Sweetie Pies

Jenny Diski

  • Below the Parapet: The Biography of Denis Thatcher by Carol Thatcher
    HarperCollins, 303 pp, £16.99, April 1996, ISBN 0 00 255605 7

Denis Thatcher is entirely inventable – as John Wells understood: he comes in a flat pack with easy-to-follow instructions, all the components familiar general shapes, all parts from stock, no odd angles, no imagination required. When they came up with the idea for Ikea, they used Denis Thatcher as the prototype. You can make him up in the time it would take to boil an egg.

Whether you see Denis Thatcher as a national treasure or as dismal confirmation that stereotypes live and breathe, and it is only our arrogant fantasy that the planet is inhabited by three-dimensional complex life forms, depends, I suppose, on how phlegmatic your temperament is. You can roll with reality and settle down to write the entirely documentary ‘Dear Bill’ letters, or you can despair, gnash your teeth and rail against the Lord for culpable laziness when he got round to inventing humankind. He was, perhaps, boiling an egg at the time. I’m inclined towards teeth-gnashing, but aspire to being a more balanced person, so I alternated reading the Denis Thatcher story with a rereading of Moby-Dick. A dozen pages of Denis (‘He was happy in his own skin and had played with a straight bat since the day he was born’) over a cup of tea, and then back to Ishmael (‘whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses’) to cheer myself up.

There may have been a touch of the Ahabs in Denis’s genealogy. Thomas Thatcher, grandfather of the present baronet, was a bit of an adventurer, sailing to New Zealand in the 1870s to seek his fortune rather than following his father and grandfather into farming near Swindon. He made his mark, and initiated the Thatcher family business by producing an arsenic-based sheep dip for the Wanganui farmers which turned out to be a very useful wood and leather preservative as well. More interesting, according to his great-granddaughter, Thomas Thatcher, after returning to England a wealthy man, suffered a nervous breakdown and died in Croydon Mental Hospital aged 63, with the cause of death given as ‘melancholia, dilation and fatty degeneration of the heart and circulatory system’. We are told he had a ‘bullying, despotic nature’ and my spirits quite rose with the possibility of a convergence between the Denis Thatcher story and Moby-Dick, but Thomas is as near as the Thatcher dynasty got to Captain Ahab. Though Thomas’s son, Jack, was a bit of a gambler, the dubious genes had exhausted themselves by the time they reached Denis.

Denis is clearly a great believer in genetic destiny: ‘If you’re born shy, you’re born shy, aren’t you?’ and ‘I think you’re either born with a gambling instinct or you’re not.’ According to his sister, Joy, Denis was ‘born grown up’, and at 18 he joined the family business, now called Atlas and to become eventually ‘the largest de-greasing and de-scaling service of its kind in the world’. His father’s secretary remembers that, at 18, Denis ‘was already the man he was to become’. Common sense, says Carol, has always been his most valuable asset, along with ‘pragmatism and homespun logic’. Two of his favourite sayings – ‘Any fool can make it: we’ve got to sell it;’ and ‘If all else fails, read the instructions;’ – provide a flavour of the Thatcher thrust of mind.

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