Heads you Win by Ferdinand Mount

published 2004

Heads You Win 2

[The narrator, Gus, is thinking about an early love of his, Gillian]
Joe and I first saw her just after we had left the asthma clinic where we met. She must have been about eighteen, and she wore this thick pink wool suit and she had this unstinted enthusiastic way of talking. She was so unlike Peggy, her slender, elegant mother. Peggy’s every word had a drawling charm and she didn’t even have to whistle to make men come running, among them Joe, who had lived with her for a year or two. So at first when Joe took up with Peggy’s daughter, relegating me to the sidelines, it seemed as though he was simply completing his programme of scoring every woman within striking distance, a sort of gender cleansing.

Heads You Win

[Later, Gus is thinking again about Gillian] The kiss on the fire escape, the bright pink woollen suit which we had laughed at, and her saying ‘oh fuck this zip’ as she tugged at it, then looking up as she was taking off her tights and saying, ‘I’m not used to this kind of thing, you know.’ And then later on, ‘oh yes, you can, if you like’ and the little hesitation before the ‘if you like’ as though even to suggest that anyone might like was presuming too much.

commentary: When I read this book, I didn’t fully realize that it was the final – sixth - part of a sequence of novels: The Chronicles of Modern Twilight. Many of the characters in the book have had their stories related in the earlier books – although this is a standalone, and completely readable and comprehensible on its own, I suspect that I will now read the earlier books and have considerable light shed on people and events. So, for example, the scene here, and the pink suit, and the early sexual encounters, may well more properly belong in a different novel.

But can’t worry about that now.

Ferdinand Mount is a tremendous writer – I have particularly enjoyed Jem and Sam (historical novel about Pepys), Cold Cream (memoirs), and English Voices (recent collection of journalism). And yet he is everything I would expect to dislike – privileged, Conservative, upper class, worked for Margaret Thatcher, well-connected and not in the least reluctant to use his connections. And yet he sounds like a lovely man, I cannot resist him. And, to be fair, he is the kind of Conservative that I do NOT despise: his writings on politics and inequality (in for example his book Mind the Gap) are surprising and illuminating. The Thatcher connection does always sting a little though, still to this day.

He is the kind of British mandarin who when writing about John Le Carre will reminisce about being taught German by him at Eton. He is a first cousin of David Cameron’s mother. But at least – and in contrast to so many of his privileged friends – he gives the impression that he thinks it was luck rather than merit that put him where he is.

And the book – well, it’s wonderful: very very funny observations and satire on UK life at the turn of the millennium. Gus is a senior civil servant who on retiring walks open-eyed into a business opportunity that is plainly very dubious, in the company of some very strange people indeed. But Mount makes it convincing that Gus would do this. Of course the reader can see what is going to happen, but that adds to the enjoyment.

There were huge pleasures in the book - not least that it was about older people (mostly) and faced up to illness, fragility and death with great good humour. Mount is a dab hand at describing behaviour that you recognize immediately, at capturing characters in a few lines. I loved this about the smoking area below a civil service office building:
On the way to pick up his Rover from the underground car park one evening Hilary had found Ian Riley-Jones with his small panatella sitting there with a couple of clerks and electricians, and decided that decorum demanded that an Executive Smoking Area be designated on Level Five to serve both Blocks A and B, while the basement sanctum would in future serve the lower orders throughout the building.
Or this on the Docklands site of the new business venture:
I couldn’t find Bagge’s Head Wharf in the A– Z. Perhaps it was the name of the building, not the street. But the new Docklands Pevsner had it: ‘Bagge’s Head Wharf: plain-pediment warehouse (F & H Francis 1870) with oculus and forged-iron wall-crane, collars and loading doors much decayed, interior aisled with cruciform columns carrying king-rod timber trusses on a riveted iron-trussed valley beam. Orig. Prosperity Wharf, renamed after celebrated prostitute Nellie Bagge whose severed head was found dangling from the crane. Unrestored.’
(I’m intrigued that Nellie is also the name of Gus’s wife. And that – presumably explained elsewhere in the series – she is investigating a historical character called Dudgeon, a name shared with another character.)

I laughed and laughed throughout this book, but also very much enjoyed the structure and the setpiece scenes – the thoroughly good family (‘I was eaten up with self-loathing and impatience to escape’), the prison visit, the shoot, the bridge game, the paintballing day – and the endless deft touches and clever observations. One more – a barrister is talking about rehabilitating prisoners:
‘You would not believe how difficult some of them find the transition to ordinary life.’ On the contrary, this seemed all too easy to imagine, seeing how difficult ordinary life could be even if you were in practice for it. But all I said was ah yes.
The only comparable writer I can think of is Christopher Buckley (The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking) – an American equivalent in terms of combining farce, brilliance and commentary on modern life.

Pink suits one and two from Kristine’s photostream.


  1. I really like that sort of book, Moira, that gives the reader witty insights. For people who don't know the culture, it's a great perspective. For people who do, there's a lot of smiling, laughing and head-nodding. It sounds like a fun read.

    1. Yes that's a good point Margot, it can be a great read both for people in the know and people from outside...

  2. Moira: I cannot see a woman in a pink suit without thinking of Jackie Kennedy on that terrible day in Dallas when her husband was assassinated.

    1. Oh gosh that's a somber thought Bill, but yes I know what you mean, an iconic image.

  3. Haven't read this one, but I have read Mount's journalism over the years. I've enjoyed some of his stuff, although I've never really felt like going out and pursuing any of the books, but perhaps I ought to. I can still remember a review he did of a book about Pepys. He talked about the famous diarist's energy, his tendency to make important friends, his boastfulness, his appetite for the opposite sex and his spells in prison, and decided that his modern day couterpart was Jeffrey Archer!

    1. That's a very funny point about Archer. I think MOunt is very clever and a very good writer, and would have a better reputation if he was just good at one thing. Honestly I enjoyed this novel much more than most recent prizewinners...

  4. Oooh a six book series? Err, no thanks...

  5. I knew that pink suit brought back some memories but could not remember until I read Bill's comment.

    I have not heard of this author. The series sounds very good but probably not one I will start anytime soon. Too many other non-mystery fiction in the queue, most suggested by this blog.

    1. There just are too many books aren't there? Yes, that picture makes me feel slightly uncomfortably now that I think of Jackie K. I see there's a new film out about her, but in the main still, she is wearing red.


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