9 May 2013 at 09:00
This is an extract from my new book MEMORIES OF MARGARET THATCHER, which is published this week. A new extract will appear at 9am every day this week. The book contains 215 such essays by people from all walks of life who encountered the Iron Lady. You can order a signed copy of the book HERE
By Dame Ann Leslie
My note at a 1973 Tory Party Conference read: ‘Met a frightful woman called Margaret Hilda Thatcher’. I made copious notes about the assorted Grand Old Gents who then wielded power in the party – along with their old school ties, champagne flutes and brandy balloons – but about that ‘frightful woman’? Nothing further, because I assumed that she’d never get anywhere.
Indeed, it was not until February 1977, standing with her on the Great Wall of China, that I first grasped the fact that Mrs. Thatcher was more than an over-elocuted bottle blonde who had, improbably and (many believed) temporarily, managed to become Tory Leader. In that role she was making an official visit to China.
It wasn’t just the Grand Old Gents who didn’t take her very seriously. Even Fleet Street editors thought of her as a bit of a suburban housewife joke. It might have been only four months since the death of Chairman Mao, and two months after the arrest of the Gang of Four – seminal geopolitical events – but the press party on the trip were mostly chosen from the fluffy end of journalism: female columnists who could be relied upon to indulge in girl-talk about Carmen rollers with her, sniggering gossip columnists, plus two or three earnest China specialists. I still thought of her as ‘that frightful woman’, but now that the Cultural Revolution was over I could at last visit the enclosed land where my father was born and where my grandparents got married.
I knew that the Chinese routinely subjected their visiting ‘Distinguished Foreign Friends’ to what I called the Great Wall Stakes. I warned Mrs T. that I’d learned the section of the Wall we would be visiting at Badaling was extremely steep and slithery and, er, her high heeled court shoes were wholly unsuitable for the challenge. She blithely assured me: ‘Oh, I don’t intend to be athletic, my dear!’
But then the Chinese, doubtless secretly tittering at her forthcoming humiliation, told her: ‘Chairman Mao said “he who does not reach the top of the Great Wall is no great man.”’ Big mistake. She retorted briskly: ‘That should be changed to: no great leader!’ And off she shot up along the Wall like a Blue Streak rocket and, in no time at all, she and her Rotary-wife suit, carefully coiffed helmet of hair and those ‘unsuitable’ shoes were mere specks on the Badaling horizon.
Her insatiable gluttony for facts – dreary-swot stuff which the grand old gents tended to believe was somewhat beneath them – soon became exhaustingly evident.
Time and again on that Chinese trip, her then 23 year old daughter Carol would moan ‘Oh, Mum, come on!’ when it looked as if Mum had fastened on yet another hapless Chinese official and was about to grill him about the exact make-up of Revolutionary Committees, and could he please explain exactly what happened to surplus grain profits, if there were any, and was the Basic Unit accounting method really the most efficient method of running an agricultural commune? While the eyes of the ‘Gang of Nineteen’ (as we in the press party dubbed ourselves) were glazing over at yet another baffling recitation of the mus and catties of Chinese rice production, Mrs T’s were shining like stars.
At the end of yet another gruelling day touring communes and eating jellyfish, tree fungus and ducks’ feet at yet another banquet in the Great Hall of The People, the entire Thatcher party and our ‘Gang of Nineteen’ were hollow-eyed with jet-lag and lack of sleep. She on the other hand was fresh as a daisy and, turning to me, said brightly: ‘Oh dear, these evening do’s end so early. I wish we could go round the factories that are open all night’.
In her heart of hearts, she still belonged to the thrifty suburbs of her youth: on glimpsing cheap but neatly bundled vegetables in a Beijing market stall she cried happily: ‘How wonderful – they’re just like Sainsbury’s stewpacks!’
Two years later I found myself once again scuttling in her blue-suited wake during the ’79 Election which brought her to power – and once again marvelled at her stamina and her capacity for absorbing facts and regurgitating them with stunning accuracy. There seemed nothing on which she was not, by now, an expert – from false kneecaps to chocolate making to types of ironing board covers. Interrupting a woman ironing a garment in a factory she enthused: ‘Oh, those ironing board covers are marvellous! Do you know, they come in two sizes, a big one and a little one, I have one of the little ones at home and you know compared to…’ ‘Is your wife good at ironing?’ I asked Denis. ‘My wife is good at everything she does!’ he harrumphed.
Including (as he did not say) flirting. She liked men – preferably tall, young and handsome ones, like Cecil Parkinson and Michael Portillo. Frankly she did not much like most other women, especially not beady-eyed women journalists like me. I think she thought we were a bunch of wimps.
On that ’79 campaign, tour buses were not routinely fitted with onboard loos, and having given birth the previous year my bladder was not entirely stoic about having to spend hours out of reach of a public lavatory. I pleaded with her: ‘Mrs Thatcher, please can we have more potty stops? I sometimes wonder whether you vaporise the stuff, like astronauts. But I can’t.’ The iron-bladdered Iron Lady looked at me witheringly: ‘No one needs to go more than twice a day. I go first thing in the morning and last thing at night – and that’s quite enough!’
She would always, over the years, comment on my not very remarkable clothes – ‘what a lovely colour your jacket is, I’ve got one just like that!’ – but she never wasted her high octane flirtatious charms on the likes of me, perhaps not least because she suspected that we women knew her little tricks.
Especially her use of hand-on-the-elbow body language. One victim of the latter told me how it worked. ‘First she plays the role of the tough, terrifying warrior queen and then, when you are truly intimidated, she suddenly cups your elbow, gazes up at you with those china-blue eyes and breathes “my dear”… and makes you feel you’re the one man in the room who can bring out the feminine “little woman” in her. Believe me, it works!’
Indeed it did. Over the years I’d watched her deploy her hand-on-the-elbow weapon on dozens of initially recalcitrant men, ranging from the Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, to Mikhail Gorbachev, to my own husband (who heartily disliked her public image but who, at a party at No.10, received the hand-on-the-elbow treatment and was almost instantly seduced).
She was a nightmare to interview (as I once told her: ‘you are the worst interviewee I’ve ever had, bar perhaps Imelda Marcos: asking Imelda or you a question is like chucking a pebble into Niagara – it’s instantly swept away.’). On one occasion she said: ‘My dear, please don’t cut in until I’ve explained the whole situation to you!’. Fine – except I’d asked her about the poll tax, and its unenforceability, and she insisted on explaining the whole situation about Toronto’s rubbish collection system instead.
No wonder her feeble Cabinet colleagues couldn’t stand it anymore. But, despite myself, I adored her – and knew that the Tory Party had committed hari-kiri by turfing her out so cruelly. The Tories are still paying for that matricide today.