Ghastly war and glorious romps: Sir Max Hastings

Sir Max HastingsSir Max Hastings  – author, journalist, broadcaster, editor – spoke in  Christchurch on Tuesday 14 May, a guest of The Press Christchurch Writers Festival. He will be in Auckland as part of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

It was a near-packed house and the audience was treated to a man who knows a lot about war and history, and can spin facts, anecdotes, letters, and diaries into an utterly compelling narrative.

Editor of The Press, Joanna Norris, introduced Max as “one of the giants of our industry”- a man with qualities of ballsiness, fearlessness and even a dash of foolhardiness.

Max talked about his book All hell let loose – a human history of World War Two. It contains his own thoughts on great issues.  He wondered if the “unfulfilled threat” of Luftwaffe attacks might have been worse than the actuality.

The book aims to convey “What was the war like?” as a “global portrait from the bottom up” – with a focus on the men, women and children of embattled societies. He acknowledges that for a small group of people WWII was a “glorious romp” (as it was for his father). But Max’s knowledge of relevant statistics and figures were sobering – 27,000 people a day died due to to war and its related effects. 92% of German military deaths were at the hands of the Russians. 350,000 Poles dies by Russian oppression. 1 in 4 Russian soldiers died.

Max also spoke about nationalistic perspectives of World War Two. Many French fought the British, and instead of fighting with the Free French, many evacuated Frenchmen went back to live in occupied France.

The situation in India was also complicated, as  Churchill refused to grant India independence. Nehru said “How can I fight for a thing that is denied to me?” In the Bengal Famine of 1943, between 1 and 3 million died of starvation while British officers continued to dine in their clubs. Churchill would not re-route shipping to get food to the people.

Food emphasised the relativity of suffering. The British has rationing. 4 out of 5 Belgian children had rickets. The Nazi and Japanese regime involved starving subject populations. The Americans had “fantastically generous allocations of food”. 800,000 died of starvation in Leningrad, and there were numerous incidents of cannibalism.

Max emphasised the moral ambiguities of war. In 1945 Stalin was in power in Eastern Europe, and the Poles in Britain were ostracised as “human sacrifices to the realities of power”. The West “lacked the political will and military means” to truly liberate those who were the original reason for going to war.

There was a lot of grief and sorrow in Max’s talk. Undertaking research for his book Bomber Command, he spoke to the crew of a flight where a young airman stayed on a plane to let the others eject: “What was the point of having a posthumous V.C. if you died at 19 without ever having kissed a girl?

Max answered a lot of questions from the audience. Behind me, was a Falklands navy veteran who reminded Max that he had been honoured to give the Editor of his favourite paper The Daily Telegraph a tour of his ship.

Speaking of his next book Catastrophe on how World War One came about, he explained the strong connections between WWI and WWII. The Kaiser’s plans were not much different from Hitler, except for Jewish genocide. The war poets spoke eloquently of the “ghastliness” of war, but offered no alternative or solution.

On today’s situation, he said the Afghan war is a “ghastly failure”. He called Dick Cheney “that idiot” for calling Muslim terrorism the greatest threat to Western civilisation, and advised “be very very careful what you get into” when discussing Syria. In his opinion:

“Something must be done” has caused more trouble in the world …

He ended with a funny maxim from his father:

Marry a girl with fat legs because they are better in bed.

Thanks Sir Max for a thought-provoking talk. If you are lucky enough to be going to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival get along to one of his sessions.

Sir Max Hastings


I love Leonard Cohen (and literary events in Christchurch)

Christchurch has a stellar selection of book-related events coming up in May. Take a look!


Tuesday 14 May sees two events: Max Hastings and Sylvie Simmons will be talking at Middleton Grange.

I’ve just finished reading I’m your man: the life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons. It is brilliant. Sylvie talked a lot to Cohen and those who know him. We delve into his family, personal life and history, and Cohen’s creative process is also unfurled and explored.

Her wealth of knowledge doesn’t get in the way of a  great story. I loved the anecdote about Iggy Pop and Cohen. Leonard spotted a personal ad in which a woman wanted to meet a man who combined the energy of Iggy and the class of Cohen. He thought they should reply as a double act – married Iggy was less keen – but the result is a fab photo of Iggy and Leonard on the couch. The Personal Ad woman must have flipped out.

PS If you want more Cohen stuff – CDs, DVDs, and books – the library has quite an impressive collection.

Max Hastings will be fascinating too. He is an author, journalist, and broadcaster who has written many books of war history and some great memoirs (I am in the throes of Did You Really Shoot the Television?: A Family Fable and it’s a witty and compelling read).

Sorry to report the Ben Goldacre event is cancelled …
Search catalogue for Bad scienceMonday 20 May: Another must-see is Ben Goldacre talking Bad Science, Bad Pharma at the Aurora Centre. Goldacre is the enemy of illogical baggy thinking. Bad Science is the kind of book that gets you all riled up. It stimulates your critical thinking and makes you look at the media’s reporting in a more jaundiced way. Crappy infographics! Science research corralled by advertisers! GGGrrrr.

His follow-up is Bad Pharma and it tackles the actions of pharmaceutical companies. Lots of library customers (including me) are keen to get their mitts on this.

These three authors will also be appearing at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

Want more literary stuff? Try The Press Christchurch Writers Festival workshops:

  • Workshops on e-publishing with author Felicity Price and publisher Jenny Howarth.
  • The Good Prose – a two-day session with Lyttelton-based columnist and author Joe Bennett.

War & rock n roll & a fab prize – The Press Christchurch Writers Festival

How is this for a fabulous literary night out? On Tuesday 14 May, The Press Christchurch Writers Festival brings you Sir Max Hastings and Sylvie Simmons:

Sir Max Hastings: Accounts from Abroad
Sir Max Hastings is an author, journalist and broadcaster whose work has appeared in every British national newspaper.
(Search our catalogue for Max Hastings’ books).

Search catalogue for All hell let loose   Search the catalogue for Editor   Search catalogue for Finest Years

Sylvie Simmons: Stories from the Life of Leonard Cohen
‘I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen’ is the definitive account of an extraordinary life. Sylvie Simmons, biographer, shares stories, insights and songs in this evening of recollections on Cohen.
(Search our catalogue for books by Sylvie Simmons)
Search the catalogue for I'm your man  Search catalogue for Neil Young

Not only do you you get to listen to these authors, there is a Auckland Writers and Readers Festival Competition. The prize includes:

  • Three nights’ accommodation and breakfast at Hotel de Brett, Auckland for two.
  • The nights are: Thursday 16, Friday 17, Saturday 18 May.
  • A Take Ten concession pass, which can be redeemed for 10 tickets to any core festival sessions (excluding special events and workshops)
  • Two additional tickets to the NZ Listener Gala Night, Thursday 16 May, 2013
  • Value: $1,430

Visit The Press Christchurch Writers Festival to book tickets for the sessions, and enter the competition.