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Ferdinand Mount

Ferdinand Mount’s most recent book is Prime Movers: From Pericles to Gandhi.

Après Brexit

Ferdinand Mount, 20 February 2020

The Tory right is engaged on an ambitious enterprise of demolition and detachment, of which leaving the EU is only the most conspicuous – though so far the most momentous – element. Yes, national solitude is the Holy Grail for the Knights Not Round the Table – Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Sir Bill Cash, Sir John Redwood et al – and they have devoted their adult lives to it. But they have more in mind than this. They hope also to undo the constitutional and administrative reforms of the Blair years. What they want to achieve is a simplification of democracy. The overall goal is often described, and with justice, as a sort of national populism, of the kind practised by Orbán, Bolsonaro and Erdoğan. But the mechanisms by which this new style of politics is to be delivered and entrenched are peculiar to Britain.

Enoch Powell

Ferdinand Mount, 26 September 2019

Here, I think, is Enoch Powell’s abiding legacy: not his undeniable racism, or his cold disregard for the welfare of those he identified as ‘an alien wedge’, but rather the lurking angst he instilled and bequeathed about the future existence of the British nation, the sense of an imminent catastrophe. Boris Johnson excoriates the ‘doomsters’ and ‘gloomsters’. But who was the Father of all Doomsters? Who first implanted the obsessive belief that breaking out of the prison house of Brussels was our only possible salvation?

Why we go to war

Ferdinand Mount, 6 June 2019

You can see​ the twin slagheaps from almost every corner of the battlefield. If there is one memorable emblem of the Battle of Loos, it is these double crassiers, a little altered in outline since 1915 but as dominant as ever over the mournful plain. For British soldiers then, the other landmark was the huge pithead lift they nicknamed Tower Bridge, used as an observation post by the...

The Massacre at Amritsar

Ferdinand Mount, 4 April 2019

Thirty seconds​ after he first entered the Jallianwala Bagh, he ordered his men to open fire. There was no word of warning to the crowd, not a gesture. ‘My mind was made up as I came along in my motor car. If my orders were not obeyed, I would open fire immediately.’ After a bit, Sergeant Anderson, General Dyer’s personal bodyguard, ‘noticed that Captain Briggs was...

‘Just get us out’

Ferdinand Mount, 21 March 2019

If you​ are able to name the last four leaders of the United Kingdom Independence Party, then you really ought to get out more. And no, none of them was or is Nigel Farage, although of the ten leaders the party has had in the past ten years, he did fill the post three times. Ukip has been the most successful single-issue movement in England since the suffragettes, but it has been...

First and Only Empress

Ferdinand Mount, 22 November 2018

Miles Taylor emphasises ‘the agency of the queen’. She was never Melbourne’s puppet, and she did not become Disraeli’s either. In the process, we are made aware of the extreme oddity of Britain’s empire on the subcontinent and the peculiar impact that Victoria herself had on the way things went. She was by turns an evangelical zealot, an enthusiast for the expansion of her empire and a passionate humanitarian. But she was never quiet. In all her mutations she left her own mark on minds and events. It is not too much to say that this strange, self-educated, self-propelled little woman deserves a place among the makers of modern India.

De Gaulle

Ferdinand Mount, 2 August 2018

Although he can’t be wholly blamed for the ructions that have repeatedly shaken the country, to claim that he bequeathed stable political institutions seems an exaggeration, to put it mildly. The Front National (recently rebranded by Marine Le Pen as the Rassemblement National, an echo of de Gaulle’s Rassemblement du Peuple Français) remains a menacing second force, requiring constant ingenuity to be kept out. My eye falls on a blog headlined ‘Macron is restoring France’s dignity.’ What sort of polity is it that needs to have its dignity restored so frequently? Is not the quest for grandeur insisted on by de Gaulle likely only to perpetuate a sense of always falling short?

Princess Margaret

Ferdinand Mount, 4 January 2018

Only the hardest heart would repress a twitch of sympathy. To live on the receiving end of so much gush and so much abuse, to be simultaneously spoilt rotten and hopelessly infantilised, how well would any of us stand up to it? So many functions to go to, so much dysfunction to come back to. When Princess Margaret made a guest appearance at the Borsetshire fashion show in an episode of The Archers, the producer said after the run-through: ‘That’s very good, ma’am, but do you think you could sound as if you were enjoying yourself a little more?’ ‘Well, I wouldn’t be, would I?’ the princess replied.

Staffing the Raj

Ferdinand Mount, 7 September 2017

I believe as strongly as I believe anything that you oughtn’t to go. Have you thought enough of the horror of the solitude and the wretchedness of every single creature out there and the degrading influences of those years away from civilisation? I’ve had experience – I’ve seen my brothers and what’s happened to them, and it’s sickening to think of.

Lytton...

The EU Referendum

Ferdinand Mount, 18 May 2016

What makes it so tempting to regard ‘Brexosis’ as a mental disorder is its persistent streak of paranoia. Brexotics have always regarded the EU as a deep-laid plot to undermine and eventually to extinguish the nation-state in general and Britain in particular; ‘they’ are always ganging up against ‘us’. Brexotics remain deaf to the thesis that the underlying purpose of the European Union was to retrieve the nation-state after two catastrophic world wars, and to anchor it in a network of institutions that would prevent beggar-my-neighbour policies.

How to Build an Empire

Ferdinand Mount, 30 March 2016

‘Those​ who make many species are the “splitters” and those who make few are the “lumpers”,’ Charles Darwin wrote in 1857 to his friend, the great botanist Joseph Hooker. This first recorded appearance of the handy distinction between those who bundle up the data into one big theory and those who prefer to lay out the exhibits on the table in carefully...

British Weeping

Ferdinand Mount, 17 December 2015

To weep or not to weep​: that has always been a question, repeatedly posing itself, and never answered to everyone’s satisfaction. Crying is such a two-faced thing: on the one hand, we think of it as uncontrollable, like a flinch; we burst into tears, we are racked by sobs. But we know that crying can be wilful too, a deliberate demonstration to the world of how we feel, or how we...

The League of Nations

Ferdinand Mount, 21 October 2015

I have often thought​ of writing a history of own goals. It would try to identify the factors common to the great boomerangs of the past: the conceit that mistakes itself for cunning, the refusal to consider possible ricochets and reverberations, the baffled indignation when you see the ball hit the back of your own net. A delicious own goal was scored recently by the Labour MPs who...

Magna Carta

Ferdinand Mount, 22 April 2015

George Cony​, a London merchant, had once been a friend of Oliver Cromwell. But when the Lord Protector slapped a tax on silk imports without the consent of Parliament, Mr Cony protested that this was the sort of arbitrary behaviour for which Cromwell had lambasted the late king, and demanded that the unjust tax be repaid to him. Cromwell first tried to browbeat Cony into submission, then...

Margot Asquith’s War

Ferdinand Mount, 8 January 2015

The Prince was walking up and down in silence. He caught me by the hands and said: ‘Oh! say there is surely not going to be “warr” (pronouncing it like “far”). Dear, dear Mrs Asquith, can we not stop it?’ (wringing his hands) … ‘I do not understand what has happened. What is it all about?’

Millions​ of people then and ever since have...

Burke

Ferdinand Mount, 20 August 2014

‘You could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen.’ Dr Johnson’s remark on Edmund Burke, related in one of Hester Thrale’s anecdotes, is unforgettable. The greatest Tory of the 18th century takes off his hat and makes the lowest possible bow.

Land Ownership

Ferdinand Mount, 7 May 2014

In this case,​ the elephant is the room. There can be few enormous subjects more often dodged than the space we occupy on the surface of the earth. Land ownership – its many modes, its distribution, its history – is the great ignored in politics today, gingerly taken up if at all and quickly put down again in favour of more fashionable topics: capitalism, urbanisation,...

Bagehot

Ferdinand Mount, 6 February 2014

There used to be a room in the National Portrait Gallery devoted to portraits of late Victorian sages by G.F. Watts. Inspissated in that painter’s incurably muddy tones, they peered out from behind straggly beards and whiskers with sad, rheumy eyes – Matthew Arnold, Carlyle, Swinburne, William Morris, Leslie Stephen, Tennyson – giving off a steamy despair. They had heard the melancholy long withdrawing roar of faith, and they did not like the sound of it. Today relegated to a wall in a side room, these literary men seem to take second billing to the wall where the giants of Victorian science are gathered.

The Red Dean

Ferdinand Mount, 26 April 2012

In his prime, Dr Hewlett Johnson was one of the most famous men in the world. Almost from the moment he was made dean of Canterbury in 1931, he became instantly recognisable everywhere as the Red Dean. His faith in the Communist Party, and in Stalin in particular, was unshakeable. Purges and famines, executions and persecutions passed him by. Though he never saw the need actually to join the...

M.R. James

Ferdinand Mount, 26 January 2012

He always comes on his own, this bachelor of antiquarian tastes. Sometimes he is a book dealer, more often an academic. He is a dry, crotchety character, not particularly sympathetic. He is usually on holiday, in East Anglia or an old town in France or Denmark. He is staying in an inn or a hotel, an uncongenial sort of place far from his familiar institutional comforts. In fact he is way out...

Harold Macmillan

Ferdinand Mount, 8 September 2011

The first thing about Harold Macmillan was his bravery, and it was the last thing too. In the Great War he was wounded five times, at the Battle of Loos and at the Somme. At Delville Wood he was hit in the thigh and pelvis and rolled down into a large shell-hole, where he lay for the next ten hours, alternately dosing himself with morphine and reading Aeschylus.

An Atheist in the House

Ferdinand Mount, 30 June 2011

He was ‘unquestionably a great and good man’. Who could forget ‘his gigantic stature, his warm temperament, his good health and good humour, his bull-necked obstinacy, his generous and open temper? … He had many enemies and fought them all with generosity … In the last glimpse of the enormous “Iconoclast”, he is a priest defending an altar.’

...

Edward Heath

Ferdinand Mount, 22 July 2010

At the end of his official biography of Lord Mountbatten 25 years ago, Philip Ziegler wrote: ‘There was a time when I became so enraged by what I began to feel was his determination to hoodwink me that I found it necessary to place on my desk a notice saying: REMEMBER, IN SPITE OF EVERYTHING, HE WAS A GREAT MAN.’ At the end of his authorised biography of Edward Heath, Ziegler...

PMs v. the Media

Ferdinand Mount, 22 April 2010

One of the odder political books I have read is The Abuse of Power, by James Margach, the veteran lobby correspondent of the Sunday Times. Published in 1978, the book was subtitled with a flourish: ‘The war between Downing Street and the media from Lloyd George to Callaghan’.

For 40 years and more, Margach had enjoyed the confidence of prime ministers. He was in the private...

Arthur Ransome

Ferdinand Mount, 24 September 2009

‘Ransome, when he turned up, proved to be an amiable and attractive man, with a luxuriant blond soup-strainer moustache, a rubicund complexion, a large mouth from which more often than not a pipe protruded, and a hearty disposition.’ Malcolm Muggeridge immediately took to Arthur Ransome when he first met him in Cairo in 1929. Most people did. The philosopher R.G. Collingwood, a...

Cherubino at Number Ten

Ferdinand Mount, 20 March 2008

On a cycling holiday in Scotland A.C. Benson went to meet Arthur Balfour at Whittingehame. The prime minister was out practising on his private golf course. They saw him ‘approaching across the grass, swinging a golf club – in rough coat and waistcoat, the latter open; a cloth cap, flannel trousers; and large black boots, much too heavy and big for his willowy figure. He slouched...

Derek Jackson

Ferdinand Mount, 7 February 2008

In all the history of second-guessing in warfare, the Window affair is one of the most extraordinary. As early as 1934, Post Office engineers reported that passing aircraft could interfere with radio reception. Less than a year later, Robert Watson-Watt demonstrated by a simple experiment in a field outside Daventry that aircraft could be detected by radio. Radar was born. Remarkably, it was...

Imposters

Ferdinand Mount, 2 August 2007

Sir Roger Tichborne is my name, I’m seeking now for wealth and fame, They say that I was lost at sea, But I tell them ‘Oh dear, no, not me.’

This ballad, sung in procession when the Tichborne Claimant appeared at the Grand Amalgamated Demonstration of Foresters at Loughborough in August 1872, neatly compresses the story of the most celebrated of all late Victorian causes....

The Fifties

Ferdinand Mount, 16 November 2006

When did decaditis first strike? When did people begin to think that slicing the past up into periods of ten years was a useful thing to do? Historians used to deal in reigns and centuries, and it had long been agreed that these might have their own distinctive flavour, including the one that you happened to be living in – Tennyson in 1846 referred, ironically, to ‘a noble...

Mosley’s Lost Deposit

Ferdinand Mount, 6 July 2006

It is 26 years since Oswald Mosley breathed his last at the Temple de la Gloire, the athletic frame which he had once so proudly flexed now sadly bloated, his piercing eyes shrunk to peepholes, the sinister moustache long shaven. It is 66 years since Churchill brought his serious political career to an abrupt end by interning him in Brixton jail. Yet Mosley never quite stops haunting us. He...

Little Rosebery

Ferdinand Mount, 22 September 2005

The schoolmaster William Johnson is remembered for three things, although not under that name. He wrote the most famous of all translations from Greek lyric verse, ‘They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead’; he wrote the words of the ‘Eton Boating Song’; and in a letter to Francis Warre-Cornish, another Eton schoolmaster, he wrote of his pupil, the future...

Gladstone

Ferdinand Mount, 17 February 2005

What is Gladstone trying to tell us? Through the matted undergrowth of his prose, with its vatic pronouncements, its interminable subordinate clauses, its ponderous hesitations and protestations, its sudden whimsical excursions and conjectures, something – not a message exactly but not a philosophy either, perhaps the only word would be a mind – is struggling to declare itself. A...

The benefits of the Crimean War

Ferdinand Mount, 20 May 2004

In his tactless German way, Prince Albert pulled no punches: ‘We have no general staff or staff corps, no field commissariat, no field army department; no ambulance corps, no baggage train, no corps of drivers, no corps of artisans; no practice or possibility of acquiring it, in the combined use of the three arms, cavalry, infantry and artillery.’ The merest subaltern at the front...

Tea with Sassoon

Ferdinand Mount, 7 August 2003

My father had no gun, or any land to shoot over. So when he decided that it was time for me, then aged 15 or 16, to learn how to shoot, he had to cadge. We borrowed an old 12-bore from a local farmer, a rickety weapon the lock, stock and barrel of which were barely connected, and my father then asked his neighbour, Siegfried Sassoon, who lived in the next village, whether we could loose off a...

Minnesota Fates

Ferdinand Mount, 12 October 1989

Modern American writers have taken to heart Thomas Wolfe’s warning that ‘you can’t go home again.’ These days, being American or being modern or both seems to demand recognition of exile. The writer has to say goodbye to his folks at the earliest opportunity. That is only the first stage in his education in the estrangements of our times. Indeed, such farewells are best got over with in his first book; if successful, the account of how he grew up and out of his small-town, small-minded origins will launch him into the literary world where, after majoring in alienation and/or anomie, he can set about facing the real challenges of a writer’s life: alcohol and alimony.

Letter
It is kind of John Sutherland (LRB, 7 January) to draw your readers’ attention to the TLS electronic archive, which, of course, includes his own copious and distinguished work as well as that of Duncan Wu and many contributors to the LRB. So do the back numbers of the TLS which you can find bound in any decent library, so does the microfiche edition of the TLS which has been separately available...

Company Rule in India

Miles Taylor, 3 March 2016

Sir John Low​ finally hung up his helmet seventy years after joining the Madras army in 1804, having served the East India Company as soldier, jailer, agent and councillor. As a rookie...

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Our Very Own Oligarchs

David Runciman, 7 June 2012

You can tell Russia is not a real democracy because there is no great mystery about its politics. Democracies are slightly baffling in how they work: just look at America; just look at Europe; just...

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From Swindon to Swindon

Mary Beard, 17 February 2011

In February 1863, the newly founded Roman Bath Company opened its first premises in Jesus Lane, Cambridge. Behind an impressively classical façade, designed by Matthew Digby Wyatt, was a...

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Britain’s new class divide

John Lanchester, 21 October 2004

Britain produces an extraordinary amount of commentary, in print, on television and on radio; so much that the production of opinion can seem to be our dominant industry, the thing we are best at...

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High Jinks at the Plaza

Perry Anderson, 22 October 1992

‘Constitutional theorists who wish to hold our attention must charm as well as instruct; this is not so, I think, in other countries,’ writes Ferdinand Mount. Who better to illustrate...

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Drabble’s Progress

John Sutherland, 5 December 1991

Some readers do not much like Margaret Drabble’s later novels because they are so different from her earlier successes. She may have lost one public and not as yet entirely won over...

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Love, Loss and Family Advantage

Rosalind Mitchison, 1 September 1983

Family Forms in Historic Europe is a collection of local studies from different parts of Europe, mostly based on ‘listings’: that is, on descriptions of the occupants of a local unit...

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