There’s a constant flow of books about this region, ranging from dreary helpings of pastis-flavoured mush to works of genuine historical and social interest. These latter offer a rewarding task to the reviewer and I recall with pleasure Michael Nelson’s books on Queen Victoria’s visits to the Riviera and on the American connection to this area. Nelson is unusual in that he took up historical writing only when, at 60, he retired as General Manager of Reuters where he’d worked for 36 years. In his recently published Castro and Stockmaster: A Life in Reuters (UK: Matador) he looks back on that career and on his years as a born-again historian. (He’d been a pupil of A.J.P. Taylor at Oxford.)
Historian of “the Anglo Riviera”
According to the Financial Times, Nelson was “the real mastermind behind Reuters leap into electronic information services”. Business memoirs can be boring but he has avoided this by blending a basically chronological account with a shifting focus on a variety of topics. Along the way he introduces a diverse mix of personalities, from Maxwell and Murdoch to lesser-known figures such as Ronnie Waldman and Robert Escarpit. He has little use for the nisi bunkum approach towards those he writes of but presents his own considerable achievements with a well-managed modesty.
After retiring he got down to serious writing and in 1997 brought out War of the Black Heavens: The Battles of Western Broadcasting in the Cold War. The topic attracts me but I’ve not yet managed to get hold of the book. It was finished, by the way, in the house in Opio where the Nelsons have been spending part of the year since the early Nineties. Living here he eventually found a vocation as an historian of “the Anglo-Riviera".
In 2001 he published Queen Victoria and the Discovery of the Riviera (reviewed in Reporter 86) which made a significant and innovative contribution to the well-tilled field of the Queen’s biography. Curiously, he now reveals, when he submitted his text for comment to Lady de Bellaigue, Registrar of the Royal Archives at Windsor, he was faced with marked disapproval: “Such was her negative reaction I could see the book might never be published.” He won out finally, though, and was pleased to be told that the present Queen “said it looked most interesting and took it to Balmoral for her summer holiday”. Seven years later there followed Americans and the Making of the Riviera (reviewed in Reporter 126). Again, a work based on much thorough research and, as I wrote at the time, “a plum cake of a book, full of tasty morsels”. One remarkable discovery in a Washington archive was that as the war ended Prince Louis II, earlier an enthusiastic schmoozer of Hitler, “vainly requested the US to annex Monaco as an American territory”.
As an old pro, Michael Nelson has a scrupulous eye for copy and, as usual, offers few nits to pick: the Bowes Lyon family name, though, acquires an unwanted final-s and in the text (though not in the index) we hear of a mysterious Colombia Journalism Review.