I do not know why, but last night I woke up thinking of Mrs Thatcher, a sometime Prime Minister of Britain. What followed was a quite disturbing hour of memories, ended finally by sleep.
I am not an admirer of the lady. I never have been. She is one of the few people I know of, who seemed to me to have no redeeming qualities. (There, interest declared!) At her death, she was praised for her great intelligence, but I never saw it. I often wondered how a failed chemist, a failed tax lawyer, could be anything but a failed leader. I thought her a rather pedestrian thinker, who would seize on an idea or policy; then, without really understanding it, or the wider and long-term implications of apply it as national policy, bully those around her to bring it to fruition. The sad outcome of this is the unequal, unhappy and selfish society that Britain is today.
But I seem to be in a very small minority on this. It was deeply shaming to see how many people of the centre and centre-left, who should know better, rushed to be seen at St Paul’s her send off, praising her to the last.
I never met her, but was at some risk of doing so once. It was in 1985, October, at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I had started a small software company producing educational programs and had taken a few shelves on a shared stand, under the general auspices of the British Council. Business had been bad. No, disastrous; and my hope was to sell some overseas rights, and publishers seemed a likely market (they weren’t.)
On the evening of the second day, as we were packing away, a man from the British Council came up and said that Mrs T. was to visit the Fair the next day, and the plan was to bring her down our corridor so that she could see for herself the entrepreneurial spirit at work among small British publishers. “You must be in early tomorrow, in your best bib and tucker, your stands spick and span.” Yes, he spoke like that.
A sleepless night followed. My life was hard enough at the time. Having the Iron Lady, whom I disliked so much, arrive on my stand was too much. The friends who shared the stand with me were as reluctant to entertain the lady as I. However, they had been through all this before, at many trade fairs, and reassured me that she would not stop with us.
But I did not believe them and spent the night planning how I would avoid her if she, plus entourage, plus press, plus fair organisers plus British Council Man, landed up on Stand B217, Hall 4.2, Messegelände, Frankfurt. The ingenious ploys were various and very elaborate. But as I played each of them out in my mind, each crumbled into nightmarish fantasy.
The morning of day three on Stand B217, was a hell of tiredness, anxiety, fear and loathing. British Council Man came by every thirty minutes to make sure we were still spick ‘n’ span, bringing us news of the great lady’s progress. The minutes took hours to pass, and any activity at either end of the corridor set off another sickening round of sweaty fear.
Alan Clarke claimed that Mrs T. was sexually alluring, and some I knew agreed with him. I could never understand it. But neither can I understand how dislike for a person and their politics, which is normal and rational, could turn into the sickening feelings I had on that day. It takes, I guess, a certain charisma to produce such strong reactions in another person.
In the end she never came down our row of little stalls. The British Council, ever vigilant not to offend a pay-master, took her instead where the respectable, large British publishers hung out. You know, the houses owned by safe people like Robert Maxwell, Rupert Murdock, et al. But well away from sweaty, possibly socialist, oiks such as the small independents.
Which is ironic because Mrs T. was supposed to be the champion of the small businessman and of their businesses; of the sorts of people who risked failure to start small enterprises and grow them.