Book reviews, John Updike once wrote, ‘perform a clear and desired social service: they excuse us from reading the books themselves’. It’s a theory, I’m afraid, that doesn’t apply to this review — but it certainly does to this book: an impeccably wide-ranging collection of Ferdinand Mount’s own non-fiction reviews, including for The Spectator, over three decades.
Find yourself unaccountably vague on the premiership of Lord Rosebery? A little rusty on the life of George Gissing? Embarrassingly patchy on the history of Methodism? Thanks to Mount, there’s no need to plough through 500 pages on any of them — nor the more than 50 other subjects he covers. Now you can simply set aside a few minutes to read one of these elegant, measured and unassailably well-informed pieces instead.
Of course, in 30 years of reviewing, Mount does occasionally repeat a few trusty tactics. He’s quite fond, for instance, of quoting somebody’s verdict on somebody else — Kingsley Amis denouncing Elizabeth Jane Howard’s self-centredness, say — before turning it back on them, sometimes with the words, ‘Well, it takes one.’
And as it turns out, that same phrase often springs to mind while reading Mount himself — not least when he points out Walter Bagehot’s ability to ‘pick up any subject and give it a high bright gloss, leaving his readers confident that they now knew all they needed to know about it’. Or when he praises Bagehot’s biographer for ‘picking out the plums nicely’: something Mount also does on virtually every page. (As a result, there are far too many examples to quote, but how about Edward Heath declaring as long ago as the 1950s that ‘the nation state is dead. What has sovereignty to do with anything in the 20th century?’ Or Thomas Hardy’s chilling condolence letter to the Rider Haggards after the death of their only son: ‘To be candid, I think the death of a child is never really to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped.’)
Admittedly, the book’s introduction, like its title, suggests that we might be in for something even more ambitious than just dozens of perfectly wrought essays on subjects from Fred Perry to Margaret Thatcher, Basil Hume to Oswald Mosley, Virginia Woolf to Lord Palmerston. There, Mount supplies a careful consideration of the nature of Englishness — and, slightly more half-heartedly, what the book as a whole might reveal about it. Yet, once that’s been dispatched with a typically self-deprecating shrug (‘That at least is my excuse for parcelling up a collection’), the reviews prove not so much an exploration of the type of Englishness that Mount favours as a demonstration of it. His introduction quotes Isaiah Berlin approving of England’s ‘humane, civilised and above all, sober, undramatised, empirical view of life’ — and that’s pretty much what’s embodied over the next 500-odd pages.
The fact that his erudition is expressed in a cheerfully conversational style means that we get plenty of neat one-liners, lots of good jokes and some well-judged moments of mischief: Pepys’s
Tiggerish energy, his equal readiness to lie and to confess, his voracious acquisition of high-placed friends… his readiness to pounce on any women in any circumstances. Why, who does he remind us of? I am afraid it is Jeffrey Archer.
What it doesn’t mean, though, is that we get much in the way of controversy.
According to Martin Amis, there’s nothing as autobiographical as a book review — and even allowing for a spot of Amisian exaggeration, that doesn’t seem far wide of the mark here. Mount comes across throughout as unfailingly fair-minded, scornful of ideologies or bossiness of any kind, and with the traditional English intellectual’s distrust of intellectuals. Hence his full-throated defence of the suburbs for giving ‘most of the people what they want from a house, most of the time’. Hence, too, his unwillingness to overthrow received wisdoms just for the sake of it, rather than accept the possibility that they may be true.
Faced with such endless judiciousness, I suppose, some readers might find themselves occasionally pining for the sort of good scrap that Christopher Hitchens or Jonathan Meades would provide. What those same readers will surely find difficult, however, is honestly to disagree with much that Mount says.