Formula One And Beyond: The Max Mosley Myth

In a departure from the usual style of asketchofthepast.com, I have decided to write a post not only in a far more personal tone, but also about someone who is still very much alive. This is a response to the rather churlish little piece in yesterday’s Daily Mail, and the hackneyed ‘revelation,’ that Max Mosley’s 2015 autobiography, Formula One and Beyond, describes events from half a century ago with ‘selective memory.’ I have yet to come across an autobiography that would not face a similar charge.

The passage in the book which struck me most was Mr Mosley’s description of a particular conversation with his father, in which he compared their struggles and achievements at the same age. Sir Oswald, whose political career was effectively finished at the age of 34, replied ‘Well, that just shows what a mistake it is to start too soon.’ For his son, one doubts the fight will ever be over.

I met Max Mosley in September 2015. He had kindly agreed to meet me, in order to speak about his family as well as his own remarkable life. I had heard that he was impossibly charming in the flesh, and he did nothing to dispel such assertions. With the gait and appearance of a man several decades younger, and impeccable manners straight from the pages of Debrett’s guide to etiquette, Mosley embodied the sort of genteel Englishman I had always secretly hoped still existed.

After ordering tea – a macchiato for Max, I enquired about his celebrated aunts, the Mitfords. Honest to a fault, he ventured up amusing personal recollections without hesitation. Having written my thesis on the Bloomsbury Group, the most self-aggrandising and cliquey set one could possibly imagine, I found Max’s own modesty and the complete candour with which he described his famous, and in some cases notorious, relatives, as simply being ‘ordinary people,’ incredibly refreshing. He seemed genuinely confounded by the continuing interest in them.

As an historian of the inter-war period, I thought I knew all about Oswald Mosley and his resignation from the Labour cabinet in 1930, following its rejection of the ‘Mosley Memorandum’ – a series of measures aimed at tackling the dire unemployment situation blighting the United Kingdom at that time.  It turned out, I didn’t. Max told me that he had often asked his father why he had resigned, when he was being touted as a future party leader. Apparently, he replied that he couldn’t stand back and not press for the reforms outlined within his memorandum, not when he saw so many small children in his country running around without shoes.

Even before our meeting, I knew that Max had been surrounded by misconceptions since birth – like the falsehood that he was born while his mother was interred in Holloway. His birth actually took place six weeks before her arrest. Max Mosley could have milked these myths and familial connections, both lustrous and tarnished, for all they were worth, but that would have been the easy thing to do. One gets the impression that taking the easy route is simply not his style. Adapting the congenital Mitford love for all things equestrian to the twentieth century, instead, he found his own niche and became a giant of Formula One. Of course, people will always be more interested in the glitz and glamour that has attached itself to him, and continue ignoring the radical automobile safety measures whose worldwide introduction he has successfully campaigned for, effectively saving countless lives.

Although an ardent believer in the complete freedom of the press, I would nevertheless like to see a return to the days when a person’s private life was not automatically considered a matter of public interest, just because an individual happens to be a public figure. Unless some gross hypocritical duplicity were being carried out against that same public. It may be a matter of personal taste, but I find the traducing of a lifetime filled with achievement, for no more reason than keeping a failing scandal sheet like the News of the World alive, for another tawdry week, to be a much more sordid business.

My overriding impression of Max Mosley is that he is a profoundly benevolent man who pours a significant amount of his own money into causes he feels passionately about. It may be holding a powerful press accountable for misdeeds, which as a rule affect people without the resources to defend themselves, or, the treatment of those suffering from acute clinical depression. In either case the ruin that can be wrought against the impacted individual, and their family, unless it happens to you personally, should not be underestimated.

A desire to perpetuate such a status quo, for profit, quite possibly has much more to do with recent articles than any genuine yearning to protect the press. Whether one agrees with him or not, Mosley is evidently someone who when faced with the odds needs a cause to champion, perhaps not in part, because of the history of his family, torn asunder by allegiances which then divided a world into war. It was this kind of indomitable spirit that triumphed in 1945 – God help us that it now elicits derision.