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Eminent Elizabethans

Rupert Murdoch, Prince Charles, Margaret Thatcher & Mick Jagger

by Piers Brendon

Few books have had the impact of Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians. Published in 1918, his devastating, cynical and brutally unfair portrait of four representative characters of the age (Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and General Gordon) smashed the starched image of the Victorian generation. Ever since, plenty of biographers have tried to copy Strachey's style, but only one has ­succeeded: Piers Brendon, whose Eminent Edwardians, with its cruelly witty portraits of Lord Northcliffe, Arthur Balfour, Emmeline Pankhurst and Robert Baden-Powell, was ­arguably even better than the original. Now, more than three decades on, Brendon has returned to the genre with the waspish Eminent Elizabethans, impeccably timed to prick the bubble of national self-congratulation after the diamond jubilee and the Olympics.

Brendon's four subjects (Rupert Murdoch, Prince Charles, Margaret Thatcher and Mick ­Jagger) could hardly be better known. All four, as he notes, have been immensely controversial ­figures; what unites them is that 'each tilted against the old order to maintain the status quo'. Brendon sees them as reactionaries in radicals' clothing; they were, he thinks, representative of their compatriots, who aspired to progress while cherishing a nostalgia for the past. This certainly rings true in Thatcher's case, and Brendon quotes her former aide, Matthew Parris, who never met anybody in politics who had a firmer belief in doing certain things because they were the done thing. This sat oddly, of course, with her endlessly advertised radicalism. But then the past 60 years has been an age of infinite contradictions. As Jagger's drug supplier once remarked, even the Rolling Stones' lead singer, when not debauching teenage groupies, was haunted by anxiety 'in case someone spilt coffee on his Persian carpets'.

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If Eminent Elizabethans lacks the impact of its predecessors, it is because its characters are so ­familiar. Most readers will have already digested mountains of newsprint about Murdoch and Thatcher, and most of Brendon's anecdotes come second- or third-hand.

The book, though, is often brilliantly funny. Brendon notes, for example, that Murdoch's rival, the Australian press baron Sir Frank Packer, proposed to call one of his magazines Women's Monthly, conflating a period and a periodical. He calls Prince Charles a royal oxymoron and describes Rab Butler, who supposedly arranged for Charles to lose his virginity to a suitable young woman, as the Pander of the Bedchamber. As for Camilla, she was educated in a typically upper-class fashion - her first school was called Dumbrells, the r presumably being silent. But as Brendon remarks, she was not without qualities, since friends described her as mind-­bogglingly good at sex. She nannied [Charles] out of his inhibitions, he writes, apparently telling him to pretend that she was a rocking-horse.

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Brendon's great skill lies not just in telling funny stories, but in puncturing his subjects' vision of themselves. He is particularly tough on Jagger, who comes across as a selfish pouting opportunist, a pantomime demagogue ... slinking around the stage like a latter-day Messalina. But he is equally hard on the other Stones: Brian Jones was a baby-faced ex-public schoolboy prone to ­larceny, brutality and lechery, while Keith ­Richards loathed being turned into a sideshow, though he seemed increasingly suitable for one - his face seemed to have been invaded by termites and his hair, encompassed by a headband, resembled a triffid escaping from a plant pot.

By contrast, his other subjects emerge unexpectedly well. Brendon says, for example, that Murdoch has been a cannier and more constructive media proprietor than the usual caricatures allow, and he praises Thatcher's work ethic, attention to detail and command of facts. (She was, he reports, astonished to discover how ­stupid ­Ronald Reagan was.) Surprisingly, it is Charles who comes out on top. Brendon is ­merciless in chronicling his eccentricities - the fox's penis bone he is said to wear on his lapel; the seven eggs, boiled for different lengths of time, that he demands at breakfast - yet he evidently sees the prince as basically a decent chap. After the death of Diana, he writes, Charles rebuilt his image with warmth, charm, courtesy, pertinacity and self-deprecating humour. Surely a knighthood awaits; after all, it is hard to imagine Strachey ­writing that about anybody.

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