Brooke-borough, Co. Fermanagh, in the early 1800s. The most notable characteristic of the Brookeborough Hastingses was that they were not merely Papists, in that fiercely Protestant society, but devout ones. God played a dominant part in their lives throughout the ensuing century. In the bitter years before Catholic Emancipation, when the 1798 uprising was a recent memory, several of them emigrated to the United States, where two became Jesuits.

My own great-great grandfather, Hugh, born in 1810, briefly attended Queens University in Belfast, moved to England in 1827, married a Wiltshire girl named Ann Sweatman, and taught mathematics and classics at various schools. He worked for a time in the 1850s as a jobbing writer at Knights Agency in Fleet Street, producing essays and articles on any subject required, including the geography of Fermanagh and the topography of London. This was the familys first association with the Grub Street world which would loom large in our lives in the following century. In 1857 Hugh emigrated to America, where he taught at a school in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He was living there with his five children, among them my great-grandfather Edward, born in 1850, when John Brown staged his famous raid, which helped to precipitate the US Civil War. I still possess my great-great aunts narrative of the drama.

Conflict brought only grief to the Hastingses. Hugh was too old to fight, even had he wished to. His enthusiasm for the Southern cause prompted him to invest his tiny savings in Confederate bonds, an early instance of the familys hereditary improvidence. When he decided to return to England, he was obliged to borrow the passage money from a friend. Late in 1862, broke and disappointed, Hugh Hastings reached London once more with his family. He spent the last years of his life teaching at University College School.

Somehow, despite their modest income, there was just enough cash to send Edward to Stonyhurst, the grim Jesuit public school in Lancashire for the education of English Catholic gentlemens sons. In 1867, the boy had just completed five Spartan years when his father suffered a stroke and died. Family hopes that Edward might study science at London University were dashed. He had to make a living. He was articled to a solicitor at a salary of thirteen guineas a quarter, and remained a solicitors clerk, albeit later a valued and well-paid one, for the rest of his life. Fortunately, a family friend provided him with an allowance of ?75 a year to supplement his earnings.

In 1877, Edward married Elizabeth Macdonald, a Scottish teacher working in Carlisle heaven knows where they met. The couple produced eleven children. The familys income never much exceeded ?400, yet on this they managed to occupy a relatively large and comfortable London house south of the river 29 Trinity Square, Borough and to send all the boys to Stonyhurst. Edward and his family inhabited the genteel lower-middle-class world familiar to us through The Diary of a Nobody. His writings and experiences echo those of Mr Pooter. Yet the family correspondence also reveals Edward, like his father, as a literate and devout Pooter, fluent in Latin and Greek. His religion was the core of his life.

Basil Macdonald Hastings, Edwards second son and my grandfather, was to become the first of the family who made a living from the pen. His boyhood in that big Victorian family the Tribe, as they called themselves is minutely recorded, because many years later he published a charming account of it, Memoirs of a Child. He said nothing of his fathers spiritual torments and worldly disappointments. Basil merely rejoiced in an early life full of incident, in which a modest income somehow sufficed to provide fun as well as education. I first read his narrative when I was twelve, and it inspired me with a sense of heredity which is usually the privilege of grander dynasties.

Probably because Edwards financial circumstances made close budgeting essential, as well as because he possessed a meticulous temperament, he commissioned custom-printed account books. In these, he recorded every detail of expenditure on behalf of each member of the ever-expanding Tribe. Ethel, his first child, arrived in 1879; Lewis, the eldest son named for Leyson Lewis, the family benefactor who provided Edward with his vital allowance in the following year; my grandfather Basil in 1881. Thereafter babies, all born at home, followed in a profusion that must have gladdened the heart of the family priest. Like Dickenss much-put-upon clerk, the Cherub Reginald Wilfer of Our Mutual Friend, Edward had a limited income and an unlimited family. The account books eventually contained separate pages for:

Hastings Mrs E

Hastings Ethelreda Agatha Gordon

Hastings Lewis Macdonald

Hastings Basil Macdonald

Hastings Gladys Mary Fraser

Hastings Beryl

Angela Macdonald

Hastings Claude Hugh

Hastings Aubrey Joseph

Hastings Everard Ignatius

Hastings Eulalia Emily Macdonald

Hastings Muriel Magdalen

Hastings Rene Francis

In 1890 the familys annual income was ?416, of which household costs consumed ?200, rent a further ?70, an annual holiday ?17.11s.3d. Edward recorded expenditure upon himself of ?6.2s.0d on clothes; 2s on hair cutting; ?11.0s.6d on lunches; ?3.12s.0d on travel. In 1901, the last year for which the account books survive, his salary was just ?312.10s.6d, the familys expenditure ?319.17s.5d. This included seventeen tons of coal at ?22.10s.6d; lunches at ?6.2s.6d; ?10 on a holiday; ?6.2s.0d for clothing; one penny for a diary; half a crown for postage; ?20 for Elizabeth; ?3 or ?4 apiece on the children, including 3s.5d for dress-lining for Beryl, and 2s.4d for Claudes sand shoes. There were also assorted halfpennies for orphanages and the destitute; a few pennies apiece to the church choir, school treats and various Catholic charities. Edward bought one suit a year, collarless to save on the expense of ties. He paid ?10 in income tax.

He was obsessed with keeping records, a habit honed by thirty years in a solicitors office, and he made his children follow suit. From their earliest years, transgressions were minuted. They were required to make formal confessions or promises of future good behaviour, like this one signed by Lewis:

I Lewis Macdonald Hastings do hereby pledge myself to my father as under

1. not to buy on credit

2. not to apply again to my father for a loan

3. to repay present loan of ?2.5.0 by weekly instalments of 5/

4. I represent to my father that I want the present loan to repay R. Gray for a liability they have incurred on my behalf for a suit of clothes

5. to buy myself a nightshirt.

Basil suffered similar embarrassments, which he was also obliged to confess. Edward debated his own dilemmas in writing, as in this memorandum to himself, dated 2 May 1901: Question: whether having power either to send Claude and Aubrey to Stony-hurst or to Wimbledon we ought to exercise that power in favour of Stonyhurst when the consequences will be that Muriel cannot be sent to school till she is 16. Stonyhursts fees were ?14.18s.5d a year, plus ?2.8s.6d clothing allowance. Edward considered, and rejected, a notion that if he borrowed money, Muriel might be sent away to school at fifteen. Instead, he made minute calculations about the cost of journeys to Lancashire. He concluded that a few pence could be saved by ensuring that the boys always took the college trap from the nearby station at Whalley. It was decided that Claude and Aubrey should indeed be sent to Stonyhurst, using portmanteaux bought for Basil and Lewis.

Edwards children lived in awe of their father, perceiving his profound commitment to conducting life as religion taught. Basil wrote later of his fathers nobility, his behaviour as an example of light and guidance. Edward kept a secret journal in Greek characters, in which he described strivings with his own conscience which became more pronounced and indeed tortured as he grew older. He scarcely ever lost his temper. Once, after displaying anger to their maid, in the midst of the following Sunday lunch he summoned the girl and apologised in front of his children. Basil described him: Silent, always apart, he passed through the world shunning company, afraid that he might become too attached to temporal things.

A priest who was a family friend described him as the ideal Catholic layman. Basil said: You cannot write down how people are good. You just know it and cannot get away from it. I dont think any of us remember his ever doing anything or buying anything for himself. He just worked and worked and prayed and prayed. Sometimes, the mater would buy him a packet of cigarettes and he would smoke one each evening. I think he was a little ashamed of that luxury. Each night, Edward blessed each of his children before they went to bed. In May there was always an altar to Our Lady on the staircase, before which the family gathered for prayers. Even by the standards of the Victorian era, the severity of the regime which Edward imposed upon himself seems flagellatory.

Yet nobody could exercise effective control over eleven children once their father disappeared to his office. Basil wrote: Our garden was enormous, actually hedges and a mulberry tree. The hedges were absolutely right for ambuscades and sitting behind to eat all your sweets if you didnt want to give any away. Once the garden was all dug up into trenches in the most perfect manner (in connection with the drains) and the kids played at the Boer War, which was on at the timeThey must have done it pretty well because we had a genuine Spion Kop where all the garden refuse had been piled up.

When it rained, the back garden became swamped. Two French boys named Louis and Albert were then summoned from next door to re-enact the battle of Trafalgar. Lewis played Nelson, of course, though Basil as Hardy refused to kiss him. The Tribe were bemused by Louis and Alberts ready acquiescence in defeat, but in those days the French seemed resigned from birth to English superiority. On other days the children enacted the battle of Lake Regillus, or put planks across the garden inundation and played Horatius holding the bridge across the Tiber. The Pater made them learn reams of Macaulay by heart, and they put the knowledge to good use. Lewis acted Horatius. Small members of the Tribe served as Tarquins, who fell in the swamp after being stabbed, so that we were usually dragged in to tea and dripping instead of butter.

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