29 MAY 1993, Page 33

Tiny's hand is finally frozen

Anthony Howard

TINY ROWLAND: A REBEL TYCOON by Tom Bower Heinemann, £16.99, pp. 659 The only previous biography of Tiny Rowland was castigated in these pages (The Spectator 2 May 1987) by Donald Trelford. So, on grounds of fair play alone, the outgoing editor of the Observer can hardly complain if this companion volume to Richard Hall's My Life with Tiny gets reviewed instead by someone he has recently taken to describing as 'my estranged former deputy'. (I was not, in fact, aware that we had at any stage lived together in a state of connubial bliss — but that's another story.) As for Mr Rowland himself, he only last Sunday gave us his own version of many of the same events chronicled here in an extraordinary 7,000- word apologia pro vita sua published in yes, you've guessed it — the ever-faithful Observer. If nothing else, it at least marked an appropriate end to the dozen years in which the world's oldest Sunday newspaper has served as the plaything of Lonrho plc. Remarkably little of Tom Bower's book turns out to be concerned with the Observer — and the part which is tends, in detail at least, to be a bit wobbly. In its place what we get is a somewhat lumbering business blockbuster, plainly designed to tell the story of a real-life Howard Hughes. The comparison cannot help leaping to mind, because the outstanding aspect of Tiny Rowland, as portrayed here, is what a sad figure he is. All that striving, all those bat- tles, all that wealth — and yet there he sits at the end slumbering morosely in front of the television set, finding his only consola- tion in banging off expensively produced brochures denouncing the way in which he was robbed of his rightful inheritance to the dwindling number among his own self- selected list of VIPs who can find the time to read them.

Where did it all go wrong? Bower does full justice to the theme of how an obses- sion can ruin the life of even a big-time tycoon. Years ago Rowland set his heart on owning Harrods. It was, if you like, a strange ambition, even a modest aspiration for a man who was accustomed to dealing with African potentates, presidents or dic- tators. What is Harrods, after all, but simply another London department store, if one that used to be of a rather grand kind? But, for Rowland, it became the Holy Grail. From the days, back in the 1970s, of his ruthless manipulation of the gamblaholic Sir Hugh Fraser — one of the more chilling tales related here — the quest to gain control of it assumed priority over everything else.

In depriving him of his prey, there can be no doubt that the British Establishment behaved very badly. In mitigation, it can only be pleaded that successive Secretaries of State for Trade — starting with a clearly bemused John Biffen — never properly understood the consuming nature of his passion. If they had, the story in political terms might well have been totally different. For, initially, there were clear advantages to the Thatcher revolution in having Tiny Rowland on its side. He stood for many of the same attitudes that the Prime Minister represented — indeed, in their irritation with institutions and their impatience to get things done, they were in many ways made for each other.

For all his prodigious research — not always matched by his writing (I lost count of the number of 'tidal waves' of this or that which 'erupted' or 'swept across' Britain) — Bower seldom betrays much consciousness of this political dimension. But in the early days it was certainly there. With his condemnation at the hands of Edward Heath (the 'unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism'), Rowland had the best possible passport to popularity with Margaret Thatcher. Until March 1985, when Norman Tebbit fatally waved through the Al Fayeds' bid for the House of Fraser, those of us on the Observer with left-wing leanings were constantly made aware that our positions were, at best, insecure.

Then overnight it all changed. Bower gets the timing wrong but it is true that Rowland once said to me: `So far as I'm concerned, Mrs Thatcher and her son should both be in the dock at the Old Bailey.' I recall thinking at the time, as I put down the telephone, that there was a danger that the paper's proprietor had flipped his lid. This book is at its strongest in describing how that process took place.

Yet the last word should surely be left to Mr Rowland himself. Writing in the Observer last weekend he defiantly declared: 'From early childhood I've heard voices calling, 'Tiny! Stop doing that at once!' As he continued to weave his elaborate web of fantasy — involving unintelligible tape-recordings, forged immigration certificates and, God save us all, 'a giant bearded figure in flowing white' — the tragedy (and not just for him) was that no one either at Lonrho or the Observer had the guts to tell him to do just that.