The Art of Being English

Cold Cream by Ferdinand Mount

Books History Literature UK Politics

“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.

Within the frame is a picture of a clever, solitary boy, often in bed with asthma, reading and reading. He is immensely curious but lacks and longs above all to possess “the free-springing impulse to ask questions”: “I would have got so much further into life, and got so much more out of it, if only I had known how to ask”.

Actually, I think this degree of self-criticism is the only slightly false note in the book. It is like the self-effacement of the heroes in the novels of Evelyn Waugh — a device in the service of art. Mount speaks of his “abject conformity of spirit”, but everything in the book points to the opposite, and suggests, behind the shyness, an inner confidence. If he does not know how to ask, he certainly knows how to observe. And so, in his youth, he observes his uncle by marriage, Anthony Powell, who never sits, but always reclines as he talks; and otherwise is always working. He watches John Betjeman, whom he hears quoting Marvell in the garden of another uncle’s castle in Ireland, without knowing who he is. Michael Oakeshott tells him how frightful Isaiah Berlin is, and Isaiah Berlin tells him the same about Michael Oakeshott. At Eton he is taught by David Cornwell (later far, far better known as John le Carré) who makes him feel “at home” by having him round to his house to talk about Goethe and Schiller. At Oxford, he notices and admires in John Wells (as in Betjeman) the “enterprise…of teaching the English to be fond of one another and of the places where they lived”. Describing the Linton Road parties given by Lord David Cecil, he captures the “machine-gun stutter of Oxford voices pattering out their hasty orisons”.

Mount is funnier and more vivid in noticing such things than his admired uncle Powell, who noticed all right, but was verbally flat. And because of that tendency to “take the detour”, Mount is wonderful at appreciating people with whom he may have little in common. Thus this book includes the most exact description of how an old countryman in a grey waistcoat scythes the verge; a regretful retrospect on a Jewish girlfriend whose political commitment, ardour and decisiveness expose his own wetness; an elegy to the values of the old northern, industrial Tory party (yes, Tory, not Labour); and a passionate and wholly convincing defence of the until-now utterly dim politician Selwyn Lloyd.

Towards the end of this book Mount records his period as head of Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit. Temperamentally, he and she were chalk and cheese or, rather, iron and fine-drawn silver. But his few pages say more about her character than almost the entire corpus so far written.