Diana Athill

The Oxygen of Influence

Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes

By

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This autobiography starts with a boy’s love for his mother, so beautifully evoked that when she dies of cancer it is heartbreaking. Not that he was supposed to feel it so deeply. Her unselfishness, together with the fear of emotion so common in English people of her class, made her ‘spare’ him the facts of her illness and attendance at her funeral, and the extent to which he was damaged by this attitude is important.

It is largely expressed through comedy. Mount presents himself as an absurd and eccentric child. Anything that could be fallen off or over or into did for him at once – even at nine years old he couldn’t ride a bicycle unless someone was running behind him holding him up. From his father he derived much technical knowledge about horse racing, but he could never tell one horse from another. The characters in books to whom he was drawn were the ones generally despised: the husbands of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, and poor old Casaubon in Middlemarch. Unsurprisingly, he was asthmatic.

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