(by Ferdinand Mount) (2008)
It will come as no surprise to the reader that the “cold cream” of the title is the Pond’s cold cream used as a cure-all by the writer’s mother when he was a child. Somewhat less commonplace is the probable reason for Mrs Mount’s adherence to the unpleasant ointment – she earned a lifetime’s supply as a result of having spruiked it before her marriage – “Lady Julia Pakenham says she owes her flawless complexion to Pond’s Cold Cream”.
Lady Julia, the youngest daughter of the 5th Earl of Longford KC, married Robert Francis (“Robin”) Mount who, when at Oxford brought the Magdalen beagles home and ran them through the woods at his family’s Ancient Pile. Even given the restrictions of the entail, Robin Mount’s aversion to regular work (he was, rather oddly, a jockey) and the occasional modifying “relative” before the word, Ferdy’s references to his parents’ poverty are risible.
Moneyed or not, the Mount family was certainly connected. Ferdy Mount is, after all, Sir William Robert Ferdinand Mount, 3rd Baronet. “Cold Cream” is at times nothing more than an astonishing regurgitation of Debrett’s and the UK Who’s Who. Mount knows and is related to everyone. Just for example, his uncle is Anthony Powell, his cousins include Antonia Fraser and David Cameron. Despite the air of ensuring that we nobodies know that we are just that, Mount’s tone is also engaging, assured and lapidary. The book does lack some chronological rigour. We would like to know more about his wife, (also called Julia), who married Mount despite (according to his own account) the iceberg demeanour and indifference which bewildered and exasperated his girlfriends.
The references to his “coldness” may be part of Mount’s overdone self-deprecation or perhaps, (as he says), it was not until the death of his father, his marriage and his own fatherhood that he learned compassion and emotion. In an example of his best writing, Mount says this upon seeing his father shortly after his death:
“The direct experience of death as of birth has the power to open us up and expose our hearts. We feel at once intensely fragile and intensely alive. Now I had that direct experience I had missed out on it thirteen years earlier when I lay dry-eyed on my bed at 50 Zugspitzstrasse after receiving the telegrams about my mother. I had felt a similar rush of feeling three months earlier in Queen Charlotte’s Hospital when I held our first child in my arms, the awkward intensity recognisably the same though then provoked by joy rather than sadness. Mortality is as precious as it is tragic. How hard-hearted and dull-souled we would be if we were immortal. That is why the gods on Mount Olympus were so callous and bored, moved only by lust and anger, rather like a gated community of pop stars, emerging only at intervals to ravish and dazzle us lucky mortals.”
The latter part of the book is rather different. Up to this point, Mount has said little about his work as a journalist and author. Now the rollcall of the great and famous includes Margaret Thatcher and we walk with Mount through his induction and success as a policy maker (or is it a speech writer? Mount is never sure) for the Prime Minister. His portraits of Thatcher, Selwyn and others are cool and complex. For those interested in late 20th Century, early 21st Century British politics, this portion of Mount’s book is a must. For the rest of us, it becomes dull and lacks the loose whimsical zing of the parties, writers, artists, eccentrics, country houses and pretend idleness of the earlier portion which so dazzle us lucky mortals.