Let me get a niggle or two out of the way before I express my enjoyment of this delightful book. Ferdinand Mount does warn us in his foreword that he will follow Mark Twain, who had written that `the right way to do an autobiography [is to] start at no particular time of your life; wander at will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it at the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.' This `stream of consciousness' way of writing can be a little exhausting, especially when in the four long chapters there is never any natural break where one could put the book down to resume it again later. Mount rightly describes this undisciplined way of writing a book as `self-indulgent'. In addition, this descendant of the aristocratic Pakenham family has a cavalier disdain for the conventional autobiography. He is not concerned about chronology, which at times is quite disconcerting; and though he describes himself on p.298 as `an obsessive genealogist', he does not trouble to tell pedantic readers like myself the names of his grandparents whom he describes; his sister is not given a name until page 91; and it is almost as if he expected you to know that his uncle Tony, first mentioned on page 35, is Anthony Powell - you learn that only on page 56. Cousins abound, often without indication who their parents are; the book could have done with a family tree, and the index rather lazily doesn't name the relationships either. Likewise, the poorly printed little photographs mostly have no captions, and neither has the frontispiece.
But I found this book hugely enjoyable. Mount writes beautifully and with a lovely sense of humour; his relationship with his mother is touchingly recounted; his descriptions, which tumble over one another like a sparkling but sometimes bewildering cascade, of people and of scenes are often memorable. From childhood onwards he has known so many people who are household names for intellectuals: Isaiah Berlin, Harold Acton, the Mitfords, Philip Toynbee, John Betjeman, Siegfried Sassoon - and these are just the people he knew during his adolescence.
Mount is every bit a product of an upper-crust, country gentleman, horse-riding and well-connected background, and he conveys very well how one can be a part of all that and yet observe it with the sardonic wit of an outsider, which in part, with his frequent ill-health and precocious intellectual interests, he was. There are hilariously-written accounts of his schooldays at Sunningdale prep-school (where there were half-holidays every day during near-by Royal Ascot to enable the horse-mad masters to attend) and at Eton - with their preposterously archaic rituals, their sadistic beatings, and schoolboy triumphs and miseries. Writing about his time at Oxford, he is rather good on the dons and about his own deficiencies at that time (a girl friend's father described him as `a character straight out of P.G.Wodehouse), but his descriptions of fellow-students are (with the exception of Auberon Waugh), less successful and probably of more interest to him than to his readers.
He seems to have done nothing much for five years after having left University, but then his bank manager showed concern about his overdraft, and in 1965 connections got him a job on the lugubrious Lord Rothermere's downmarket Daily Sketch as a writer of leaders, for the succinctness of which - they could not exceed 300 words - he says years of a classical education had been a good preparation. We are given a vivid picture of the hard drinking journalists' `culture'. From there he moved on to the Daily Mail and then to the Spectator.
At some stage (Mount only rarely gives dates) he had also joined the Conservative Research Department, and in 1963 (I make it) had become the personal assistant to Selwyn Lloyd, whom Macmillan had recently sacked as Chancellor of the Exchequer during `The Night of Long Knives' and who had been demoted to reviewing the organization of the Conservative Party. We are given an affectionate portrait of this modest and rather inhibited man. Mount is self-deprecating about his own work at the Conservative Research Department, disclaiming any real knowledge of the subjects on which, after the Conservatives had lost the 1964 election, he prepared papers for Sir Keith Joseph. Sir Keith thought highly of Mount's papers - but when Margaret Thatcher joined their meetings, she quickly "sliced them into pitiful shreds".
Apparently it was only at about this time that Mount started to become a serious thinker about the philosophy of conservatism. The ostensibly languorous amateur became a hard-working policy wonk. The last 80 pages, while still being full of sparkling and often witty vignettes about famous and mostly conservative personalities, have some weighty remarks about what he thinks had gone wrong with Britain since the war. He started writing ideological pieces for Encounter. There was nothing `wet' about those; and for all her demolition of his papers twenty years earlier, in 1982 Margaret Thatcher asked him to run her policy unit at No. 10 and to head her speech writing team for big occasions. He can now describe some of the workings of Downing Street. Needless to say, he was one of the group who helped Mrs Thatcher to stand up to and eventually to rout the `Wets' in Cabinet and to some extent in the Civil Service. Some of the most radical proposals formulated by the group would have alarmed even Mrs Thatcher; so they were slowly drip-fed to her over the years. (Mount now becomes distinctly less self-deprecating.) These pages are, I think, a genuine (and entertaining) contribution to the recorded history of the time. Much as he admired Mrs Thatcher, they began to get on each other's nerves. The book more or less ends with his resignation soon after her second election victory in 1983.