Greater Minds: Hilary Mantel takes a potshot at Margaret Thatcher

  • In 1983, Hilary Mantel watched Margaret Thatcher leave a hospital.
  • In 2014, Mantel wrote the short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.
  • Mantel’s story re-ignited the controversy that still surrounds Thatcher’s legacy.
  • Mantel asked whether keeping on the right side of the establishment is a writer’s job.

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Portrait of Hilary Mantel by Nick Lord, 2014 (Chris Beckett [CC / Flickr])

On Saturday 6th August 1983, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was leaving a private hospital after a minor operation. Watching from the window of her home was an aspiring author.

The first and so far only woman to serve as Prime Minister, Thatcher was Britain’s longest serving Prime Minister of the 20th century. A quarter of a century after she was ousted by her own cabinet, her legacy remains as divisive and contentious as her premiership was.

Little wonder that the writer fantasised about a rifle:

Immediately your eye measures the distance. I thought, if I wasn’t me, if I was someone else, she’d be dead.

Many Britons would have thought the same, while many more would have been ready to throw themselves in front of the bullet.

Thirty years from idea to story

That moment would haunt the writer for three decades while she wrote a shelfload of novels and won two Booker Prizes. Finally, in 2014, Hilary Mantel trapped the elusive story on the page and published The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

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Margaret Thatcher in 1983 (White House Photographic Office [Wikimedia Commons])

As the story was shortlisted for last year’s National Short Story Award, a podcast and a brief interview with Mantel is available from BBC Radio 4.

The story takes the moment and the location, and explores another way the situation might have played out. Like Mantel, the short story’s protagonist owns a house that overlooks Thatcher’s exit from the hospital. Unlike Mantel, the protagonist shares a view with a man and his rifle.

The political theme of the story is underlined by opening with Thatcher broadcasting about the landing on South Georgia that marked the beginning of the British counter-offensive in the Falklands War, or the Falklands Conflict as the British press carefully referred to it until victory was secured.

Class with tea

The only aspect of Thatcher’s legacy that rivals the Falklands War for controversy is her ongoing confrontation with the trade unions. However, that battle’s most memorable moment was the miners’ strike of 1984-5, after the moment when Mantel watched Thatcher through the sights of her imaginary rifle. It would be interesting to know whether she would have opened the story with a broadcast about the strike if Mantel’s had caught her fleeting glimpse of thatcher a couple of years later.

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Grand Hotel, Brighton, hours after detonation of an IRA bomb targeting the Tory Party’s 1984 conference. Five people were killed and over 30 injured (Wikimedia Commons)

However, the politics of the story is submerged beneath a gentle comedy of manners. The middle class woman apologises to the working class sniper that she doesn’t have any white sugar, and hopes the demerara sugar will suffice for the cup of tea he makes him. There couldn’t be a more English picture than two people finding both common ground and a reflection of their class differences in a cup of tea. The moment tells the essence of the story in microcosm, as the two characters find nothing in common with each other beyond their hatred of their Prime Minister.

Lover her, hate her, shoot her?

The controversy surrounding Thatcher’s legacy was re-ignited by her death in 2013. Many people turned out to pay their respects at her ceremonial funeral and a minute’s silence was observed at venues across the country. Meanwhile, many local councils refused to drop their flags to half mast, as is customary at the death of a former Prime Minister. Social Media campaigns led to a race to the top of the UK’s singles charts between I’m in Love with Margaret by the Notsensibles and Ding Dong the Witch is Dead! from the Wizard of Oz. The latter won by a substantial margin, although it fell far short of reaching number one.

Perhaps the recent reprisal of the arguments about Thatcher’s legacy set the stage for the controversy that Mantel’s story generated. The Guardian, ever the voice of the left wing in British mainstream media, published the story in full and uncritically presented Mantel’s views on the story. Lord Norman Tebbit, who served in Thatcher’s cabinet for much of her premiership and whose wife was left paralysed by an IRA bomb intended for her, responded to the BBC’s decision to broadcast it by describing it as ‘a sick book from a sick mind and it’s being promoted by a sick broadcasting corporation’. Lord Timothy Bell, Thatcher’s friend and PR advisor, went even further stating ‘Mantel needs to see a therapist…if somebody admits they want to assassinate somebody, surely the police should investigate’.

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Demonstration in Trafalgar Square against Margaret Thatcher receiving a ceremonial funeral, 2013 (Chris Beckett [CC / Flickr])

Bell’s call for a police investigation is chilling at a time when allusions to terrorism often do attract the attention of the authorities. If Mantel should be investigated for writing about a fictional assassination, she is no more suspicious than an enormous number of writers whose plots have involved acts of terrorism, or indeed common crime. Fortunately, the police seem to realise the ridiculousness of the suggestion and have not acted on it.

The wrong side of the establishment

Mantel herself does not shun controversy, having once likened the policies of David Cameron’s government to the brutal repression of King Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, himself the subject of her Booker Prize winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies.

In her interview with the BBC, she poses the question:

Is it really the job of the writer to primarily consider questions of taste, or safety, or consensus, or being on the right side of the establishment?

Rhetorical as the question is, it would take a very tortuous reasoning process to answer ‘yes’. It would be interesting to hear Bell’s response.

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Hilary Mantel in 2010 (Chris Boland [CC / Flickr])

Mantel goes further when she states that Thatcher’s own favourite novel was The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsythe, describing an attempted assassination of French president Charles De Gaulle.  Mantel does not mention the fact that the fictional plot was unsuccessful, which may or may not have been key to Thatcher’s enjoyment of the novel. She went on to say, ‘you can regard it as a sort of homage to [Thatcher’s] literary taste’.

We could, but the burning question is would she? What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

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