A memoir by a shy and retiring British aristocrat with the unlikely title Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes would not usually grab my attention, or warrant a review in this blog.
However, Ferdinand “Ferdy” Mount’s autobiography is a delightful book filled with tales of a vanished world. He grew up a member of the British upper class. His family was never wealthy, but he was in line for a Baronetcy and they had enough money to send him to private schools and on to Eton and Oxford. Throughout his life, relatives, friends and acquaintances saw to it that Ferdy was alright. His career required “the oxygen of influence” from members of the Establishment who take care of their own. After working as a children’s nanny and gossip columnist, he did a stint as a leader writer on the now defunct newspaper the Daily Sketch. Following his time as a newspaperman, Ferdy then spent a few haphazard years assisting various Conservative Party politicians with reports and considered running for Parliament in a half-hearted way.
Then, out of the sky blue yonder, on p. 281 of his life story, the phone rings:
By the time Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister I 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. So it was a total surprise when her economic adviser Alan Walters rang up on 3 March 1982 and asked whether I would care to come and work for her.
He’s offered the job of running the policy unit and Number Ten Downing Street.
Mount comments “…I had never run anything and had zero experience of the workings of government.” Not a concern to the Iron Lady.
It transpired on meeting Mrs. Thacher that there was a fundamental misunderstanding: he thought of himself as a policy wonk, she hired him as a speech writer. Oh well, thinks Ferdy, “…I suppose many marriages have started on a worse basis.”
His description of life inside Number Ten is astute and hilarious. The strategic position of the gents loo allows cabinet ministers respite from their colleagues. He details where Dennis Thatcher keeps his golf clubs, how the residence of the Prime Minister was accessible via a back stairway where he could slip last minutes notes in the PM’s briefing boxes late at night, where the Downing Street cat sleeps. He confirms the accuracy of the way the Civil Service is portrayed in the BBC series Yes Minister.
Speechwriting at Number Ten
Mount reveals the “full horror” of the speechwriting process in preparing for major events.
The first draft I served up was there simply to be torn up and binned, while she began to think what she might actually want to say.
Politicians would submit jokes for his consideration. They were ignored.
Eccentric members of the ruling class would offer suggestions for speech content, including one who “sported a thin Mafioso moustache and grubby tennis shoes under a pinstripe suit (who) claimed to have a squad of West Indians on roller skates whom at a moment’s notice he could despatch all over London to find out what word on the street was…”
In addition to speech content, Mrs. T. needed coaching in delivery:
Her ear was unfailingly tinny and, though she could be devastating and inspiring in unscripted harangues, the sight of a written text would make her freeze. Even though the words might have been of her own devising…at first reading they would fall lifeless from her lips.
A “portly, fruity” playwright “redolent of the old West End” was there to advise on delivery:
‘Come on, darling, they want you to show you really feel it.’ She would look at him, bewildered but dutiful, the novice on her first engagement in rep.
Preparing her address to the annual Conservative party conference in a year when she was not challenged for leadership (that would come later) bemused Mount. Thatcher spent 18 hours preparing “for the one speech in the year in which she was assured of receiving a rapturous standing ovation.”
The final version of the speech contains none of his “smart phrases” but has the conventional “more direct, brutal way of putting things that she felt comfortable with.”
He acknowledges that speeches like this are where politicians focus their energy because they are about the “mechanics of getting and holding power.”
The humble manner in which Mount tells of his time in the corridors of power make this a delightful read and a lesson in the many ways speechwriters can function. Recommended.