There are two ways of writing a successful book about oneself. The first is to be so successful in life that you command attention regardless of your prose style. The second, adopted by Ferdinand Mount, is to place the author in a self-deprecating way at the centre of a whirling mass of colourful and entertaining characters who dance in and out of his life. In this book Mount remains, by his own account, shy, abrupt, rather lazy, an iceberg in his dealings with women. Of course this negative self-portrait does not convince — there must be something else behind. Where have we met before this particular technique? Of course, in the narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time. It comes as no surprise to find that Anthony Powell was our author’s uncle. So was Frank Longford, for his mother was a Pakenham, a fact which to the connoisseur is in itself revealing. His father was an army officer and a steeplechase jockey. His parents, and Ferdy Mount himself, accumulated a mass of friends and relations, many famous, some raffish, all entertaining. Siegfried Sassoon, Isaiah Berlin, Philip Toynbee, John le Carré, the Mitfords, Donald Maclean enter the story in turn and make their bow. As a boy and young man Mount lived at the intersection of the Anglo-Irish upper classes with the intellectual elite. The traffic at that crossroads was fast and dangerous, with multiple collisions resulting in divorce or death. For Mount the crossroads, as in a dream, shifts from Ireland to Salisbury Plain with its flavour of soldiers and horses — though in my experience the Highlands of Scotland offered a similar excitement.
The literary editor of this magazine, when asking me to review Cold Cream, suggested that my life and Ferdy Mount’s might from time to time have intertwined. Factually this is true; temperamentally less so. Like him I was brought up in Wiltshire. Like him I was a scholar at Eton, taught French by Oliver Van Oss before becoming Captain of School. Like him I have written novels, four of them with one of his Oxford friends Andrew Osmond. Like him I moved into politics and worked for between four and five years at 10 Downing Street. I knew two of his uncles and several of his cousins. His mother, like mine, sent her holiday snaps to be developed by a Mr Will R. Rose in Chester, for a reason which neither of us can guess.
The tone of my memories is different, partly because my own background was more prosaic, partly because, being nine years his senior, I passed several of them in the relative soberness of wartime and postwar austerity. My Cambridge was humdrum compared to his Oxford. Ferdy writes that Anthony Powell ‘evokes the remarkable anarchic openness of English life, its quicksands and eddies and backwaters, indeed the ups and downs of life generally’. The same is true of his own fascinating book.
At times our memories brush past each other. Like him I lunched with Harold Acton at the Villa La Pietra overlooking Florence. Like him I marvelled at our host’s manner of speaking. But after several meals in his company I arrived at a different explanation. I do not think that Harold Acton was faking an Italian accent. The way in which he over-emphasised every consonant (so that Vienna and Ravenna each had at least three n’s in the middle) was a matter of generation. Having recently researched the election broadcasts of 1935 I found in several speakers, notably in Neville Chamberlain, that precise devotion to each consonant which one now only finds among educated Frenchmen. Chamberlain’s famous broadcast three years later during the Munich crisis about preparing gasmasks because of trouble in a far away country of which we knew little, illustrates the same point. The word ‘gasmasks’ lent itself well to the Acton/Chamberlain treatment.
Mount moved into politics as an assistant to Selwyn Lloyd, charged with assessing the state of the Conservative Party in the dire year of 1963. For an Etonian who had spent his life in the south, this was a vivid introduction to a provincial England which was fast disappearing. As it happens, I had the same experience going round the same cities five years later with Ted Heath as Leader of the Opposition. Mount describes those ancient station hotels where we stayed, the trains hooting deep into the night and the unvarying meals, the prawn cocktail and the tournedos Rossini and the rusty claret and the ancient camembert served from an enormous sideboard …. Across the enormous market square you could see the vast soot-blackened town hall and the covered markets … and the statues of great Victorians who had saved the manufacturing classes from ruin or disorder — Cobden, Peel, the Iron Duke.
On these expeditions both of us found a Conservative Party of a different size and shape from today. Whatever the difficulties of the moment, almost all constituencies had an agent. There were Young Conservatives, student Conservatives, Conservative trade unionists, Conservative women, Conservative Policy Centres, each with their array of office-holders ready with opinions and requiring encouragement. That particular glory has departed for good.
Having read this chapter I am prepared to revise my opinion of Selwyn Lloyd, whom I knew best at the worst point of his career, as a blustering and bad-mannered Foreign Secretary at the UN in New York in the depths of the Suez crisis. All right, he was a sincere, right-minded man who did his best, but he should have resigned rather than go along as an accomplice to his prime minister. Robin Cook, faced with a similar folly, found a better way for himself, if not for the rest of us.
Mount’s account of his time running the policy unit at No. 10 for Margaret Thatcher lacks the zest of his earlier chapters. He paints a picture of a group of gifted, somewhat sly advisers who steadily outmanoeuvred departmental ministers and the rest of Whitehall into accepting a series of enlightened measures devised by themselves. This analysis will not be found compelling by all those who, unlike myself, were involved as Cabinet Ministers in the formative years of Thatcherism between 1982 and 1984. But his account of her working methods, and his general conclusion about her reign, chime with my own. I can add a postscript to the story in which he describes her, long after the Gulf War, arguing at a dinner that we should have gone on to overthrow Saddam Hussein after liberating Kuwait in 2001. That certainly is now her view. However, in the weeks immediately following the aggression against Kuwait, Thatcher, still Prime Minister, warned me as her Foreign Secretary that the Foreign Office lawyers must be careful to limit our objectives to the freeing of Kuwait. She reminded me (as often happened) that she had read law (or on other occasions chemistry) at Oxford. She argued that we must not claim that we were entitled to insist on regime change and throw Saddam Hussein out of Baghdad. This recollection of mine seemed so counter-intuitive that I have checked, but there it is unmistakeably in my diary for August 1990.
The most entertaining parts of this book relate to Mount’s childhood and his wayward parents; his humour does not disguise his love for both of them. Out of these come magical flashes of memory. His father took him on many excursions in a rundown Morris 10 which involved stops in pubs to which minors were not admitted:
So I became familiar with the car park of almost every pub in Wiltshire — the crumbling tarmac, the buddleia sprouting from the garden wall, the crates of empties stacked by the back door, the smell of disinfectant from the Gents; how well I knew them all; the Angel at Heytesbury, the George at Codford . . .
He did not enjoy his prep school and remembered homesick nights in the dormitory:
We slept in the end, as small boys always do sleep, but I at least was usually awake to see the grey dawn light creep around the edges of the curtain and kiss
the top of the silver or leather frames of the parents’ photos which the other boys had propped on their bedside lockers. I had not seen proper posed photographs like these before, usually with a scrawling signature of Lenare under them, the mothers seen through a fine mist, often bare shouldered with several rows of pearls, the fathers in sharper focus in pinstrip suits and regimental ties.
Ferdy Mount has had several careers, but in passages like this the novelist triumphs over the journalist or politician, and ensures that in books he will always flourish.
Douglas Hurd published a biography of Sir Robert Peel and is now working with Edward Young on the lives of 11 British Foreign Secretaries.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 12, 2008