Major Major, Memories of an Older Brother (Duckworth, 1994)
‘It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’
‘The night before my younger brother John became leader of the Tory party in November 1990 I was at No 11 Downing Street, then of course his official residence as Chancellor of the Exchequer, sitting in the kitchen with my sister-in-law Norma.’
There’s nothing like a memorable opening sentence. And the first salvo in Major Major, Memories of an Older Brother by Terry Major-Ball is nothing like a memorable opening sentence.
When Major-Ball, eleven years the senior of his sibling prime minister, brought out his autobiography in 1994, his unselfconscious and pedantic writing style, and immunity to glamour, was treated almost as a comic work by the likes of Auberon Waugh and John Wells. Few are currently saying that about the latest memoir of a political relative, Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough.
It’s tempting to describe Major-Ball as a most British, or perhaps English, phenomenon in contrast to the only-in-America Donald Trump. Too tempting, and perhaps too glib; after all, the present prime ministerial family more closely (though far from precisely) resembles their US contemporaries than it does the Downing Street kin of the early 1990s. But the curious half-fame of Major-Ball – allowing him to publish an autobiography among columns, television appearances and the odd publicity stunt – does recall a time for which one could be as nostalgic as the author himself was for a time a few decades earlier.
The media, on both sides of the Atlantic, do love to deploy a family member of a premier. Sometimes they are just good copy, like Mark Thatcher, Stanley Johnson or any given Trump. Perhaps they give a glimpse into the private individual behind the leader’s highly-polished political image, or a hint of the person they might just have been without the drive and political talent that got them to where they are: Bill Clinton’s wild half-brother Roger, or Jimmy Carter’s good ol’ boy sibling Billy.
Terry Major-Ball does both of those things. Available to, and lapped up by, the media, he was ready to be the butt of the joke on Have I Got News For You? and similar programmes – the epitome of unworldly lower-middle-class suburbia that wasn’t quite the true John Major, but which detractors took to be truth.
Their background wasn’t as cosy as that appeared. Major-Ball had partly helped bring up the future prime minister by attempting to keep alive the business founded by their now-ailing father. Continual financial struggles meant Major-Ball having to take other jobs, including in Woolworth’s, to make familial ends meet and still ‘occasionally failing to have the money needed to run the house on time’.
The family had also downsized their living arrangements (taking them to Brixton, later the site of the future prime minister’s first political triumph), but once John had left school, Major -Ball was at least able to sell the business and, for a time, work as an employee of the new owner. He then did a succession of jobs, including one at electronics firm Phillips which he lost at the height of Thatcherism. Not that the confirmed Conservative Major-Ball is bitter about the Blessed Margaret: ‘Look at all the great things she has done … We’re better off than a lot of countries. Things will come round in time. We’ve had all this before, and come out stronger.’
Major-Ball does show personal hurt at Thatcher’s later sniping at his brother, but he’s hopeful that once her own memoirs were out of the way, that would cease:
I hope those historians who were planning to say, as a footnote to her achievements, that she ‘didn’t know how to retire from office gracefully’ will return their pens to their stands unused. Then I and many others can remember her great deeds while forgetting her miscalculations.
On the outskirts of a political world where no miscalculation is allowed to go unforgotten – even then – Major-Ball’s determined optimism is as refreshing as any reminder that Trump exists is emotionally exhausting. On one occasion, he turns on the television, ‘to check the news on Teletext’, and catches Charles Moore describing their father as a ‘failed trapeze artist’; he obtains the offending journalist’s phone number, but no hostility ensues: ‘I missed Mr Moore but spoke to his wife, and she sounded such a charming lady that I was unable to voice my criticism of her husband.’
When the book was published, much was made of its wide-eyed ordinariness. One much repeated anecdote involves him accidentally drinking buck’s fizz on an empty stomach when inadvertently attending a Downing Street reception, falling asleep on a train, and finding himself at Gatwick, where he pops in to see the terminal and marvels that he had never before been to ‘an aerodrome’. But the Charles Moore passage sums up the heart of the book: this is a man fiercely protective of his younger brother, but also one who abhors confrontation, not through cowardliness, rather innate politeness.
Had Major not had a brother like Major-Ball, prepared to help support the family even at the expense of any personal ambitions he may have had, the boy from Brixton might not have had the opportunity to make the short trip across the Thames to Westminster. What a contrast to the clan currently in the White House, or even to the Johnsons, who do not appear a family devoid of mutual love, but who haven’t been tested by circumstance like the Major-Balls.
The story of Tom Major-Ball, father of Terry and John, was often recounted during Major’s premiership. Brought up in the US, he became a vaudeville act and trapeze artist, touring the Americas, before returning to the UK and music hall and then, his performing career over, setting up a business making garden ornaments – it was all presented as an exotic contrast to the supposedly grey and dull prime minister.
Terry Major-Ball, who was retired by the time his brother became prime minister and relished the job of researching family history, is delighted to recount his father’s anecdotes about sailing to America, working in circuses and music halls, and accidentally stumbling into a Uruguayan revolt. But, with Major-Ball’s undiscriminating approach, it is just as important to record that, on moving to Walsall, his father obtained swimming proficiency certificates and played local league water polo.
At this point, it’s worth pointing out that Major-Ball had a Boswell, in the shape of long-time Evening Standard diarist James Hughes-Onslow. In his introduction, Hughes-Onslow explains that he knows Major-Ball ‘from long telephone calls … clarifying important matters as what the Prime Minister has for breakfast’ It was after meeting him at a fair in Brixton and hearing a ‘steady stream of family anecdotes’ that he suggested writing them down. Hughes-Onslow knocked into shape Major-Ball’s prose (‘family history and political philosophy told as only he could do it, but not as structured as a publisher would require’), well aware that ‘the sniggering classes will snigger at this book’.
It was Hughes-Onslow, I suspect, who made sure to start an otherwise strictly chronological book with Major’s elevation to prime minister, or at least on the night before, sending out the still Chancellor’s driver out to get the two brothers some pie and chips. Then the following night, Major-Ball is angered while watching parliamentary profiler Andrew Roth get some facts wrong about his father’s various name changes, which was to ‘provide the necessary spur’ to follow Hughes-Onslow’s suggestion that he should take his pen from its stand and use it.
The opening chapter also details Major-Ball’s sudden appearance in the media spotlight as a press pack gathers at his front door, rather caught in the headlights on News at Ten on the day his brother won the leadership election. Norma Major later arranges an ex-directory number for her brother-in-law, but eventually Major-Ball ‘has given up trying to avoid’ the press, usually answering in such detail that ‘I probably bore them’. By the book’s account, Downing Street made no attempt to prevent or protect the prime ministerial sibling from becoming a minor celebrity, probably as John Major knew his brother would be unchanged by the experience, and remain loyal to family.
The rest of the book is a tribute to that. All of the author’s relations are painted only in positive colours. Major-Ball is a frequent visitor to Number 10 and Chequers, and marvels thar the PM’s apartment is ‘the most exclusive spot for a cup of tea in London’ (lots of anecdotes in the book involve a cup of tea being drunk at some stage), but you will look in vain for phrases like ‘Black Wednesday’, ‘Bastards’ or ‘Back to Basics’.
Although it might well have proved lucrative for him to give voice to some staunch ‘common sense opinions’, Major-Ball also largely keeps his own views to himself. He obviously held them, though. Occasionally he bemoans ‘the BBC’s left-wing Panorama programme’, or complains that his local council has replaced paving stones with tarmac (‘the path to mediocrity’), or confesses: ‘It’s not politically correct, but I do like bacon and eggs.’ One chapter ends with him suggesting: ‘The hard-pressed police in Brixton today must wish they encountered a few more people as innocent as me’ – but that is literally a gnomic comment: he had been carrying a bag of animal-moulded garden ornaments when stopped by the officer on Coldharbour Lane. Major-Ball is not here to pontificate.
Doubtless, the book would not have existed without John Major being prime minister, but the book isn’t solely about him. Major-Ball tells a story of an unusual family, who stayed together despite testing times, and of a personally hard life, in which one of the few comforts was discovering the joys of Butlin’s in Bognor Regis. Then after the success of his brother (which thrills yet doesn’t seem to surprise him), Major-Ball himself – now in enforced retirement – is suddenly given opportunities of which he could never have dreamt.
It’s not just that he can pop into Number 10; there are all sorts of unexpected fringe benefits. After he recounts the accidental Gatwick visit to Hughes-Onslow, he’s whisked off on a VIP visit to New York where he meets Liza Minelli, Alexander Chancellor and Claus von Bülow. Even then, he remains true to himself. The one-time electricity board worker was just as keen for a ‘long talk with some men down a manhole’ about how the underground wiring works in Croydon, and finds time to chat with the local cops (‘as the Americans call them’) about why they carry guns, concluding: ‘They seem friendly enough to me.’
He also bores his escort Hughes-Onslow with a lengthy trip to the City Library to search for records of his father’s performing days in the USA. His companion might have hoped for a fun week and some good copy, but Major-Ball was not a man to be distracted by bright lights when there was family business to be attended to.
Although the book ends here, with Major-Ball wondering if going anywhere else after his New York experience would be an anti-climax, his fame only increased, and he presented a series of travelogues for the BBC. He took his brother’s political demise, and thus the end of his own spell as a minor celebrity, with good grace, and his family research actually helped write a little history, since it was put to use in John Major: The Autobiography.
The ‘sniggering classes’, of course, did have a few guffaws at Major-Ball’s expense, not least when Major Major came out. But the story of an ordinary and tough life, adjacent to a brother who ended up somewhere extraordinary, does remind you of an often overlooked truth: even in the highly charged political atmosphere of today, those who hold high office are human beings. And it would be comforting to think that occasionally, one of them would come from a family as, frankly, functional as the Majors appear, certainly one as close and loving.
‘I have failed to discover any skeletons at all,’ he writes, but that isn’t quite true. He was in fact one of the very few people privy to the information that his brother had an affair with Edwina Currie, and had lived with an older woman while recovering from a broken leg in his younger days (merely saying that John was staying with ‘friends’). When it really mattered, Major-Ball, often so keen to tell pressmen all they wanted to know and more, was admirably discreet.
 Ball was Tom’s real name, Major a stage name he used before combining the two in private life. The youngest of his children was known only as John Major because his mother signed the form at the registrar’s with the single surname. The father liked the simplicity of the name ‘John Major’ so it was kept.