Sunday 28 May 2017

Review: Biography: Memoirs: William Rees-Mogg

Harper Press, £30

There seems to be no specific word in English for a young fogey. In this case it does not matter. William Rees-Mogg was never anything but an old fogey in short trousers, even in nappies if his own account of his political and social formation is to be believed.



In an engaging memoir, which features name-dropping on a heroic scale, the most interesting person, and the most attractive, is his mother, an Irish-American Shakespearian actress, whom he loved very much and who was a great influence on him throughout his life.

From her he got his Roman Catholicism, his love of literature and the arts, his understanding of and affection for America.

He also inherited his own personal banshee and an ancestor who was out in '98 (of which he does not fear to speak).

As a former editor of The Times, Rees-Mogg had a ringside seat at most of the great events of modern British politics, from Suez to Tony Blair's dodgy dossiers; the selection of MacMillan and Douglas Hume to head the Tory party at the expense of Butler; Thatcher; the Falklands; the fight with the print unions; the move from Fleet Street to Wapping, and the rise and rise of the Murdoch empire.

He has met most of the players, but the whole thing is strangely lacking in passion -- too balanced for his own good and to retain the interest of the reader.

There is a problem, too, when the commentator and analyst becomes one of the actors -- he was writing speeches for Eden during Suez -- a dangerous dilution of journalistic objectivity, which is still going on.

The book is useful as a peep at the anatomy of Britain from inside the body.

If the question is 'Who runs the place?' the answer is 'The same old crowd who went to public school and Oxbridge, joined the same clubs, meet at the same weekend parties, entertain each other and intermarry, and finally appoint each other to the endless quangos who carry out the functions of government without a great deal of accountability'.

There is a wonderful picture of the role of the country gentry (of whom Rees-Mogg indubitably is one) in British and, specifically, English, society, the gentleman farmer and the professional classes of the county towns, just below the nobility, who stood for stability and continuity, the backbone of society in southern England, settled for centuries, intermarried, the knights of the shires, the power-brokers in the Tory party.

Outside journalism he was a bookseller and a bibliophile, interested in and fascinated above all by the 18th Century, the Augustan age in England.

He revered Pope above all others, Locke, Reynolds and William Pitt, the balanced cadences of the rhyming couplet and Palladian architecture.

He would not himself have been out of place in it, as a near neighbour of Sir Roger de Coverley.

He could never, however, have been charged with phone-tapping or hacking or the egregious invasions of privacy which characterises so much of modern British media.

His towering integrity and his strong sense of journalistic ethics would never have allowed it.

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