- 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.
In fact, if one was a serious student of human nature and not a thrill-seeking dilettante, it would be books about Middle England’s businessmen and their wives one would read avidly, rather than turning for succour to folderols about high emotions on the high seas. Though the temptation is great, we skip Denis Thatcher’s unremarkable life and sayings at our peril, for they are what gave us ten years of radical nastiness while we weren’t looking. It is by no coincidence called ‘Thatcherism’ and not ‘Robertsism’, for Denis is fully representative of the culture which allowed it to flourish. He married her, the rest of them voted for her, and some of us, foolishly, with our noses in the wrong books and not paying attention to reality didn’t even dream that such a thing could happen.
If there is a quirk, it is Denis’s tendency to marry Margarets. At any rate, he married the wrong Margaret to start with, though what with there being a war on and his being a bit lacking in experience, it is an understandable error. Certainly, both the first and second Mrs Thatchers have done their best to keep it from preying on his mind. The first Mrs T considerately changed her first name to Margot, while the second and correct Margaret warned her daughter (who until the Daily Mail published the story in 1976 had known nothing of her father’s first marriage): ‘Don’t mention it to your father ... He won’t talk about it. It was a wartime thing.’ Although, according to Lady Hickman, formerly Mrs Thatcher, ‘Friends do say we look rather alike,’ Carol explains that her mother detests the comparison, wishing to consign the entire affair to history. Denis’s memory, however, is quite sharp about that period of his life. When Carol tells her father that she has been to see Margot he gets ‘rather misty-eyed’ and asks: ‘Is she still incredibly beautiful?’ ‘Yes,’ replies Carol and they sit in silence. The awkward moment is retrieved, however, by another of Denis’s timeless observations: ‘God guided us both. Neither can one, nor would one want to rewrite history.’ The guidance that God gave Margaret the First was to have an affair with someone else, while Denis was keeping his staff officer’s desk tidy in Sicily. ‘It was entirely my fault, and I regret it a lot,’ says Margot now. ‘The war was a strange time. You never knew what was going to happen. You grabbed happiness while you could.’ Even the redoubtable Denis could not entirely avoid the unorthodox events of war, but his fatalism is surely sound: the loss of the initial Margaret must be seen as returning him to the right Margaret and his true destiny.
The romance between Denis Thatcher and the young Margaret Roberts, she of the Tory hats, the unreconstructed hairdo and piping voice, was no rushed affair. They met in February 1949, when Margaret was trying and failing to get into Parliament, and married in December 1951. Having been told by her political mentor Lord Bossom (‘What sort of a name is that?’ grumbled Winston Churchill. ‘It’s neither one thing nor the other’) that she needed a husband and children to get on in politics, marriage was on Margaret’s agenda. Though neither of them can recollect the proposal when asked by their daughter, the honeymoon was, Denis remembers, ‘quite pleasant’ and they settled into a marriage which their daughter describes as a tacit agreement to get on with their own interests. He was by now wealthy, and spent from early morning to late at night at the office and his winter weekends refereeing rugby. His wife, still lacking a secure constituency, decided to read for the Bar. ‘Do what you like, love’ was Denis’s response, as it would be to all her future plans: it would indeed be the response of all God’s Englishmen for some time to come.
If daughters are to be believed on this subject, the Thatchers did not have a close marriage even at the beginning, nor was he deeply moved by the birth of his twins. ‘My God, they look like rabbits. Put them back.’ As to the impression Margaret gave her daughter about maternity, Carol comments: ‘Margaret, who had felt unwell during much of her pregnancy, was relieved that we had arrived safely. As she now had one of each sex, that was the end of it as far as she was concerned.’ She’d bagged the full set, as Bossom had instructed, and it was back to work and ambition. Denis would travel abroad for whole months, selling his wares; he rarely wrote a postcard home and never phoned, so he only found out that his wife had finally become an MP from the Evening Standard provided on the plane as he returned from a South African trip. Emotional neglect clearly kept the family together, though it isn’t something which has seeped down to the next generation, apparently. Mark’s then wife, Diane, complained that her husband never phoned during the long periods he was away. ‘Well, when I was away, I never rang up,’ Denis told her.
The young people were so demanding. When Carol foolishly asked her mother, ‘Why can’t you be home more?’ she was told: ‘Darling, you have to understand that you have a lot of benefits that other children don’t have: you can come to the Opening of Parliament and have supper at the House of Commons.’ When Carol expressed anxiety on the morning of her Bar finals, as it happened the same day as the Tory leadership election, her mother snapped: ‘Well, you can’t be as nervous as me.’ The children grew up learning to put their problems in perspective: that of their parents. It’s hardly surprising that Mark got lost in the desert, the only direction he knew was the direction in which his mother was going. There’s been loose talk around on publication of this book, suggesting that the Thatchers were a dysfunctional family, but in fact the family was a microcosm of the Thatcher view of how a nation should comport itself. No such thing as society, each individual an emotionally independent capsule getting on with his or her best interests, and no namby pamby caring. Say what you like about the Thatcher woman, she wasn’t all talk.
Once Margaret was elected Prime Minister, however, Denis stood by her. He was, by then, very wealthy indeed and retired, so he had time on his hands for common sense and a kind of stand-offish devotion. He snuck off at weekends to play golf and drink copiously with his male pals, but when his woman needed him, by God he was there. Canniest of all, he never gave interviews. This was just as well, since his opinions were precisely what you would expect them to be. Mistaking a cast member of Anyone for Denis for a real policeman, he praised him: ‘You get fuzzy wuzzies going on the rampage down in Brixton, you people sort it out in no time at all.’ To critics of the South African regime speaking on TV, he could be heard, in the privacy of the drawing-room of Number Ten, to mutter like any retired English gent: ‘Bet you don’t even know whether Simon’s Town [sic] is east or west of Cape Town!’ A pretty definitive argument against sanctions, you will admit. He wasn’t that keen on the Commonwealth, either, and sidled up to his wife after a scathing attack on Thatcherite Britain by a Commonwealth leader, to give advice: ‘I’ll tell you exactly how to deal with this, Sweetie Pie: cancel all their aid and he can work out how much each minute of that bloody speech cost his country.’
He only let rip in public a handful of times. Once in Delhi at the Heads of Government meeting he failed to take a liking to Indira Gandhi, who he believed had ‘chips on both shoulders’ and finally let her have it: ‘Well, Ma’am, we did build the railways for you and without them India wouldn’t be what it is today.’ And he was overheard at a cocktail party asking: ‘Who do you think is worse, Sonny bloody Ramphal or Ma sodding Gandhi?’ Then there was the moment after the Harrods bombing when, seen carrying one of their bags, he shouted across to the press in Downing Street: ‘No murdering Irishman is going to stop me doing my Christmas shopping at Harrods.’ There’s no question that Denis is made of the stuff which made the Empire what it is today. At Mrs Gandhi’s funeral, Denis the practical Englishman came to the fore. They had trouble getting the fire under the bier started. ‘The bloody fire wouldn’t go. And then they start to throw ghee on it – melted butter to you and me ... I thought to myself: Why doesn’t someone go and get some paraffin and get the bloody thing going. The poor old girl wouldn’t burn.’
Unfortunately, we are not given any fly-on-the-wall after-work conversations between the tender-minded Mr Thatcher and his right-minded Prime Minister wife, though Carol is clearly her father’s daughter: Africa is still ‘the dark continent’ and she berates Zambia for providing a ‘rather amateur motorcade’ and accommodating the VIPs in ‘rather pokey prefabs hastily erected to host some previous summit of African leaders’.
Robert Morley consoled Denis when he complained about ‘those buggers at Private Eye’: ‘You should be grateful, my darling; they have given you a personality.’ The only unusual thing about Denis and his opinions is that he happened to have the ear of a prime minister, though to be fair, according to Carol, he never attempted to sway her to his way of thinking – though to be fairer still, he probably never needed to. Margaret would surely have fully approved of his letter wondering what ‘the great Churchill would have said of those who wish to “sell” the House of Commons to Brussels; and what he would have said of Heath, the latter-day appeaser of a latter-day Hitler.’
He was there for Margaret during the tough times; applauding the sinking of the Belgrano and backing her during what Carol calls the ‘gutless treachery’ of the leadership election of 1990. ‘Congratulations, Sweetie Pie, you’ve won; it’s just the rules,’ he told her with tears trickling down his face as Sweetie Pie failed to win enough votes in the first ballot. And you do begin to warm to his devotion: after all, everybody needs someone they can rely on. Except that once she was out of office, and a suburban housewife at a loss for something to do in Dulwich, Denis made himself scarce. She sat at home eating TV dinners, while he visited his club every evening. Without the Number Ten staff, she was helpless. When Carol asked why her mother never rang, she answered: ‘Because I haven’t got your number, dear.’ Margaret’s diary was blank at first, while Denis’s cronies kept his social life at full swing. ‘My father’s friends stayed with him, rain, hail or shine; Margaret’s stopped with politics.’
Happily, she pulled herself together after a while, and now they both go their separate ways, just as they did at the beginning of the marriage. Margaret was unable to attend the launch of her daughter’s biography of Denis, being off somewhere on a lecture tour. Carol, who lives in Klosters with a ski instructor, is quoted as saying that she had been to the launch of both her mother’s books. Nobody mentioned whether Mark was there, but then it seems that the family is not inclined to mention Mark if at all possible. Thankfully, Denis made it, and the free gin flowed like gin. I wonder if he made his standard speech, the one that ends: ‘When the real battle comes we will all up and fight and like the soldiers at Agincourt cry, “God for Margaret, England and St George”.’