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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Polonaise, 17 Oct 2011
This review is from: Memoirs (Hardcover)
In writing a review of the 'Memoirs of the Duchess Dowager of Marlborough' Samuel Johnson remarked that while the motive for reading memoirs might best be ascribed to that `ardent love of truth which nature has kindled in the breast of man... the parent of all memoirs is the ambition of being distinguished from the herd of mankind'. The accuracy of this observation, which like so much of Johnson, at first appears obvious, is, on consideration, somewhat doubtful: until the rise of popular culture, Memoirs were indeed the province of persons who were so distinguished - after all, their books wouldn't have sold had they not been - but even then, most of their readers will have been motivated less by the 'ardent love of truth' than by idle curiosity. Lord Rees-Mogg, cannot, on the basis of what appears from this records, be accused of egregious vanity and his Memoirs do disclose some interesting truths to those wishing to know how priveleged and ambitious persons adapted themselves to the rise of the masses in the second half of the last century.

Rees-Mogg purports to date a prolonged decline in civilisation from Samuel Johnson's death in 1784, and he writes, with a firmly pinched nose, of the `industrial revolution, ugly architecture, the slums, and the heavy Victorian age' with which he connects it. His nostalgia for the preceding age naturally assumes that he would have formed part of that tiny proportion of persons who were in a position to appreciate its benefits, but most of us cannot but suppose that our lot is profoundly more `civilised' than that which would have fallen to our fathers in the reign of George III, let alone in the England of Queen Anne.

It is only fair to point out that William Rees-Mogg is not in the least like most of us: his great-grandfather William is described as `a good man of business, a local solicitor, specializing in the development of the coal industry' who `built the family fortune and died a wealthy man' - a man, in short, who made his money out of the industrial revolution and used it to build his own ugly Victorian house. But the site on which great-grandfather William built was the manor and home farm of Cholwell, Somerset purchased by the family Moggs in the 1720s. Lord Rees-Moggs' father married into a rich Irish-American business family, and he himself has been able to live for most of his life in the kind of houses the architecture of which seems, almost of itself, to refine the sensibilities of its occupants. It is not surprising, then, that Lord Rees-Mogg's book exhales the complaisant air of cultivation and entitlement.

Born in 1928, and brought up at Cholwell, Lord Rees-Mogg's father, who was scarred by the First War, emerges fom this Memoir in mere outline, and it is Lord Rees-Moggs' American mother, who had the more significant influence upon him. Beatrice Warren had, before her marriage, aspired to be an actress and her son's earliest memory of literature is of reciting the part of Lady Macbeth in drawing-room dramatics: Shakespeare, says the author, played an important part in the shaping of his mind, but the passages to which he most responds, and which he chooses to quote, are declamatory ones in praise of good old England. In a dangerous moment, Lord Rees-Mogg admits that he did not, in his youth, see Hamlet as a role model: his taste was for `wise old men' such as Polonius: `Indeed,' he adds `my critics might say I have made a living out of playing Polonius on the public stage': it is curious that in seeing Polonius as a 'wise old man', Rees-Mogg has 'wise old men' like Professor Wilson Knight on his side - but almost nobody else - and not, I think, Shakespeare.

Educated at Charterhouse, with James Prior, Francis Pym, John Foster and Simon Raven (with whom he seems to have imagined that he could compete), the sixteen year old Rees-Mogg won the Brackenbury scholarship to Balliol: he describes how he took with him to his Oxford interview Richard Hooker's 'Ecclesiastical Politie', fancying that he would find 'an opportunity to work in some quotation... intended to show the breadth of' his reading: a ploy that Polonius might well have recommended to Laertes had the latter been of a bookish disposition. Rees-Mogg's relationship with Balliol was not, in the event, to be a happy one, and it is the one institution of which he writes with unveiled bitterness. This may be the very effect of having so cleverly fooled the examiners, and thereafter showing considerably more interest in studying 'the game of Oxford careerism' than in justifyng the scholarship conferred upon him. Rees-Mogg unabashedly records that joining the Oxford Union and that Oxford University Conservative Association was `one of his first actions' on arriving at the University, and much of what he writes about his pursuit of the various offices in the Union is delightfully reminiscent of the acrobatics required of aspirants to the Senate of Lilliput. After two terms, Rees-Mogg's university career was abruptly terminated when the Master of Balliol `who was made a Labour peer in 1947' gave his place to a `demobilised ex-serviceman' which Rees-Mogg says he 'resented', and which, he says, with no obvious sense of irony, was 'contrary to the commitment the college had made' when he had come up. Rees-Mogg did not return to Oxford until after he had completed his own National Service in 1948, and in 1951 he was elected President of the Oxford Union - and took a second class degree.

In the same year, Rees-Mogg was invited to join the staff of the Financial Times on the basis of a Cherwell profile that had referred to his practice - unusual in an undergraduate - of reading the paper over breakfast. Baroness Williams thought Rees-Mogg something of a 'young sage' when he was at Oxford, but he will strike most younger readers as a atartling avatar of the 'young fogey'. For a while Rees-Mogg hoped to establish himself in a safe Tory seat, but after two defeats, he reconciled himself to journalism. In 1960 he became City Editor of The Sunday Times, and in 1967 he reached the high water mark of his enforced career when he became editor of The Times - a position which he held until 1981. Lord Rees-Moggs' editorship coincided with the battle between the management and the print Unions, but the subject does not appear much now to interest him and much of the account which he gives of it relies heavily on direct quotation from John Griggs's History of the Times.

Of his contemporaries, Lord Rees-Mogg writes cautiously, and conventionally. When one has read his political 'credo' what he has to say about most figures in politics becomes readily foreseeable: he believes in... `life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and in Locke's formulation of `life, liberty and estate.' He believes that liberty includes the right to own property... in equality before the law and equality at the polling booth, but... not... in equality in the socialist sense of an equal distribution of income or capital... he is `shocked by segregation and apartheid'. In religion, Lord Rees-Mogg's judgments are those of a post-conciliar liberal-conservative catholic: he describes the orthodox idea that there is no salvation outside the Church as `repugnant'; he temporizes over the question of what he sees as `no fault' divorce; he condemns, without qualification, the permissive attitude to abortion; but he seems, on the whole, to accept that despite their insidious effect on morals, social stability, and personal happiness, Lord Jenkins' reforms were 'justifiable' - because, he says, they 'had the Zeitgeist with' them.

Whatever his personal feelings, as Editor of The Sunday Times and The Times, Rees-Mogg writes that ` as a newspaper we had to understand and make judgments in terms of a non-catholic and increasingly non-Christian society.' He dispensed with journalistic anonymity, (his predecessor, Sir William Haley having resisted the move because he thought that journalists ought to be giving impersonal news, and it was a bad idea to let the egotism of journalists show through)'; he was the first editor to authorise a 'sting' by undisclosed 'wiring'; and he encouraged, without personally endorsing, a journalism which increasingly concerned itself with what he describes as `the new fashionable culture of football... the fashionable London set, the Carnaby Street set, the photographers' and ' the hairdressers. He will probably be best remembered for dignifying Mick Jagger's drugs bust with the famous question from Alexander Pope's Epistle to Dr.Arbuthnot, but readers with a taste for irony may remember that Pope gives the line to Arbuthnot, and immediately rejects the suggestion that he spare himself the trouble of breaking the butterfly:

`Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings
This painted child of dirt that stinks and stings;
Whose buzz the witty and the fair annoys
Yet wit ne'er tastes, and beauty ne'er enjoys.'

In July 1970 Rees-Mogg saw off a revolt of twenty-nine members of his editorial staff who complained that he had, as editor, presided over a marked diminution in `the authority, independence, accuracy, discrimination, and seriousness of The Times... Their error, he unapologetically maintains 'was to mistake bringing the newspaper up to date - which we were doing - with taking the newspaper down-market-which were not doing... Of course, I never thought the paper was perfect. Still, I thought it, in general, an authoritative, independent, accurate, discriminating newspaper. As', he boldly concludes, `it still is.' He expresses unqualified admiration for Rupert Murdoch and speculates, wistfully, how different his own life might have been had he taken up the offer of a business partnership with him in the early days at Oxford. Murdoch was, at the time, 'a vigorous, rather left wing member of the Labour Club'. He describes Murdoch as 'an excellent proprietor for The Times' and 'excellent for Fleet Street'. Not a republican, we are told, but a 'moderniser' inclined to judge politicians - and the Royal Family - solely for their 'efficiency' and by 'whether they do their jobs well or badly.' It is a relief to have Lord Rees-Mogg's magisterial assurance that we have, in Mr.Murdoch, the right man to make sure that the highest standards are maintained in the public life of this great, if lamentably old-fashioned, nation.

As early as 1956, Lord Rees-Mogg was writing that if Socialism was `about equality', conservatism was `about opportunity', and he reminds us that it was Sir Anthony Eden, and not Margaret Thatcher who introduced the term `property owning democracy' into political debate. But what Lord Rees-Mogg stood and stands for- and what the Oxford Union has always stood for -, is, and was, what Cobbett called `The `Thing' - or `The Establishment.' Lord Rees-Moggs's real commitment is to the idea that everything has to change so that everything can stay the same. Under Rees-Mogg's editorship, The Times in 1975 supported Willie Whitelaw for the conservative party leadership against Margaret Thatcher on the grounds that `Mr Whitelaw's gifts are those of a chairman, and it is a chairman's gifts that are at present wanted.' This, as Lord Rees-Mogg now admits, was a misjudgment: it wouls seem that he had not, at that stage, appreciated that Margaret Thatcher apparently held the same philosophy as he did. But In the late 1970s and early 1980s it was unionized labour, not the conservative party - far less the labour party - that posed the real threat to the status quo: the division in the conservative party was between the 'toffs' who imagined that the threat could be `managed' and the blue collar Tories who realized that it had to be confronted; between those who were ready to plan a campaign against the Unions, and those who thought they could bluff it out or buy it off: looking at the two sides now, it is difficult to say which was the more conservative, but it is not at all difficult to tell which side of the divide Lord Rees-Mogg was originally on.

On those whom he has met, Lord Rees-Moggs is more Pooter than Polonius: he notes the theory that fat popes alternate with thin popes, and observes that `the theory worked reasonably well in the mid-twentieth century' - which will no doubt please the Vatican. He meets Pius XII, but was to afraid to kiss his ring, 'so he may have taken me for a Protestant... he left a memorable impression of personal sanctity'; he meets Paul VI who `seemed both highly spiritual and highly intelligent, but uncertain about the direction in which he should lead the Church. Gillian (Lord -Rees-Mogg's wife)...liked him'; John Paul II `had the body of a man who had done manual work...That background is rather unusual in pope, or in the clergy generally... he left a strong impression of Christian humility;' Cardinal Ratzinger `later to become Benedict XVI seemed a rather formidable figure: as pope his image has been milder.' His views on literature are as stunningly unastounding: he defends Alexander Pope, rather unnecessarily, from 'the charge of being a brilliant prose writer, using verse as his medium for expressing... merely prosaic thoughts' but he does not admit Jonathan Swift to the rank of 'poet' describing him, as if in instead, as a 'satirist' - like Aristophanes, Juvenal or Byron, I suppose?

After his resignation from The Times, Lord Rees-Mogg was, concurrently, Vice Chairman of the BBC, Chairman of the Arts Council, a trustee of Esmeé Fairburn Foundation, and a board member of Arnold Weinstock's GEC. In the same year as he left The Times, Rees-Mogg purchased the antiquarian bookshop of Pickering and Chatto, and in 1983 he developed a publishing side to the business, and the company has since enriched English publishing with complete editions of many of the Masters of English prose. He passes his declining years in Wiltshire, writing regular features for Mr Murdoch; his son, Jacob, became MP for North East Somerset in 2010, whilst his daughter, Annunziata, was defeated in the adjoining constituency of Somerton and Frome `in which the Moggs were living from 1300 to 1620'.

For the hoary social curse
Gets hoarier and hoarier
And it stinks a trifle worse
Than in the days of Queen Victoria
When they married and gave in marriage
They danced at the County Ball
And some of them kept a carriage
And the flood destroyed them all.'

As if.
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Initial post: 2 Nov 2011 23:22:14 GMT
FrenchFelix says:
Gosh - I thought I was reading the book, the last two words are the most relevant.....
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