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Effortless rise Memoirs

William Rees-Mogg

HARPERPRESS, 352PP, £30 ■Tablet bookshop price £27

n his third birthday, William Rees-Mogg (he was never called Bill) realised not only who he was, but what “a good thing” this promised to be. Eighty years on, appraising his record as an institutional grandee and benign paterfamilias, who would dare to gainsay him? His star was in the ascendant from the moment when, aged only 16, he won the blue riband Brackenbury History scholarship to Balliol. It comes as no surprise to learn that in his prizewinning essay he set out to contradict Wolsey’s advice to Thomas Cromwell in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: “Throw away ambition, by that sin fell the angels.” A minor hiccup occurred when his Oxford career was interrupted by National Service in the ranks of the RAF. This probably cost him a first, but he became president of the Union. Twenty years later he was editing The Times, a job that led, almost inexorably, to


William Rees-Mogg with Margaret Thatcher in Hong Kong in 1999

his becoming vice-chairman of the BBC and later chairman of the Arts Council. He was ennobled in 1988, having meanwhile branched out into antiquarian bookselling, specialist publishing and investment forecasting. Descended on his father’s side from

Somerset gentry, Rees-Mogg was baptised a Catholic on account of his mother, the granddaughter of Irish Catholic immigrants to America. This deprived him of a scholarship to Eton, though the provost’s bigotry was only revealed 50 years later. Instead he went to his father’s old school, Charterhouse, where his contemporaries included James Prior,

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Gerald Priestland, Peter May, Dick Taverne and Simon Raven, whose scheming character Somerset Lloyd-James is, he admits, “loosely based on the less agreeable aspects of my schoolboy personality”. Although he and Rees-Mogg

rarely saw eye to eye, Raven acknowledged his schoolmate’s erudition and relished his sly wit. He recalled how persuasive Rees-Mogg was on the subject of masturbation, insisting that it

caused syphilis (schoolboys were more credulous then). He also informed them that hell – Raven’s probable destination – was like a bad tooth that went on getting worse and worse for eternity. Rees-Mogg does not confirm such admonitions, but he does say that, thanks to the “practical attitude” of a Benedictine parish priest he has managed to avoid “an overanxious feeling about sin and guilt”. His Catholicism comprises “a strong faith, but little dogma”. John Betjeman used to say that “spiritually” he was at Harrow. I can’t help feeling that Rees-Mogg feels the same about Eton (he was even measured for a top hat and later sent his son Jacob there). However, he says that Charterhouse “taught him to use his elbows”. We have to take this on trust, because if he did leave a string of people nursing their ribs, he fails to mention it here. As befits a Balliol man, his progress to the editor’s chair was seemingly effortless, as indeed was his acquisition of a wife.

Rees-Mogg was editor when Rupert

Serving UM, MMU and the RNCM

de Lubac Memorial Lecture 2011 “Christ Jesus our Light – Heart of the New Evangelisation”


H.E. Cardinal Raymond Burke who is the head of

the Apostolic Signatura Vatican

Henri de Lubac SJ (1896 -1991)

Tuesday 11 October 2011 at 7.15pm At Whitworth Hall, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, M13 9PL

Nearest Railway station: Oxford Road Admission is by advance ticket only at a cost of £12 For tickets please call: 0161 273 1456 or email:

24 | THE TABLET | 17 September 2011

Murdoch bought The Times. Writing before the closure of the The News of the World he calls Murdoch “an excellent proprietor” – not just for the The Times, but also, thanks to his taking on the print unions, for Fleet Street as a whole. And now? Well, the two cases are not identical, but I think it’s worth quoting why he took a pro-Nixon line over Watergate, “almost the only journalist in the world” to do so: “It is perfectly possible for a wholly guilty man to be tried in a wholly unjust way.” Early on, Rees-Mogg devotes an absorbing chapter to his love of eighteenth-century literature, a love inspired by reading Johnson’s Lives of the Poets at an impressionable age. Alas, one cannot say of these memoirs, as Macaulay said of theLives, that they are as entertaining as any novel. Perhaps all those years of leader-writing are to blame, neutralising the sly wit that so appealed to Simon Raven. Mind you, he can be unconsciously funny. For instance, while serving his apprenticeship on the Financial Times, he also wrote some workaday speeches for Anthony Eden, then preoccupied with Suez. “Even nowadays”, he comments, “journalists sometimes get uncomfortably close to politicians.” Well, fancy that. Michael Barber

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