Cold Cream, by Ferdinand Mount

An English life – so sorry
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The Independent Culture

The distinguishing mark of most upper- class English autobiography is its herculean diffidence. Subject and terrain may vary as much as John Gale's Clean Young Englishman (1974), Richard Cobb's Still Life (1985) and Michael Holroyd's Basil Street Blues (1999) but the procedural note is always the same: a chronically embarrassed self-effacement, an eternal shuffle away from the limelight, in which the memoirist, however great his distinction or enticing his milieux, spends much of his time apologising for the simple fact of his existence.

Too much time, perhaps. Cold Cream, with its genre-authenticating subtitle, "My Early Life and Other Mistakes", has all these qualities in spades. By his own admission, the young Ferdy Mount (born 1939) was a case study in juvenile bashfulness: shy, reticent ("a one man-reservation" as he puts it), gauche, tongue-tied and physically and emotionally inept.

The most routine social experience reduces him to paroxysms of nervous terror. There is a wonderful account – one of the book's great set-pieces – of his being taken to stay, as a teenager, with his friend Nichol Fleming, where he gashes his forehead falling off his bike, pitches into rivers and swimming pools and is returned to his parents with the comment, "Ferdy does seem to be rather accident prone."

Naturally, these tendencies follow him deep into adulthood. At Oxford, his ability to sing a song without hitting a single correct note turns him into an undergraduate tourist attraction. At a dinner party at the 1963 Tory party conference he drinks too much champagne and has to dash out to be sick. When he decides to stand as a Conservative MP, the chairman of the selection board describes him as "one of the wettest candidates I have ever seen", while the Wells Conservative Association is aghast at the "languid gabble" of his patrician drawl.

The "upper-class" tag turns out to be faintly (but only faintly) deceptive. Mount is a product of what he defines, with characteristic precision, as the "bohocracy": stylish, well-bred bohemians with fingers in every establishment pie but no money to speak of. An earl's grandson, on his Pakenham mother's side, a baronet's nephew on his gentleman jockey father's, his family home a cottage in the lea of the Wiltshire downs, Mount is perennially hard up. There would be no Eton but for a scholarship, and the wind that blows through his late teens – his mother dead and his father sunk in boozy torpor – turns unexpectedly chill.

As in practically every other upper-class autobiography of the past 30 years, much of this is a pose, albeit a subtle and amusing one. Authors of half-a-dozen high-grade novels who go on to head up Prime Ministerial policy units and edit the TLS need a certain amount of talent and a double helping of steely resolve. What redeems it is Mount's habitual shrewdness over the debits and credits of what his uncle Anthony Powell might have called the question of his upbringing.

If one part of him is always rueing his lack of self-assurance, the other is always reckoning up the moral advantages of reticence. If one part suspects that the comparative ease of his passage through life is an upper-class racket of quiet words and grand affiliations – the cousin's husband who recommends him to the Conservative Research Department, the friend who fixes up a job on the Daily Mail – so another part is darkly aware that, in an ever more egalitarian age, influence is about all he has left.

And so our man bumbles incriminatingly and self-laceratingly on: to prep school, where Prince Michael of Kent astounds the recumbent dormitory by pogoing naked on his bed; Eton, where he is taught by John Le Carré; Oxford with the Bullingdon bloods; a hard-drinking interlude on the Daily Sketch, where a sit-down with Edward Heath is ruined by too much sherry ("I didn't realise this was going to be such a superficial interview," Heath chides.)

Distinguished relatives come and go. Uncle Tony fondly abstracts another volume of Burke's Peerage from the library shelf, and Uncle Frank, condemned to a weekend by the Solent, cheers up when he realises that Ronnie Kray is only a ferry-ride away at Parkhurst. Of Mount's personal life beyond childhood there is, predictably, not the smallest hint.

About two thirds in, though, something unexpected happens. Hitherto, the judgements expressed have been either feline or skilfully occluded. Launched into the world of high politics, first devilling for Selwyn Lloyd and Sir Keith Joseph in Research, then devising policy and writing speeches for Mrs Thatcher, Mount's gaze turns much less emollient. The portrait of Thatcher is revealing – less for its depiction of a brusque, bossy suburbanite with no interests but her day-job than for the qualities Mount detected in her (tenacity, honesty, moral seriousness).

In the end, the message of Cold Cream (a reference to his mother's fondness for Pond's, which she was paid to endorse) might only be noblesse oblige. But in one way, the incidental grandeur attached to Mount's career has worked to his disadvantage. No English novelist of the past two decades is quite so underrated, and the underrating, you suspect, is a direct consequence of the upper-class/Thatcher stuff. No one who wrote speeches for a Conservative prime minister is ever going to be awarded the Booker Prize; that is the nature of modern cultural life. Not the least of Mount's achievements, in this coruscating memoir, is to show quite how potent a force the literary Right can be in a world where any deviation from left-liberal orthodoxy is seen as a kind of spiritual halitosis.

DJ Taylor's 'Bright Young People' is published by Chatto & Windus