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The man who rode Ampersand was in fact, an amateur jockey named Harry Cotton. Harry is a compulsive gambler. The resulting decline in his fortunes takes him through three decades of adventures, melancholy, heroic, and comic by turn, which cut a broad swathe of disorder through provincial race meetings, 'one -night cheap hotels' and three luxurious redoubts of the fabulously rich. The inhabitants and frequenters of these places are every bit as bizarre as their surroundings.
Mount, who is editor of the Times Literary Supplement in London, is perhaps best known as an author of substantial nonfiction works (The Theatre of Politics; The British Constitution Now) but his fiction (Fairness; Jem (and Sam)) has been nominated for the Booker and won a Hawthornden prize. The present wonderfully comic and rueful novel is the first in a five-volume fictional history of the 20th century called A Chronicle of Modern Twilight (Fairness, which is the final volume, is the only other installment published in the U.S. so far). Mount tells the picaresque tale of Harry Cotton, a jockey who for one glorious moment in the 1930s rode a champion horse and always thereafter saw that moment as a touchstone in an otherwise rather tattered life. Harry runs afoul in turn of a wealthy owner and an unctuous bookie and is reduced to bartending in a seedy Soho "club" (read: brothel). He goes with a Jewish lover to prewar Germany; when war comes, he is drafted into the army and fights briefly in the North African desert before being invalided out with TB. He then goes to Ireland to enlist workers for the British war effort. The story is told partly through the eyes of his loving but despairing son, mostly from Harry's point of view, but no matter who is narrating, the period dialogue is spot-on, and a range of magically eccentric characters make appearances. In its sense of place, period and social interaction, Mount's work is like a kind of plebeian Anthony Powell saga absolute catnip for Anglophiles.