In a few short months Margaret Thatcher will chalk up her first decade as prime minister. The celebrations to which this occasion will give rise in the mass media are certain to focus attention once again upon the phenomenon of ‘Thatcherism’ and its supposed origins in the Prime Minister’s own childhood experience of life above the grocer’s shop in Grantham. Historians, biographers, pundits and journalists flutter helplessly around ‘roots’ like the proverbial moths around the candle’s flame. For some statesmen roots provide a comfort and a reassurance – Baldwin’s Worcestershire and Wilson’s Huddersfield come to mind. Some deliberately distance themselves as Lloyd George did from Criccieth, while others consciously adopt a home in the manner of Harold Macmillan with Stockton-on-Tees. Yet others have behaved like President Bush, grabbing home-towns by the bushel in a slightly frenzied search for identity. But no one, surely, has made his or her roots work as hard for them as Mrs Thatcher has with Grantham.
The Eighties have already seen a steady torrent of breathless biographies, solemn analyses of Thatcherism and painstaking studies of the three post-1979 Conservative administrations; and we are doubtless due for still more learned and unlearned tomes. But none so singular as the volume now under review. ‘In this historic year,’ the publishers declare, tongue in cheek, ‘we are proud to bring you a new edition of Rotten Borough.’ Yet what connection can there possibly be between this portentous national event and a comic novel of the late Thirties?
The author, Oliver Anderson, worked as a youthful journalist on the local newspaper in Grantham during the Thirties. This was the period during which Alfred Roberts, a grocer of the borough, became firmly established as a pillar of the business community. In due course he became a successful municipal candidate, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, subsequently a member of the aldermanic bench and a leading figure in the public life of the town; when Grantham celebrated the Coronation in 1937 Alderman Roberts was naturally one of the organisers. Mean-while his precocious 12-year-old daughter, Margaret Hilda, served her apprenticeship working for his municipal associates and Parliamentary allies in Grantham politics. Mr Anderson enjoyed a close-up view of all this decades before anyone suspected that small-town Grantham was to be the seedbed of a mighty political creed.
At a considerably greater distance than Mr Anderson, a whole tribe of scribes has pored over Grantham’s Victorian Values and seen therein the key to Mrs Thatcher’s political philosophy. Among the most unequivocal and uncritical of these are Nicholas Wapshott and George Brock (Thatcherism, 1983), who believe that she is a conviction politician guided by a deep-rooted moral code acquired early in life: ‘To explore the facts of her upbringing is to investigate the foundations of her philosophy ... back to the moral atmosphere and standards of the small business community in Grantham between the wars.’ Nearly all these writers appear to have swallowed the same story-line. Many have derived their material from Patricia Murray’s Margaret Thatcher (1980), which to a large extent consists of unblushing quotation from Mrs Thatcher. Even the Prime Minister’s opponents have been willing to believe the claims she makes for herself as a conviction politician: they may regard her political apprenticeship as irremediably narrow-minded and hard-faced, but they accept her account as essentially true.
In the Grantham of the Thirties, however, reporter Anderson regarded the flaunting of such qualities as hard work, thrift and enterprise as little more than a veneer of hypocrisy barely concealing the corruption, greed and dishonesty which constituted the real engine of the town’s municipal life. Drawing on his local knowledge, he published in 1937 an elegant but powerful satirical novel on this theme, using the press as a device for exposing the vices of the borough. Perhaps not surprisingly, Bellairs, the near-hero of the enterprise, is a somewhat reckless young journalist with a ‘distinctly Maxtonian’ air.
One is frequently reminded, reading Rotten Borough, of the remarks Mrs Thatcher is supposed to have made about the charm of English life consisting in the ease with which it is possible to enter the ranks of the middle classes. In reality, as the action of the novel suggests, it can often be a grim struggle to rise from the drudgery of manual labour or the daily grind of shop keeping into middle-class society. And on arrival the upwardly mobile have earned only a dubious privilege:
Here you have the professional class and the bourgeoisie. The chief characteristics of the former are complacency, various forms of snobbery, mild treachery and a spurious veneer of culture ... The unspeakable bourgeoisie! As a class their chief characteristic, their all-absorbing mania indeed, is the making of money, and to attain that ambition they will stop at nothing. Nothing ... Their whole standard of judgment is based upon money. A man is only to be valued in proportion to his bank balance.
The main plot of Rotten Borough centres on the efforts of Bellairs and his associates to unmask the self-righteous municipal dignitaries who use the Town Council as a mere sub-committee of the Board of Commerce, which is the seat of their power. They include a strict Nonconformist mayor with epicurean tastes and aspirations to knighthood, a shopkeeper-councillor guilty of financial and amorous irregularities, and a wealthy alderman who poisons the townspeople with his tallow-works. The story culminates in a scheme by the unlovely trio to use the construction of a municipal lunatic asylum to pocket the ratepayers’ money. All this was more than the actual big-wigs of Grantham – which is never referred to by name – were prepared to stomach. The fiction of Rotten Borough suddenly sprang into life as the victims of the muckrakers’ crusade reached swiftly for their lawyers: writs were issued, and only three weeks after publication the book was withdrawn from the bookshops. Oliver Anderson did not, however, entirely abandon the career in which he had begun to show such skill. After serving in the Artillery during the Second World War he returned to writing and during the Fifties produced a string of novels with such titles as In for a Penny and Thorn in the Flesh. Meanwhile Rotten Borough slumbered. Its cast of characters doubtless made their way via the Honours List into retirement and oblivion. And one presumes that author and publisher are confident that they have passed safely beyond the reach of the laws of libel.
Despite the powerful condemnation of bourgeois England that it contains, Rotten Borough is very far from being a heavy, tendentious volume. On the contrary, the municipal trio surface only fitfully above the riot of characters and events. The reader is led through a series of hilarious and bawdy escapades which grow steadily more chaotic as both villains and anti-heroes totter dizzily in and out of one another’s beds. The end comes when the puritanical vicar, one Jasper Skillington, commits an act of self-immolation in the burning tower of his own church, calling down divine punishment upon Lincolnshire’s Sodom and Gomorrah. In all this there is much that is reminiscent, for the modern reader, of the work of Tom s Sharpe. Other things apart, Rotten Borough is a witty and entertaining novel which, for all its lightning lunges into farce, is written with sufficient skill to make its improbable and outrageous story reasonably credible. And the Grantham factor, of course, adds its own piquancy.