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’.

The most dramatic and gratifying sections of this book are those in which Edwina goes out among the rough ill-spoken populace – those very ‘C2DEs’ about whom she is most concerned – and finds that her health campaigns are taking effect. In a supermarket in Thornton Heath, she watches in rapture as the shoppers pluck polyunsaturate spreads from the shelves. ‘Eventually, I stopped one middle-aged lady, a dead ringer for Pauline from EastEnders, and asked why she had chosen the Flora, “Better for you innit?” she said, looking at me as if I was daft. “Better for me ol’ man. I wanna keep ’im just a bit longer, I do.” ’

Does Mrs Currie’s heart bleed for this woman, simple credulous creature that she is who believes everything she is told by the marketing men at Van Den Bergh & Jurgen? No: for Mrs Currie is not in charge of Education. (And anyway, Thatcherism has showered blessings on such folk. Mrs Thatcher, for instance, has enhanced the life-expectancy of miners by closing all those nasty dirty pits, and she has enabled the miners to see the world by going to Marbella with their redundancy money.) Ordinary people show their gratitude for being told how to look after themselves: ‘Burly policemen would sidle up to me in the Commons, demonstrate the handfuls of spare fabric in their trousers, pat their tummies and tell me how much weight they had lost since they adopted a “proper diet”.’ Journalists have little spare fabric in their trousers, for they are ‘among the cynical and self-abusing sectors of the population’.

Mrs Currie’s political opponents must have known that it was useless to argue with her, and better to allow her to condemn herself out of her own mouth. Her repeated gaffes (‘Good Christians don’t get Aids’) threatened her position, but what brought her down was her suggestion that an egg lightly boiled is thoroughly unwholesome. Among the people who were pleased to see her go were those with a vested interest in bad food, hideous farming practices and carcinogenic substances, and so in one way her fall from office may be deplored. Just as much to be deplored, however, is her dream Britain with its population of lean deluded prigs, an Erewhon society where the sick are punished. Time may show that it was, indeed, all a practical joke, and that governments can no more plan for a healthy population than long-range weather forecasters can control the weather. But if you put that point to Mrs Currie, she’d call it ‘ultra-sophisticated’, for that is her favourite term of abuse; she’d call it ‘laissez-faire’, which is also a term of abuse for this odd sort of Tory. She’d say you read the Guardian: she’d say you came from Hampstead. That is the level of argument in her book. It is exceedingly entertaining, for she is an unwitting mistress of the double entendre; and it is endearing too, for there is a curious innocence about a woman who makes no secret of her vanity, of her wish to be as famous as any film-star, and who thinks you use a raw egg when you mix a Bloody Mary.

Mrs Currie’s brief career made its impact because she confounded our expectations. We expect our politicians anodyne, and Currie is brash and rude; we grumble when they evade issues but are shocked when they speak plainly. We are stupidly taken aback when they reveal their personal greed for power; we expect them to be pious, and talk about the public good, and to keep their own ambitions decently veiled. It is the question of public expectation, and how to meet it, that bedevilled Nancy Reagan during her time in the White House. ‘By the end of 1981,’ she tells us, ‘I had a higher disapproval rating than any first lady of modern times.’

Joan Didion called her smile ‘a study in frozen insincerity’. Gloria Steinem called her ‘the marzipan wife’. The Chicago Tribune berated her in terms that could be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the present Princess of Wales or to Marie Antoinette: ‘Queen Nancy the Extravagant’, an ‘aloof former debutante and movie star whose main concerns are fashion, decorating and lunching with girlfriends, whose idea of hard times is tablecloths that shrink, whose doe-eyed devotion to her husband leads to hard-eyed terrorising of her aides’. Visitors wanted the White House to look good, Nancy complains, but they called her nasty names when she spent money on refurbishment. Much the same applied to the person of the First Lady. There was a great furore over her costly frocks, even though now, she protests, ‘some of them have been committed to museums.’ Nothing in her Hollywood past, nothing in her eight-year stint as wife of the Governor of California, had prepared her for the intense scrutiny to which her private actions would be subjected when Reagan became President. When Johnny Carson joked that Nancy’s favourite junk food was caviar, she was affronted. She did not see that there was a historical process at work, that we enjoy it when the decorative wives of public men behave badly and spend, spend, spend. When she complains that the press rely on ‘old stories and images’, she does not know how old. ‘Let them eat cake ... ’

But let them eat it, says Nancy, from the right type of crockery. Nothing in the White House cupboards quite matched her aspirations. ‘While the Johnson china was lovely ... it was more suitable for a luncheon than a formal state dinner.’ Much of her unrevealing book is occupied with domestic tittle-tattle. Its style – perhaps some credit must go to her co-author – is easy and conversational. Like Mrs Currie, Nancy provides dramatic interludes where she speaks in italics, thus: ‘ “Wait a minute,” I said, my voice rising. “If it’s not serious then why can’t I see him?”’ The reader comes to imagine a woman who is perpetually shrieking, even when there are no italics on view: a woman who is perpetually shrilling her opinions. Yet this is unfair, she claims.

She is Reagan’s best friend: after all, she sleeps with him, it would be strange if he didn’t confide in her. Cowering aides sometimes asked her to give him bad news. And of course she would advise the President about people, since when it comes to people he is so naive and she is so astute.‘When Donald Regan became a serious liability for Ronnie, I told Ronnie repeatedly that he should be fired. But it was many months before Ronnie took that advice.’ Yet her power, she suggests, was strictly limited. Even when she began to take the advice of an astrologer, ‘no political decisions were ever passed on it’; she contented herself with altering the President’s schedules. An easy-going, ‘upbeat’ sort of chap, he never asked the reason for the last-minute changes. To consult an astrologer seemed perfectly natural to Nancy; in show-business, she points out, it’s perfectly routine.

If you looked to this book for the inside story of the Reagan years, you would be disappointed. There are no new insights into the President’s character, though Nancy has portrayed her husband as more simple-minded than she intends. But if you were to treat the narrative as soap opera you would be highly satisfied. There’s Nancy as starlet, the neat flat-chested Miss Davis; if there was drink, drugs, wild sex in Hollywood, Miss Davis knew nothing of it at the time. There’s the demon first wife, Jane Wyman, casting her shadow over the marriage made in heaven. There are two difficult stepchildren, one of whom reveals only in adulthood the reason why he is a walking disaster: at the age of eight he was sexually abused by a camp counsellor. Then there are Ron and Nancy’s own children: her daughter Patti writes an ‘unpleasant’ novel about the family, her son unexpectedly becomes a ballet dancer. Thankfully, Ron is just a regular guy: he hates tomatoes, loves macaroni, and ‘his other weakness, as everyone knows, is jelly beans.’ This is a staunch, cheerful book. After forty years of proximity some of the witless optimism she ascribes to her husband seems to have rubbed off on Nancy. She lacks proportion, she seems to lack sense, but at least she enjoyed herself.

This is more than one can claim for the late Christina Onassis, who was wont to wail: ‘What’s the use of being a fun-loving heiress if you don’t have fun?’ Nigel Dempster’s book about the fantastically wealthy, fantastically miserable Greek is written in the style of pulp fiction, with the astute product-placement we have come to expect: ‘Christina ... began writing with her 22-carat gold broad-nibbed Parker Duofold pen.’ The artful book-jacket keys us in: a string of pearls, a pair of sunglasses, four wedding rings for four farcical marriages; a scarlet lipstick; the dented tops of two bottles of Diet Coca-Cola. (Diet Coke was Christina’s favourite drink; when she was in Paris, she would fly small weekly consignments from the US, at a cost of $300 per bottle.) In the foreground there is a handful of multi-coloured pills – the amphetamines and anti-depressants, the uppers and downers – which may have hastened her early death.

Christina was an unhappy, ugly, unwanted child, who at the age of five was so miserable that for a time she stopped speaking. It was, she later suggested, ‘because I didn’t have anything to say’. Dempster has not given her a voice. Indeed, it would be difficult to create sympathy for a woman who apparently had no interests, no talents and no judgment, whose company was intolerable and whose unbrushed teeth were green. Yet Christina – sometimes pathetic, clinging, quixotically generous – emerges as an angel when one compares her with her father Aristotle, whose manipulative and potentially murderous hand lay heavy on her life. Her sycophants would have ruined her, except that the Onassis shipping empire provided her with an income of a million dollars a week; the polo-players and interior decorators with whom she surrounded herself simply lacked the imagination to run through so much money. There is no insight in Dempster’s book, merely rehearsal of the dim deeds of people with names like Atalanta de Castellane. It is an airless world, inhabited by figures ‘famous’ only to themselves and to Dempster, figures like ‘legendary London lounge-lizard Rupert Deen’. Here and there is a sentence both taxing and bizarre, where you fear the printers have grown bored: ‘Mick Flick (heir with his younger brother Muck to the Mercedes Benz fortune) had been calling her for weeks asking for a date ... ’ Mick Flick did get his date; Christina bleached her pubic hair to please him; but he passes from the narrative to parties new, perhaps a man of flesh and blood or perhaps Dempster’s notion of a joke. Unless you are a ‘socialite’, how could you ever tell?