“Reserve is my habitat — I am a one-man reservation”, says Ferdinand Mount, early on. One might think that this would be a disabling trait in an autobiographer, but in fact it is what gives this book its deep interest. This memoir has innumerable incidental pleasures, because it is so subtle, exact and funny, but its great theme is reserve, that characteristic for which the English were once world-famous. It is therefore about England, especially old England. And it is about the identity of someone who hates being identified, the feelings of the person who does not wish to disclose his feelings. That, indeed, is what lies behind the title of the book which, I think, it would be spoilsporty to disclose.
As in a Victorian memoir, the chapter contents give amuse-bouches of what might be expected. The Contents for the first chapter begins, “The dream — My mother’s squint — Barbara Pym at Oxford — The fur-coat strategy — Isaiah and Tips — Skiing with Donald Maclean — Unity Mitford at school — my grandfather at Gallipoli…”. The reader might think that he was in for one of those enjoyable but scattergun, name-droppy memoirs written by upper-class people who have some funny stories but can’t stick to anything for more than a couple of minutes. Not so, although Mount criticises himself for “a weakness for stopping off, a fatal inclination to take the detour”, which he says he inherited from his beloved, enchanting, rather hopeless father.
No, this book is carefully constructed. “I have a key or think I have” is the first sentence, as important for what follows as is the first sentence of Proust. The assertion, qualified by doubt, sets the tone perfectly, the more so when one realises that the author is describing a dream: he returns to his childhood home, turns the key in the door, climbs the stairs and finds his mother in bed, apologising for her absence. The frame of the whole of the first chapter is her early death, but the reader only realises this in retrospect. That slightly uneasy unawareness mimics the condition of the author. He was 16 when his mother died, and her fatal illness was more or less concealed from him. He heard of her death by telegram when abroad.