x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Memories of an iron lady that are at odds with the critics

Those who glibly label Margaret Thatcher as a wicked witch have short memories, the fact remains that until she took charge, the country was spiralling towards despair.

One of my last memories of my dad was of seeing him staring at the TV news one evening back in March 1982. The UK seemed in irrevocable decline, Margaret Thatcher's fledgling Conservative administration was trailing in the polls, and it looked only a matter of time before the massed might of the trade union movement would bring her down.

"I know one thing," my dad murmured to nobody in particular. "I'll never see another Conservative Government again in my lifetime." His words proved strangely prophetic, though in exactly the opposite way to that intended.

A week after this remark he suffered a stroke. A week after that Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. And by the time he died, a British naval task force dispatched by Mrs Thatcher to reclaim the islands had raised the Union Jack over Port Stanley.

As a result, she enjoyed an extraordinary turnaround in her popularity, winning two more elections and remaining in power for over a decade. During this period she dominated British political life as no other politician has done before or since.

Three memories stand out for me from her tenure. I heard of her first election triumph late one night in 1979 while travelling in a minibus back from a theatre gig with a group of actors. Some were in despair at her unexpected triumph, but those of us who hoped for a new leader and a new direction after years of economic decline quietly rejoiced as we digested the news of her victory.

Eleven years on I heard the news of her ousting from power in equally exotic circumstances - while queuing to check in at a hotel lobby. "Mrs Thatcher has announced her resignation as prime minister following the recent leadership challenge," said a muffled, ethereal voice. For a moment I thought it was being broadcast over the hotel Tannoy, but in fact a small transistor radio in my suitcase had been accidentally activated while being hauled onto a trolley. I was actually hearing the BBC lunchtime news bulletin.

The news seemed inconceivable. After all, Mrs Thatcher had become part of the fabric of our daily lives. And if the news were indeed true, how on earth would the country manage without her?

It was said that she had the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe. I never met her in person, but working on the film The Iron Lady back in 2011 I witnessed at close quarters Meryl Streep's extraordinary reproduction of the woman. Even that was enough to convince me that Thatcher was indeed a truly memorable individual.

And so finally to last week, and her death at the age of 87. Again, exotic circumstances - a service station on the M1, Britain's main arterial motorway, where I'd stopped for a cup of coffee. "Lady Thatcher dead" blared the captions on the TV. And once more, a sense of disbelief. For such was Mrs Thatcher's indomitable spirit that it had sometimes seemed as if she might live forever.

It is testimony to her status that despite the passing of time, her death has provoked outpourings of both grief and jubilation. For some, she was Britain's greatest peacetime leader. For others, however, especially those whose communities were torn apart by Mrs Thatcher's uncompromising policies, her passing has provided an excuse for dancing in the streets. Indeed, late last Wednesday a neighbour I barely know knocked on my door to announce he was celebrating her death by hanging bunting from his first floor windows, and asking if I'd like to do the same.

As it was, I declined his offer, for I recall only too well the state of the country before she came to power: a nation plagued by strikes and industrial discord, and with the whole parlous state of affairs crystallised in the infamous winter of discontent, when even the dead went unburied by striking municipal workers.

Those who glibly label Mrs Thatcher as a wicked witch have short memories, for while her method of curing national ills was indeed brutal and uncompromising, the fact remains that until she took charge, the country was spiralling towards despair.

Next Wednesday she will be given a funeral at St Paul's Cathedral in a ceremony combining enough pomp and ceremony to satisfy the most demanding monarch. But her real legacy will surely be the simple fact that 23 years on from her time in office, she still has the power to inflame passions and divide opinion.

It's impossible to imagine any other British politician who could claim to have had such a lasting effect.

 

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London