Ultra-Sophisticated

Hilary Mantel

  • Life Lines: Politics and Health 1986-1988 by Edwina Currie
    Sidgwick, 291 pp, £13.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 283 99920 9
  • My Turn by Nancy Reagan and William Novak
    Weidenfeld, 384 pp, £15.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 297 79677 1
  • Heiress: The Story of Christina Onassis by Nigel Dempster
    Weidenfeld, 180 pp, £12.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 297 79671 2

Edwina had her date with destiny on 10 September 1986. A TV crew were camped outside her house in her Derbyshire constituency, and were shining lights through the windows. Edwina waited for the phone to ring. When it did, it was a man’s voice, telling her to get along without delay to Downing Street. ‘And so, into my battered Maestro... ’ – a nice populist touch there. But as she drove towards her appointment with the Prime Minister, as she fumed and itched in the London traffic, a horrible thought struck her: what if it was all a practical joke?

Edwina Currie was born in Liverpool, and takes credit for the fact. She is one of those people who thinks that the North of England is more real than the South, and her education at Oxford and the LSE seems to have confirmed her prejudice. For nine years she served on Birmingham City Council; the place of the Midlands in her scheme is not clear. In 1983 she entered the Commons, and in 1986 was appointed to the Ministry of Health. Her book is not a biography, but an account of her period in office, its triumphs and frustrations. If you have ever wondered, for example, about ‘the zanier side’ of breast cancer prevention, this is the book for you.

Mrs Currie at once made clear to her civil servants that she had her own agenda. She was not content to run the NHS and preside over unwinnable arguments about funding. She intended to addresss herself to larger questions: to take charge of our habits and ‘lifestyle’; to make our hearts, blood vessels, digestive tracts and private parts a matter of state concern. She sees no contradiction when she speaks of her adherence to ‘the Conservative philosophies of personal responsibility, a diminished role for the state’. The task was urgent: Edwina, a genius with the media, must mount her exercise bicycle and peddle nowhere fast. It could be left to her civil servants, with their pedestrian minds, ‘to flesh out my points with data, tables, learned articles and the like’ – to supply, that is, the selected facts to support her assertions. Edwina’s part was to use her talent for self-publicity to grind her health education message into the nation’s skull. It had to be kept simple. To avoid cervical cancer, for instance: ‘Don’t smoke and don’t screw around.’

Her book’s tone is jarring and bright; there are faded incursions into the demotic when Mrs Currie comes across ‘bobbies’ and ‘pals’. The book’s assumptions are familiar to us from newspaper colour-supplements. We have no difficulty in picturing the slob whose low-class habits must be altered: he is male, 45 years old, has a cigarette stuck on his lower lip and on his beer gut he balances a large portion of chips, fried in dripping and wrapped in the Sun. It is urgent to salvage his rapidly furring arteries, and Mrs Currie will use any means, even ‘heart-throb beauties’ photographed with chest-expanders in unusual places and captions such as ‘keeping abreast of the news’. Scientists and boring functionaries insist that issues of health and disease are complicated, but she is sure that everything one needs to know can be fitted into an advertising time-slot or an eye-catching poster for the doctor’s waiting-room. To argue otherwise is ‘patronising’.

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