Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Maggie Thatcher - a non-book book review

I’ve been meaning to read a biography of Baroness Thatcher for some time now, and the sad news of her death yesterday (8 April 2013) has crystallised this urge into a definite intention.

Because, let me admit it first – before the brickbats start flying in - that I’m very much a fan of the Iron Lady. I don’t usually get too upset about politicians or public figures. But yesterday I shed a few tears when I heard the news of her death – just as my mother and I both shed tears when Maggie lost the premiership and had to leave Downing Street all those years ago. Most of our Essex contacts did back then, but I grew up in the farming community in rural Essex and we make our women tough. We like ’em that way, even when the rest of the world doesn’t. Of course, Maggie wasn’t an Essex Gal like me, but interestingly she did spend some time in Colchester, my home town, in her youth. And somehow she felt like one of us. We thought of her as an honorary Essex Gal in a lot of ways: mouthy, tough, take-no-nonsense, passionately holding on to beliefs when everyone else thinks we’re crazy, and deep down not actually caring what they think at all. All she really needed was the white stilettos (she already had the handbag) and nobody could have told the difference.

So, as I look at the vast range of biographies or autobiographies I could read, there are those that stand out and those I might like to give a try some day.

Having heard Gillian Shephard stand up for Maggie on Radio 4 yesterday evening (and whilst I was shouting my approval at what she said as set against the whining complaints of the other two politicians present), Shephard’s The Real Iron Lady is top of my list. I’m drawn to finding out a woman’s eye view of the Thatcher years, and see if my impressions and admiration, and indeed downright affection for the lady, remain the same. This book apparently also focuses on the behind-the-scenes humility and kindness often showed by Maggie – a character trait which seems sadly often ignored by the press. It’s a snippet at 288 pages only.

On the heftier side is John Campbell’s Margaret Thatcher: From Grocer’s Daughter to Iron Lady, which is a whole 576 pages long. Goodness, that’s a lot of words, but it’s the title that attracts me. When I grew up in the 60s and 70s, my only careers talk focused on how I could be a secretary, a teacher or a nurse. And I remember clearly my (actually surprisingly liberated) father presenting me with a book called “Careers for Women”, which also included Petrol Pump Attendant and Veterinary Assistant (never the Vet …), in case none of the other three careers worked out. Yes, you’re laughing, but for me it was totally wonderful when a woman came from nowhere, was laughed at by all the men for her ambition (though they’ll deny it now, if they’re still with us) and became the first (and so far only) female Prime Minister this country has ever had. Whatever you may think of Maggie’s character and politics, this is not an achievement to be sniffed at, coming from where she did, and indeed now. In any case, because of her, everything – at least for me – felt different. There were other career choices after all.

Another aspect of Maggie’s life and power I’ve never forgotten is how, under her, we kept the Falklands. Well, my dears, it is ours, and other countries should keep their hands to themselves, harrumph. I remember this period of British history very well as it occurred in 1982 when I was taking my A level French exams – so there are a whole generation of people my age who know that the Falkland Islands in French are Les Malouines – as naturally we all discussed our opinions of the War in our French oral exams. I know I sound middle aged and very Conservative (but really I’ve never made any secret of either, so why not, eh?…), but she did us proud, and we couldn’t have asked for better political leadership during that time. So, I’d like to read the account of the Falklands War in the words of Maggie herself – Thatcher’s War: The Iron Lady on The Falklands, even though it’s only a part of the larger and more encompassing autobiography, The Downing Street Years - which is definitely another one for my list, albeit a vast tome at a grand total of 832 pages.

Still, if my father can read the whole of Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, I really shouldn’t be whinging about page counts. And today, having listened to Radio 4 again on the way home from work, I've another to add to my list - Damian Barr's Maggie and Me. I was very impressed indeed by Mr Barr's interview today about Maggie and his book (only 256 pages, you know). I particularly keyed into the fact that because of her he realised it was all right to be different and to be an individual, something I personally feel very strongly about - and which is perhaps her best legacy after all.

So five books for me to get my teeth into over the coming months to commemorate the passing of a figure whom I believe to have been a great leader, a great Prime Minister and a great woman. A little bit of history for us all.

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