Thursday, January 27

Ferdinand Mount: “You can’t not be afraid of Margaret Thatcher!” | Fiction


TOs The editor of Ferdinand Mount happily observes, his latest novel, Making nice, is what you could achieve if you crossed a little the light of Evelyn Waugh with the television satire of Armando Iannucci The bulk of it. But in reality, the book is much smarter and more modern even than it suggests, and not just because it opens with a scene where one of its characters goes for a walk (camping in a church, in case they don’t. stay up to date). . There can be no living person who can read it without thinking of Dominic Cummings, the man whose old-fashioned spirit infuses his narrative like narrow bitters in a gin and tonic.

The book recounts the adventures of Dickie Pentecost, the diplomatic editor of a newspaper that does not sound much different from FOOT. After being fired (“We’re reshaping our editorial capacity … who needs diplomatic reporting in terms of Chatham House when the foreign secretary himself is tweeting like a bloody blue tit?”), Dickie joins a company from dodgy PR called Making Nice, founded by a charismatic but possibly insane young man named Ethel (short for Ethelbert).

Follow a series of crazy adventures. After campaigning in the US and Africa, eternally mystified Dickie returns to London having achieved results that are both ignominious and miraculous, and the lesson here apparently is that reputation management providers, data gathering and other dark arts never will. They can be considered to fail (even when they have) for the simple reason that those who pay for their supposed abilities are so cowardly and disoriented.

Across the room (for Covid-related reasons, he cycled to my house this morning), Mount emits one of his surprisingly high-pitched laughs. He wrote the book at the close of last year, drawing on his own experiences (long ago, he headed Ms Thatcher’s policy unit) and on the news cycle, which became more helpful with each passing day in terms of your topic.

“I’ve been mixing with these swords [special advisers] and wonders for 40 years, ”he says, chewing on a cookie,“ and I became aware of both the fact that they seem to have gradually become history themselves, and their growing eccentricity. Sun [Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser] it’s just one of dozens I’ve met that have been decidedly unusual. But that’s part of what draws them to politicians, who are uncomfortably aware of being a bit bored and out of touch, even if they would never admit it. These magicians are very attractive; his wizardry hypnotizes everyday politicians. “

Public relations, as Mount points out, is not a new business. “You could say that Thomas Cromwell was the father of Henry VIII. [PR], and there have always been ghostwriters who puff men up, probably beginning with the Emperor Augustus. Only now, many of those whose job it used to be to look beyond smoke and mirrors are also involved in this: “Several good journalists have walked into these mega PR firms to work as data miners and that sort of thing. In the novel, Dickie occasionally meets people from his old world, and they are all stranded in this new world, which crosses borders so efficiently. One of the things that surprised a lot of people about the Cambridge Analytica scandal was the fact that wizards are now working their magic for the long haul, in all sorts of different arenas. “

Mount, now 82, led the policy unit in the early 1980s and thus played a major role in creating the Conservative Party’s 1983 election manifesto. How different do you think number 10 is now? “It is more open and more closed. Politicians tweet every five seconds, so we know what they are thinking, or what they would like you to think they are thinking. But it is also more closed. In my short and ignominious years in Downing Street, there were about 30 people in the building, and some of them were preoccupied with things like appointing bishops. Now there are about 200.

Ferdinand Mount works at The Daily Sketch.
Ferdinand Mount works at The Daily Sketch. Photograph: Courtesy of Ferdinand Mount / Bloomsbury

“In the old days, the cabinet was the big time of the week, and then there would be a statement in the House of Commons. All that has disappeared. It was quite a symbolic moment when Boris Johnson set up that meeting room with ‘Downing Street’ in large letters on the lectern and began addressing the nation every five minutes. That word ‘comms’ [communications], as in: ‘Are your communications okay?’ The abbreviation was not invented then. I think it’s more chaotic now. I am not saying that the old system did everything right. Obviously, it was not. But now you feel like if they get it right, it’s just by chance. “

On Cold cream, his acclaimed 2008 memoir, Mount describes with all his usual wit, self-loathing and cunning how he came to the policy unit, as Thatcher had apparently forgotten that she had once considered him a “lazy, decadent young man who was full of the mass consensus of the 1960s and that he was pleasing Keith Joseph [later a minister in her cabinet] in his fatal tendency to believe the last thing he was told ”.

Mount, a baronet whose mother was the sister of the late Lord Longford, who attended preparatory school with Prince Michael of Kent, was in college with Auberon Waugh and David Dimbleby, who started journalism after Eton and Oxford. and a cousin of David Cameron (on whom he is too honorable to comment), he joined the Conservatives’ research department as a junior recruit, from which he was pulled to be a personal assistant to Selwyn Lloyd, the then Conservative leader of the House.

It’s hard for me to imagine him with Thatcher. Compassionate and sensitive writer, his essays for him London Review of Books reveal what I would consider a fairly liberal mindset; voted to stay and would do so again; it is also impossible to find someone, even left, with a bad word to say about him. Has he moved himself to the left? “I’ve probably staggered in various directions,” he says. “But I prefer to say that they have moved to the right.”

Mount with Margaret Thatcher at a party in London, April 1992.
Mount with Margaret Thatcher at a party in London, April 1992. Photograph: Dave Benett / Getty Images

Was he afraid of Thatcher? “You couldn’t no Be afraid of her! But sometimes, she would tease you by making you a little braver, and you would say, ‘Well, I really wonder if that’s true, Prime Minister.’ If it sounds a bit like Sir Humphrey in Yes minister He is also able to see how things must have felt at times from his side. “Snobbery [Thatcher was, famously, the daughter of a grocer] it was quite surprising, it stretched from Christopher Soames [the Conservative cabinet minister] to Jonathan Miller [the theatre director]; the use of the suburbs as the latest insult, combined with a sexism of a sort that even then seemed old-fashioned. “

SUBWAYmy good will be published at the same time as the paperback of another Mount book, Kiss me goodbye. This extraordinary memory, which is difficult to describe without revealing too much, revolves around a glamorous figure from his childhood, known to him as Aunt Munca (she named herself after Beatrix Potter’s mouse, although she was anything but mouse): a woman who, after dogged investigation on her part, turns out not to have been what she seemed.

A miraculous little book (part of it is set in Sheffield, where I’m from, and Mount captures the city better than any writer I know) led me, at the height of the first lockdown, to write him an embarrassing fan letter, something that never done before. I couldn’t forget the beauty and wisdom of her writing, nor the fact that while it tells the story of a woman’s incredibly complicated life (think Barbara Taylor Bradford on acid), it also has a lot to say about Britain: its terraces and its factories, its golf courses and its rhododendrons, its miserable fixation with social class.

The paperback comes with a new postscript in which Mount offers even more revelations from Munca. “It is a real lesson to know how little you know,” he says quietly. “It proved again that she had the last laugh.” Some of these new revelations are very bleak, but it’s hard to hate your aunt, even though she was outrageous at times. “Yes. I got a lot of letters about the book and they said two things. First, that when people started thinking about it, there are quite a few disconnects in their own families, things that were overlooked or not fully understood. But, like you, they also developed a kind of feeling of companionship, even a furtive admiration, for Munca. “

Has all this been destabilizing for him? What does it mean to discover such ink holes in the foundations of the family? On Cold cream, Mount notes the reluctance with which he grew up, the common refusal for someone his age and class to get overly emotional, and now he begins: “Yeah, uh, um, and, uh, um…” he says. It makes me smile, because I know, having read Kiss me goodbye, how tender is his heart. His next book, he admits, will be about another of his relatives: “Shakespear of Arabia”, also known as Captain William Shakespear, a kind of forerunner of TE Lawrence, who was one of the first men to unite Britain and the Sheikhs. of the oil. .

But something tells me that Munca will be around for a while yet. She cannot be shaken. I will always think about her, and I never even met her.

Making nice by Ferdinand Mount is published by Bloomsbury (£ 16.99). To support the guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply


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