12 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 Petronella Wyatt
I first met Margaret Thatcher when I was nine and she was on the point of winning her first election victory. My father, Woodrow Wyatt, a former Labour politician who had become disenchanted with his old party, had come to view her as Britain’s only hope of recovery. They had met at a lunch a few years before and formed a firm friendship. When he announced one Saturday that she would be paying us a visit, he spoke with reverence. “Mrs Thatcher,” he declared, “will be our saviour.”
What was one to expect? An icy, imperial goddess? A sly termagant? Or a respectable middle-class lady quietly pouring out the tea? At five o’clock I presented myself in my father’s study. Margaret Thatcher had her face turned towards the wall. How she confounded my expectations and yet, in a strange and remarkable way, fulfilled them. Her face, which in those days was lightly made-up, had the stamp of command and also the mark of the ordinary.
Her features were regular and her suit, which was yellow, gave them a golden glow. Her gaze was both sharp and soft. “Soah, you-ah ah Petronahlla.” At least that is an approximation of what she sounded like. (She had begun, in secret, to take vocal lessons from Harold Macmillan; the result being that she sounded a little like a Home Counties Scarlett O’Hara.) “Cahm here, dear.” A plump apple-white finger alighted on a badge I been given at school, which bore the words “British Smile Day”.
“That’s right,” she said. “Keep smahling.” I was 14 when I met her again. The woman I had sipped tea with was now the first female incumbent of 10 Downing Street. “The Prime Minister is coming for a drink,” said my father. “Could you made her a whisky and soda?’ Trembling, I handed her a glass. Then my father did a terrible thing. “I’m going upstairs to fetch a book. Please entertain Mrs Thatcher while I’m gone.”
I stood petrified. Perhaps because of her office, she seemed less suburban and more supreme. She has the seductive smile of Ingrid Bergman, but there was a visible majesty of a sort that would terrify her enemies. Eventually she spoke and her divine stamp took on a surprising benevolence. “You’re not smiling any more, dear,” she said, all the affectation wiped from her now cello-contralto voice.
Her powers of recall were astonishing. I simpered. “Which of your school work do you like best?” she enquired. “History, Prime Minister.” I searched my brain for great Conservatives and blurted out the name of the reforming Victorian prime minister Robert Peel. There was a terrifying silence. Finally she said in a tone of pure horror. “Robert Peel! Too many U-turns.”
Sometimes I thought my father entertained a fondness for Thatcher that balanced precariously on the edge of love. My suspicions were aroused when his thoughts turned from economic figures to her own. He compared her legs to those of Cyd Charisse and her eyes to Elizabeth Taylor’s. I noticed my mother becoming increasingly annoyed as he finished one peroration with “Margaret is what Napoleon said about Josephine. She is all woman.”
It was true that Thatcher had a surprising susceptibility to men. Not to all men, but, like Elizabeth I, to those with a sort of gaudy glamour and an insinuating flirtatiousness: Jeffrey Archer, Richard Branson, whom she adored, and Cecil Parkinson.
She was an amalgam of strength and vulnerability. She could be jealous of other women, and took praise like attar of roses; she sucked it into her skin. Once, when I impudently complimented her on her knowledge of history, she thanked me almost shyly. “Those Tory grandees think I’m ignorant, but I have read the great Dean Swift.”
My mother admired Thatcher but was cautious of embracing her with my father’s wholehearted bonté. She had discovered, by listening at the door, that her husband spoke to the Prime Minister every morning before breakfast. When she and Denis next came for dinner, my mother was baleful. The discussion turned to the economy and my mother decided to vouchsafe an opinion. “You know, Woodrow, I think that…” At once she was interrupted by the Prime Minister. “Be quiet, dear,” she said. “Your turn will come.”
As a dinner guest she displayed a sense of humour of which the public knew nothing. My father adhered to the Edwardian habit of asking the women to leave the room after pudding, so that the men could enjoy cigars and “serious conversation”. “But you can’t send me out of the room,” she protested, “I’m the Prime Minister!” She also enjoyed a risqué joke. I remember mentioning the notorious, orgiastic activities of the 18th-century Hellfire Club. “ Shut up,” hissed my father. “No, don’t!” rejoined Thatcher.
In time, however, my mother warmed to what her detractors fail to comprehend: Margaret Thatcher’s essential humanity. Her natural instincts were unselfish and compassionate. She was genuinely distressed by the misfortune of others. Her eyes would soften with tears at tales of privation. She worriedly intervened when anyone she knew was ill. When I mentioned to her, during the height of the Westland crisis, that my mother was undergoing an eye operation, she was aghast. “But why didn’t you tell me at once?” The following day, my mother’s hospital room was inundated with flowers and exotic hampers of fruit.
To me, she showed immense kindness and took an unwarranted interest in my activities. She encouraged me when I sat my A-levels. She was with me when I decided to leave Oxford University, taking my part against my father. “Don’t be a snob, Woodrow. Those Oxford dons are unspeakable. She knows what she’s doing.”
I often thought she was anxious for me to find a husband. It was not that she disliked feminism. Rather, she believed a stable home life was a prerequisite for a successful career. “Everyone needs to be cherished,” she told me. “Without Denis I would never have reached the starting blocks.”
It was touchingly evident how much they loved each other; nor did they require photographs to be released to the newspapers to prove it. Thatcher had an old-fashioned view of publicity from which present politicians could benefit. Never was her family to be used to further her political career. “If you can’t manage a political crisis,” she once said, “it is morally wrong to involve civilians.”
As I grew up, she became a fixed point in my life. It was impossible to imagine any premier but her. But it was not to be. Power failed to corrupt Thatcher, but eventually she became isolated and complacent. The Romans kept their leaders on their toes by employing someone to run behind a man during a triumph, whispering: “You are only a mortal.” Slowly and anxiously I watched as Thatcher’s once infallible antennae began to fail her.
Disaffected members of the Tory party threw out barbs and squibs. Thatcher seemed exhausted by her travails. The results of the first ballot came in. Michael Heseltine had deprived her of an overall victory. At 6.30 the following morning, my father received a telephone call from No 10. It was his beloved Margaret. She spoke slowly and painfully, “I have decided to resign. I wanted to tell you before I made the announcement.”
It was the only time I saw my father cry. I, too, began to weep as he railed against “Tory traitors — the Labour Party would never have behaved like this to any of its leaders”. I felt as if I had lost my Earth Mother, the symbol of my youth.
When my father died in 1997, her letter was the longest and most comforting I received. Then Denis followed and she seemed to diminish physically. She spoke to me of her terrible loneliness. “ Look after your mother. It’s a terrible thing, to be alone.” She was becoming ill and losing her train of thought. It was anguish to watch. I saw her less and less, though occasionally she would overcome her frailty to attend parties given by friends, and for a few fleeting moments, her brilliance would emerge.
One of Lady Thatcher’s least publicised qualities, which raised her above any other politician I have known, was the complete absence of schadenfreude or triumphalism. In 1992, I was fortunate enough to be asked by Alistair McAlpine, Lady Thatcher’s former Treasurer and close friend, to spend election night with the recently deposed premier and her family at his London home. Denis and Mark Thatcher were understandably bitter. When Tory wet Chris Patten, whose vitriol towards her had known no bounds, lost his seat, they leapt to their feet and whooped like Watusi chieftains. I shall never forget the majesty on her features as she reprimanded them: ‘Sit down at once! The misfortune of others is never a cause for celebration.’
I can hear her now, sensible and eminently kind. She was the best and wisest person I have ever known. Countless tributes will be made and countless books will call her one of the greatest figures in British history. But now I am remembering the woman who made a shy girl feel important, and the touch of her cool hand. Margaret Thatcher is dead, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.