The Seductive Charm of Margaret Thatcher

Harry Goodwin 5 December 2020
Image credit: Huffington Post UK

Having recently spent a week traversing the grey wastelands of Calvinist political theory, it strikes me how closely the grim ayatollahs of the Reformation resemble certain attendees of the Peterhouse JCR Committee’s recent Open Meeting. Now, I have previously made constructive criticisms of the committee’s activities in print, and don’t wish to be a vindictive bore. I also think that pretty much everyone on the JCR is more pleasant and conscientious than me, though that perhaps is not saying much. They are also quite good at their jobs.

But my God, look at the published minutes. Quite undeniably, there exists in Peterhouse a population of poison dart frogs intent on ejaculating a toxic spray of gloom over all of life’s enjoyments. Abolish choir! Cancel the Scholars’ Service! Rites of penance for ‘the events of last night’! (Can’t these people last five syllables without mumbling ‘welfare issue’?) The aristocratic preciousness is captured by a successful motion demanding that porters ‘email us rather than calling us up or appearing at our door’. Serfs are always best kept out of sight.

Alright, rant over. As it happens, instead of fury came over me a river-swell of melancholy, an apprehension that this epoch and I shall never make our peace. How often it is that one reads a Facebook post or mass email which instils a desire to burn all Cambridge to the ground, to desecrate and pillage, to clamber atop a mountain of bright young skulls and bellow – ‘I am Lazarus, come from the sesh, come back to chun Red Bull, I shall chun Red Bull’.

Prigs change their costumes but they never go away.

It is better to remain calm. There must be advantages to living in a less po-faced and hypocritical age than ours, and yet it is quite unhistorical to believe such an age has ever existed. Prigs change their costumes but they never go away.

And yet, and yet. This week several Petreans pledged to attend an ‘egg-throwing contest’ at the unveiling of a statue of Margaret Thatcher in her home town of Grantham. I am a friend of equality, social justice and other nice things, but this self-regarding iconoclasm irked me. Seeking refuge in the past, I turned to the novelist Anthony Powell’s description of Maggie in his diary:

‘I continue to find Mrs Thatcher very attractive physically. Her overhanging eyelids, hooded eyes, are the only suggestion of mystery (a characteristic I like in women, while totally accepting Wilde’s view of them as Sphinxes without a secret). Her general appearance seems to justify Mitterand’s alleged comment that she has the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe; the latter a film star I never, in fact, thought particularly attractive. Mrs Thatcher has a fair skin; hair-do of incredible perfection, rather a dumpy figure, the last seeming to add a sense of down-to-earthiness that is appropriate and not unattractive in its way.’

Every word of this is excellent and wise and true. But go on, throw the book on the bonfire. Call Powell what you like. Call me what you like. I think the passage compresses very pungently the candid and cavalier spirit of the 1980s, a better time than today. It also reminds us – here, reader, is the requisite Sex and Relationships angle – that a great many literary giants had really big crushes on Margaret Thatcher.

To verify this point, we have Powell’s straw-poll of writers who attended a secret dinner with Mrs T in 1982: ‘I did some market research as to whether people find her as attractive as I do, and all, including VS Naipaul, were in complete agreement’. Among the besotted was Philip Larkin, whose passion for Thatcher exasperated his partner Monica Jones: ‘Even now I shudder and moan involuntarily. Monica says: “Is it death again, or Mrs Thatcher?” I wipe the froth from my lips (usually beer froth) and try to stop twitching’.

Another literary Thatcher-fancier was Larkin’s friend Kingsley Amis, who used to call Powell ‘Horse-Faced Dwarf’. Amis (father of Martin) maintained that the Iron Lady was ‘one of the best-looking women I have ever met’ and that sitting opposite her was like ‘looking at a science-fiction illustration of the beautiful girl who has become President of the Solar Federation in the year 2220’. The comic novelist also used to have wet dreams where the Queen would invite him to caress her bosom only to whisper: ‘No, no, Kingsley. We mustn’t. We can’t.’

In our age of flaccid Hancock and detumescent Johnson, it is heartening to recall a historical law admitting of no exception: all men are dogs. Whatever the ebb-and-flow of tedium and cant, the examples of Powell, Amis and Larkin prove that there is no trumping the base wisdom of lust. And immediately rather than words comes the thought of High Tories: the uncomprehending arse – and beyond it, the deep blue bores, who know nothing, and go nowhere, and are endless.