April 27, 2008

UNMISTAKEABLE ENGLISHNESS:

Dances to the music of time: a review of Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes, by Ferdinand Mount (Dominic Sandbrook, 4/26/08, Daily Telegraph)

He is, he tells us at various points, gawky, reticent, cripplingly self-doubting, lazy, snooty and incompetent. He gleefully cites school reports on his "superciliousness" and "mental laziness", and after quoting his last letter to his dying mother, written when he was a teenager visiting Munich, he condemns "the intellectual snobbery, the preening hypochondria, the callous self-absorption".

If there is something unmistakeably English about this thread of comic self-deprecation, it is because Mount conceives himself to be a quintessentially English character, brought up on the Wiltshire Downs, educated at Eton and Oxford, and moving effortlessly - more by patronage than merit, he would say, although that is obviously not true - through the circles of the great and the good.

At times he casts himself as a kind of toned-down Bertie Wooster, a charming blithering idiot forever letting down one cut-glass girlfriend after another, comically tumbling through roofs and into rivers, and dashing out of dinner at the 1963 Tory party conference to be violently sick after too much champagne.

But he is irresistibly reminiscent above all of Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator of Anthony Powell's great post-war sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, and that is, of course, no accident. Powell was Mount's uncle, and the two have much in common: a fascination with lineage and tradition, a deeply humane interest in the lives and predilections of others, a sense of detachment from the whirl of events, and, above all, a kind of mingled amusement and melancholy at the vicissitudes of time and age.


On toffs and Tories: a review of Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes by Ferdinand Mount (Lewis Jones, 24 April 2008, New Statesman)
As he rambles silkily hither and yon, Mount takes in seemingly random swaths of history, social, literary and political. The political bits are the funniest, particularly those about Margaret Thatcher, whom he first met when she was 39, looking "like one of the overage milkmaids in the chorus of the Bath panto".

Years later, he finds himself accidentally working for her at Downing Street, making up her policies, writing her speeches and helping to trip up her cabinet enemies - "The target had to be lured off his own ground, denied the support of his consiglieri, disoriented and confronted by superior forces." The Mafia reference is apt, as at one stage Mount is assisted by his old fag from Eton, and there are other echoes of criminality. Getting Thatcher to utter the sentence "The National Health Service is safe with us", for example, was like pulling teeth. It "came out in the listless drone of a hostage reading a statement prepared by her captors - which is what it was".

There are some wonderfully Yes, Prime Minister moments, such as her mad dismissal of some suggestion of Geoffrey Howe's. "I can't let the mill girls of Bolton down," she tells him. "It was too late to point out that by now there weren't any mill girls in Bolton because there weren't any mills," Mount writes.

Working for her was "a holiday from irony". It sounds pretty hellish, but he grew quite fond of "this strange, tense, ruthless, but deeply honourable and usually honest woman", with her "eager, waddling walk". Returning to his panto theme, he humanises her in the spectacle of her standing "by the huge grate at Chequers, exhausted by the day's work like Cinders after a hard time with the Ugly Sisters".


Posted by Orrin Judd at April 27, 2008 10:53 AM
Comments

She was our Reagan

Posted by: mike in europe at April 27, 2008 1:56 PM

She was our Reagan too.

Posted by: oj at April 27, 2008 2:38 PM
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