‘By the time Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister’, Ferdinand Mount has reported, he ‘had long ago abandoned any thought of a political career and had happily settled for a life of writing anything that came to hand or mind’. English Voices is the book of that prospectus: only one among the score he has published, including novels and works of history and political advocacy too—for as it turned out, politics had not altogether done with him—but the one that answers most readily to this light sketch of a career in the world of letters. Ranging across thirty years from 1985, it gathers up some fifty-three substantial book reviews, half of them from the Spectator, where Mount has written since the 1970s, most of the rest coming from the Times Literary Supplement, which he edited for much of the 80s and early 90s, and the London Review of Books, which bulks larger in the more recent work. A compilation on this scale does not lend itself to conventional synopsis—the number of books discussed is greater still, totalling more than sixty. The title and subtitle of the volume are designed more to accommodate its diverse materials than to define them or to indicate binding themes. An introductory discussion of Englishness stresses the mongrel historical constitution of its people, taking a cue from Defoe's well-known satire—and motivating the indefinite plural ‘voices’. But the appeals to shared legacies of common law, and a language both rich and loose-limbed—with echoes of Tennyson and Orwell respectively—have no follow-through in the preambles that sub-divide the contents, or in the essays themselves. However, there are other ways of characterizing it.
Life-writing is by far predominant here: letters, biography and autobiography, memoirs and diaries, with a little history and some studies in architecture and landscape. The lives themselves are mainly political and literary, with extensions into ecclesiastic affairs, the architecture of villages and suburbs, and some tennis; 19th- or more often 20th-century in time, with some survivals into the 21st, they include parliamentarians from Robert Peel to Roy Jenkins and writers from Coleridge to Kingsley Amis. (Shakespeare and Pepys are the two exceptions in this scheme.) All are English by virtue of birth or residence or adoptive belonging, though Scottish connections are not rare (William Ewart Gladstone, for example, and the novelist Muriel Spark); the gathering also includes two ex-colonials, one from the old dominions (Germaine Greer), the other from the Caribbean (V. S. Naipaul), and there is one Jewish intellectual refugee, now naturalized, from Hitler’s Vienna (Elias Canetti). It is not difficult, then, to nod at the publisher’s suggestion that the book is ‘like a national portrait gallery of the English mind’. The temporal construction of the volume is more interesting than the simple chronological index ‘1985–2015’ suggests. Nearly two-thirds of the essays come from the later half of that time span, most of those from the last ten years; the 90s, by contrast, have only three to show. In this sense, English Voices is a more recent body of writing than its self-presentation allows. However, a comparative chronology of its subjects looks quite different. Of the eleven now collocated as ‘voices of our time’, fewer than half are young enough to be classified as contemporaries of Mount’s (b. 1939), and only one in the entire book is younger than him—though, nearing seventy, Peter Ackroyd is hardly a newcomer. The disjunction internal to ‘our time’ pitches the book as a whole towards retrospect.
Mount’s retrospects can be simple, whether he is discussing Gladstone, whom he regards as a living presence, or A. J. Balfour, whom he dismisses in a withering recollection of Brideshead Revisited: ‘In the end, I am afraid, the charm is all that remains.’ Sensible of decline all around, he is nevertheless resistant to the evasions of conventional nostalgia, as he shows in his appreciation of Ronald Blythe, the author of Akenfield, while not letting go of the values it promotes. But at times his approach to the past is less a backward look than a form of time travel. The discussion of Blythe closes in that mode, which he amplifies in concluding a visit to the ancient forest of Hatfield in Essex:
Wandering back to the car in the twilight through a grove of hornbeam pollards (to the twentieth-century forester as strange a sight as date palms), I caught sight of the ice-blue lights of Stansted airport only half a mile away and for the first time remembered exactly where I was. No municipal park of cherry and lime could confer such solitude.
Then there is this arresting moment, coming at the end of a passage in which Cardinal Basil Hume has been commended for having ended a 400-year cultural estrangement between Englishness and Roman Catholicism:
[Hume] was the witness . . . to a possibility of life that seemed no longer available, and his voice was like the whistle of a train that stopped running years ago but which you can sometimes hear at night on the far side of the valley.
This is not a retrospect or even time-travelling; it is a haunting. ‘Real ghosts’ are not obliging, Mount declares, confronting the English writer M. R. James with the example of the American namesake who wrote The Turn of the Screw: ‘They do not go away when they are told to.’ He is talking about disruptive revenants, but his implication is general. ‘For me, these bones live’, he writes, referring to the manifold material traces of human activity in old landscapes, in a preamble with the title ‘In Search of England’. The past is everywhere, even if often only in the form of its pastness, as in a haunting.
Indeed, such timebends can be commonplace, as any reader of Mount’s Cold Cream (2008) will be aware, and indisputably corporeal. What emerges from this memoir of an upbringing in ‘Hobohemia’, a ‘raffish sub-division’ of the English upper class, is a demonstration of the enabling power of privileged family networks and their institutional mediations—even where money is short and prudence is just more good advice for the incurably raffish. Born into junior branches of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy on one side (his mother, Julia, was a Pakenham) and the titled gentry of Berkshire on the other, Mount has been, by his own account, one of those beings to whom things just providentially happen, who are always ‘bumping into’ this or that significant person. The phenomenon sets in early—in the womb, we are told, in a humorous aside that is no more than the plain social truth—and becomes routine. On holiday in Florence, he is received by Harold Acton, a friend of Uncle Tom (6th Earl of Longford). Uncle Tony, married to another of the Pakenham girls, is better known to the world as the author of A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell. On the other side of the family, young David, son of cousin Mary (now Cameron), has the ‘cheek’ to take the leadership of the Conservative party. One lasting semi-familial tie is that with Isaiah (‘Shaya’) Berlin, who has been sweet on Julia since Oxford. Other recreational encounters include, in no necessary order, Donald Maclean, George Orwell, Oswald Mosley, Siegfried Sassoon (a neighbour) and ‘the occasional Mitford’. An Eton school friend brings him home to parents who turn out to be Celia Johnson (she of the deathless Brief Encounter) and her husband, Peter Fleming, ‘explorer’ and brother of Ian. Back at college he is taught German by the future John le Carré. As with individuals, so with institutions. Mount’s temporally mobile first-person narration, with its ‘self-indulgent’ selectivity, has the effect of backgrounding or even seemingly undoing ordinary causal sequences, so that he appears to find himself at Eton without ever having applied, and then at Oxford (Christ Church), again without the usual preliminaries. Illustrating the self-deprecating habit of the memoir, he notes this narrative roving as a sign of deficient ‘personal growth’. But we might also see in it a rhetoric of the always-already, the defining condition of hereditary entitlement, here signifying the redundancy of focused effort.
The subject that speaks in English Voices is recognizably the older self of Ferdy Mount in Cold Cream, at ease and engaged across a wide range of matters, convivially learned, with a sharp eye and an attentive ear and a particular knack for correcting the blunders of writers less inward than he is with the usages of the titled classes. The novelist is never very far away. Mount is droll, affectionate at times, with a mild suggestion of decadence—the word delicious has an improbably wide range of attachments in these pages, most of them not normally edible. ‘Sheer delight’ was the response of the Times Literary Supplement, pursuing the metaphor of consumption; ‘lovely’, said the London Evening Standard. Yet it cannot be a great surprise to find him, in the early 60s, working in the Conservative Research Department, on the way, he hoped, to a parliamentary seat, without any evident prior process of political acculturation; or to find him, twenty years later, in 10 Downing Street, where he had been invited—just like that—to head an independent policy unit for Margaret Thatcher. True to form, it seems, he had been always-already a Tory, and by 1979, after an instructive stay in the United States, he was done with ‘convictionless, wind-blown politicians’. Writing in the Spectator in the days after Thatcher’s electoral ‘triumph’, he hailed her ‘individualist and populist Toryism’ and concluded: ‘A cautious half-glass of good ordinary claret may safely be raised to the future.’
Mount’s spell in Downing Street, his ‘holiday from irony’ as he later called it, lasted less than two years, and English Voices belongs entirely to the decades since. These essays are not the work of a stock party doctrinaire. Personalities (always) and policies (sometimes) take precedence over ideas. Nearly all Mount’s titles obey a simple formula: a personal name, then a thematic phrase (‘John Osborne: Anger Management?’). The only ‘ism’ discussed in its own right is that of John Wesley’s followers (‘The Rise and Fall and Rise of Methodism’)—whose ‘cheerful activism’ forms a salutary popular alternative to Canetti’s monstrous ‘crowds’, themselves phobic projections of an intellectual narcissist. There are available reasons for this emphasis, both occasional and philosophical. Biography is the matter of most of these essays, which are weekend book reviews, and it follows as if naturally that the ‘quiddities’ of individual lives rather than transferrable abstractions will have first consideration. For Mount, besides, the beginning of political wisdom is Berlin’s idea that ‘diverse and incommensurable goals are endemic to the human condition’, from which it follows that no theory can be both coherent and comprehensive. So, away with anything that smacks of ‘unadjusted dogma’. But such reasoning sits too easily in the cultural landscape from which, arguably, it takes its justification—its obvious ‘good sense’, as they say—in the first place. The ease of discursive passage from entertainment to contestation and back, that social-stylistic fluency sometimes called ‘civilized’, is itself a political resource very unequally distributed. A near-monopoly of the dominant classes and their specialized elites, it is a kind of ‘exnomination’ (Barthes), or a politics of no politics.
This is not quite Mount’s way, in spite of contrary appearances. It is not that he lacks the inclination to negative capability, to borrow a phrase from a favourite poet, Keats. Writing about religion, he is by turns ‘intemperately Protestant’, appreciative of the enlivening power of Methodism, reverent in his tribute to Basil Hume, while deliberately emphasizing that one of the shared qualities of his ‘old masters’—Shakespeare, Coleridge, Keats, Dickens and Hardy—is their distance from Christian belief. (He will add, on another occasion, that those who dwell on religion as a matter of ‘belief’ are anyway missing the point: you don’t question tennis at the moment of service, he points out, obscuring what had seemed a simple enough proposition.) In literary matters, his admiration for the Virginia Woolf of the feminist essays is unforced, yet manages to be both fresh and crusty in its conclusion, remembering ‘a woman brimming with wit, malice, common sense, imagination and caprice rather than . . . a plaster saint for a godless age.’ But in the simpler case of W. G. Sebald, ‘a master shrouded in mist’, the crustiness becomes the inspiration of a portrait that is too much the familiar metaphysical German as looked upon by an empirical Englishman. And the thought, incited by a multilingual version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that ‘those who prefer to hear stuff in their own lingo’ might be considered ‘imperialist racist fascists’ is an alert from the golf-club bar.
The great politico-ideological contests of the twentieth century ranged Mount on the side of the bold Western David, of course. The closing words of his appreciation of Hugh Trevor-Roper, from 2005, recall a once-mighty ideological adversary:
The causes for which he battled with such ferocious glee have come out on top, in the Cold War no less than in the English Civil War. In politics as in historiography, the Marxists and the marxisants have been routed. It is easy to forget how their premises and arguments were once taken for granted and how quirky and perverse seemed those who spoke out against them.
And indeed such moments are a reminder of the voices that go unheard in Mount’s whispering gallery. With just a few idiosyncratic exceptions (Greer, Alan Bennett, Le Carré, Arthur Ransome, author of the children’s classic Swallows and Amazons, and the philo-Soviet ecclesiastic Hewlett Johnson, Dean of Canterbury), here is a spectrum without a Left. Of course, what is not published cannot be reviewed. But even a very short list of eligible-but-absent voices—salient authors or subjects of the kinds of book Mount chooses to write about—is telling for what it says about the national imaginary as mediated by him: Richard Hoggart, Jack Jones, Eric Hobsbawm, C. L. R. James, Dorothy Thompson, Angela Carter, Tony Benn.
Mount’s local party loyalties are more ambiguously framed. No great admirer of politicians in general, Conservatives included, he is damning in his judgements of Harold Macmillan, whose premiership he thinks was an anachronism and a historic mistake, and Edward Heath, the technocrat; the mock-heroic Lord Hailsham he dismisses as an exhibitionist. Among his contemporaries, two of his three touchstones are legends of the Labour right, Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins (the other, as always, is Margaret Thatcher); and the plainest statement of political inspiration in the whole collection comes aslant, in a sub-section nominally devoted to religion, in a portrait of a Liberal leader, Gladstone. For an uncomplicated Tory loyalist, Mount’s intellectual presence must be about as reassuring as Matthew Arnold’s higher journalism was for party Liberals in his own time. But Arnold’s free play of mind had a brake, which he applied in a motto from the French conservative thinker Joubert: ‘Force till right is ready.’ Mount’s equivalent statement of limits deserves the same notoriety. ‘There are times’, he wrote in Cold Cream, defending the domestic programme of the Thatcher governments—including the premeditated fight to the finish against the miners—‘when what is needed is not a beacon but a blowtorch.’
Mount did his bit to fuel the blowtorch, and would have done more had not the bearings of the Thatcher government shifted during her second term, now giving priority to the formulation of a new Östpolitik for the last days of the Cold War. As it was, he returned to full-time journalism and writing. If, more prosaically, the ratios of intellectual engagement in public affairs—the exercise of shadow authority—can be calculated from a scale ranging between the extremes of prophecy, or moral leadership, and policy, the formulation of practical goals for duly equipped institutions, Mount’s readings show a continuing pull towards the latter end. This practical bent, in the centre-right zone marked out by Thatcher and Blair, has been most obviously displayed in the book-length works he has written over the past twenty-five years: The British Constitution Now (1992), Mind the Gap (2004) and, most recently, The New Few (2012), an attack on the spread of oligarchy in British political and economic life. But it is present too even when, as often in English Voices, the occasion is not primarily political. Mount’s Gladstone is a working fusion of the two modes, a seer and an effective reforming politician in one. He is, moreover, a figure who defies the reductive polarizing terms of the given ‘political creeds’ and party shibboleths. He is ‘reverent’ among utilitarians, a communitarian in his own day, but tolerant—eventually—in the face of narrow confessional demands, and liberal in his sensitivity to popular conditions of life. There is something in him of Berlin’s philosophy and also Michael Oakeshott’s, two figures whose mutual hostility was unrelenting.
This Gladstone is ‘not merely . . . a brilliant relic’ of his own time but ‘an unstilled voice in the conversation of ours’. He is unmistakably actual. Since the mid 80s, Mount judged in 2005, all ‘the three main parties’—that is, the all-British Westminster parties—had ‘experienced a Gladstonian moment’, a time of ‘revisions and recantations’: Labour coming to reconsider its faith in ‘state socialism’, Conservatives remembering that they had never really believed in all that ‘crude Manchester liberalism’, and Liberal Democrats being led to reconsider ’the vapid tax-and-spend policies they had drifted into’. The spirit of ‘the Grand Old Man’ was politically alive, it seems, in the numinous persons of Blair-Brown, Cameron and Cable, and their agenda was one that he ‘would have recognized as his own’: devolution of power in the multi-national uk; defence of Burke’s ‘little platoons’ (of which the family is the prototype) and of local government discretions; the conjoint ‘shrinking of the overblown state’—and ‘the most ticklish question of all’, undoing ‘the disadvantages of the poor without denting their self-respect and damaging their independence’.
All these headings are in effect variations on one: that is, ‘self-reliance’—‘Thatcherite rhetoric’, Mount notes, but also, in his assessment of a changed ethico-political climate, ‘the common political language of the twenty-first century’. Social solidarity is necessary, he insists, but will only be supple enough as a binding value if it can tap the deep resources of family and nation—without at the same time weakening the means of individual self-reliance, as British political ‘managerialism’ has done. ‘Opportunities for the masses to make their own lives have been sparse and cramped.’ This is Mount in the character of one-nation Tory, the wettest of the wet, as Conservative Central Office judged him in the days of his parliamentary ambitions—someone ‘so wet you could shoot snipe off him’, said Conrad Black, dipping into the linguistic dressing-up box that a Canadian press magnate keeps to hand for English country-house weekends. More precisely, perhaps—for Disraeli is barely present in English Voices and never as the author of Sybil—this is Mount in the role of Tory tribune or as the intellectual precursor of one: not a paternalist in the vein of Disraeli’s aristocratic fantasy and no populist in anybody’s book, rather a Gladstone figure both visionary and activist, with the gift of making ‘the people’ believe that they have not been ‘forgotten’. But it is clear that the ‘holiday from irony’ has lasted far longer than Mount imagined; negative capability now begins to look more like a schizoid disorder. For in this tribune-like figure we have a chimera shaped in the encounter of an undoubtedly humane self with the other self that helped to prime Thatcher’s blowtorch. Mount rejects the ‘radical individualism’ of the neo-liberal turn and the ‘equality of opportunity’ that is its only—spurious—mitigation. He urges the development of an ethos and a policy agenda combining solidarity with popular self-reliance in a strategy for reducing the dizzying inequalities of social life in Britain today. And he does this, apparently, in serene unawareness of the part he played in a political war against the only social agency that has fought consistently and with some effect for those general goals: the organized labour movement. But this is not a voice that can be easily admitted to the island conversation, from which, likewise, all consequential anti-capitalist politics and thought have been shut out—‘routed’, as he says. Opportunities for the masses to make their own lives have indeed been sparse and cramped, and only more so in the past forty years, under the political stewardship of Westminster’s latterday Gladstones. The social condition Mount rightly deplores is, morally speaking, one of his own making. His problem is the artefact of a foregoing ‘solution’.
If the appeal to Gladstone marks a high tide of post-Thatcherite illusion, the example of Walter Bagehot prompts reflections of a more sombre kind. Bagehot was a ‘brilliant’ journalist, Mount agrees, and significant as a pioneer of ‘the higher journalism’. But that English institution has had its ‘downside’, in a disregard for deeply held popular feeling. Thus, Mount writes,
the most potent resentments at work in Europe today are those provoked by inequality, mass immigration and the incursions of the European Union. And they are precisely those with which the elite media are most reluctant to engage.
Bagehot held the masses in contempt, and believed in taking the world ‘lightly’, Mount tells us, adding: ‘The trouble is that so many people will insist on taking it seriously.’ Quite. And at a time when the politics of immigration and Europe have demonstrated their power to confound liberal expectations, he might do well to look to his own higher journalism, in which the first—the oldest and most pervasive—of these resentments has long been a special cause, to reconsider the realism of his own nostrums for the redress of inequality, perhaps even to imagine what unexpected turns ‘the most ticklish question of all’ may yet hold in store. Tu quoque, as the old tag goes, or, in common parlance, ‘You said it!’