On toffs and Tories

<strong>Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes</strong>

Ferdinand Mount <em>Bloomsbury, 384

Even before he was born, Ferdinand Mount knew absolutely everyone. "What an interesting and varied life I seem to have led in the womb," he reflects, "going to a bazaar with Unity Mitford, out on the razzle with Dylan Thomas and Philip Toynbee, possibly Burgess and Maclean, too."

His life as a journalist, novelist and political pundit has been equally interesting and varied, and, as the index of Cold Cream attests, equally packed with famous names - from Harold Acton, whom he visited at La Pietra late one summer ("It is still dangerous to take a sun bath"), to "Cousin Dave" Cameron, whom he first met when Dave was a schoolboy ("He instantly put me at my ease").

Mount eschews chronology and jumps about a lot, an approach he shares with Mark Twain, who thought "the right way to do an autobiography" is to "start it at no particular time in your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it 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 approach is a little confusing at times, but never dull, and its immediacy is heightened by Mount's frequent recourse to the historic present tense. At Eton, for example, to which he won a scholarship, "Most of us are the sons of distinguished people, except for me because my parents are distinguished for not doing anything." Among his schoolmates is Charlie Shelburne, whose flogging for some trivial offence, with Mount in ceremonial attendance, is one of many comic highlights, and seems to sum up the spirit of the place:

So . . . here is Lord Shelburne taking down his trousers and the Holy Poker [school verger] handing the Head Prune [headmaster] a bundle of birch twigs and Dr Birley measuring out his run . . . and letting fly with his sawn-off besom at the rosy buttocks . . . while I stand by simpering in my fancy waistcoat with a sanguine carnation in my buttonhole.

Mount's tone is relentlessly self-deprecating, owing a certain amount to Anthony Powell - or "Uncle Tony", as his mother was related to Powell's wife (and was also the "face" of Pond's Cold Cream: "Lady Julia Pakenham", the advertisements boasted, "says she owes her flawless complexion to Pond's Cold Cream") - and rather more to P G Wodehouse.

His first job in journalism, in 1965, was as the sole leader writer of the Daily Sketch, "a tabloid for housemaids in an age when nobody except its proprietor could afford to employ housemaids". Like all his jobs (such as his editorship of the Times Literary Supplement, which he characteristically neglects to mention), it was acquired through "personal recommendation", in this case that of the proprietor, at whose country house Mount had endured some taxing weekends. The Sketch's editor, he recalls, "took delivery of me with good-humoured resignation, like someone receiving a hideous vase from a rich aunt".

As he rambles silkily hither and yon, Mount takes in seemingly random swaths of history, social, literary and political. The political bits are the funniest, particularly those about Margaret Thatcher, whom he first met when she was 39, looking "like one of the overage milkmaids in the chorus of the Bath panto".

Years later, he finds himself accidentally working for her at Downing Street, making up her policies, writing her speeches and helping to trip up her cabinet enemies - "The target had to be lured off his own ground, denied the support of his consiglieri, disoriented and confronted by superior forces." The Mafia reference is apt, as at one stage Mount is assisted by his old fag from Eton, and there are other echoes of criminality. Getting Thatcher to utter the sentence "The National Health Service is safe with us", for example, was like pulling teeth. It "came out in the listless drone of a hostage reading a statement prepared by her captors - which is what it was".

There are some wonderfully Yes, Prime Minister moments, such as her mad dismissal of some suggestion of Geoffrey Howe's. "I can't let the mill girls of Bolton down," she tells him. "It was too late to point out that by now there weren't any mill girls in Bolton because there weren't any mills," Mount writes.

Working for her was "a holiday from irony". It sounds pretty hellish, but he grew quite fond of "this strange, tense, ruthless, but deeply honourable and usually honest woman", with her "eager, waddling walk". Returning to his panto theme, he humanises her in the spectacle of her standing "by the huge grate at Chequers, exhausted by the day's work like Cinders after a hard time with the Ugly Sisters".

Cold Cream will delight literary toffs and Tories, but deserves a much wider readership.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!