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Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher photograph
  • By Jonathan Lee
  • Issue 15
  • On BeautyApril 2016

As a ten-year-old boy it seemed to me that I had solved the problem of politics rather well. My father, a schoolteacher and parish councilor in our English village, a beige place called Byfleet on the bus route to somewhere with a cinema, had always told me it was important to take a view on things, to have an opinion, to not become one of those people who care about nothing, and I took this as a challenge to hate Margaret Thatcher as much as he hated her. The Iron Lady. Madame Frit. Milk Snatcher. Attila the Hen. Oh, I was willing to hate her—to hate all the different versions of her I’d heard about. I wanted to be a clever, heavy-haired, playful, opinion-holding Margaret Thatcher hater. That my mother loved Maggie—and considered her a savior of our islands—did not present a problem. I understood early on, as all children do, the importance of taking sides.

Trouble was, Mrs. Thatcher looked so intelligent. She spoke so confidently. She was a grocer’s daughter who had made a great ascent. She seemed, surrounded by the monied old men of Westminster on our little black-and-white TV, colorful and sharp and assured. She talked about the individual being responsible for his or herself, for working his or her way towards something better, and I looked at the house I lived in, and at the bigger houses all my friends seemed to live in, and I understood, or thought I did, that Mrs. Thatcher was telling me to go ahead and try and ace all my exams.

What I remember is her mouth. I had begun already to dream of mouths. She seemed, on screen, always to be suppressing a smile, the corners of her lips looking not upturned, exactly, but always lively, always on the verge of lifting, as if her mind were toying with the idea of expressing a hitherto-contained hilarity at the world. She looked like she knew things other people didn’t know. I wanted to know things other people didn’t know. She was Prime Minister. No one said of what. I assumed of a large area.

My father said her days were numbered. In November I sat in front of the television with him and watched the BBC reporting on what they called the Leadership Challenge. He had that look of thickly-focused concentration he wore during games of pitch and putt on weekend visits to Brighton—hazy sunshine; hazy sea; the roofline of the Grand Hotel with its two Union Jack flags whipping in the wind. A man called Geoffrey Howe had resigned from the government. Mrs. Thatcher no longer sounded defiant. Her eleven years in power were coming to an end. She had been a leader, my father pointed out, for longer than I’d been a human. When I came downstairs one afternoon from a few grueling hours on my Atari 520 ST, my father—or was it another voice, my uncle’s, that day?—told me that Michael Heseltine, who I knew had a truly magnificent movie-star face, would be the next prime minister. I felt I could believe in someone with that chin.

In the end it was John Major—dead in the mouth, dead in the eyes, pale as an un-sinister cop-show corpse—who took over control of the country. I watched Maggie in tears leaving Downing Street. I watched Mr. Heseltine touch his spectacles as if to better see what had happened. My mother was upstairs in bed reading her holiday brochures: glossy publications full of hotels she’d never stay in, resorts she’d never visit. Was there something of Margaret Thatcher in her? She seemed always about to laugh. I watched her as she planned her escapes.

Photo © Homer Sykes, whose book Patrick Procktor and Friends was published in January by Cafe Royal Books