31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 3: “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” by Hilary Mantel

May 3, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories

The_Assassination_of_Margaret_Thatcher_Hilary_MantelIn February 1989, Elvis Costello released his twelfth studio album, Spike, which contained a track called “Tramp the Dirt Down.” A furious political lament, the song viciously lambasted Margaret Thatcher, at the time the U.K.’s sitting prime minister. “When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam,” Costello sang with unbridled venom. The song imagines the politician’s eventual death and burial: “[W]hen they finally put you in the ground / I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”

One year earlier, Morrissey released his first solo album, Viva Hate, which included the song “Margaret on the Guillotine.” Morrissey addressed the sitting politician in lyrics that are less poetic than Costello’s, but no less corrosive: “The kind people / Have a wonderful dream / Margaret on the guillotine / Cause people like you / Make me feel so tired / When will you die?” In a statement following the Iron Lady’s death in 2013, Morrissey reiterated his detestation of the woman and her politics, and decried the fact that the media had taken the opportunity of her passing to engage in a healthy dose of revisionist history: “Thatcher was not a strong or formidable leader. She simply did not give a shit about people, and this coarseness has been neatly transformed into bravery by the British press who are attempting to rewrite history in order to protect patriotism.”

First elected in 1979 as Britain’s first – and to date, only – woman prime minister, Thatcher remained in office until 1990, when political infighting prompted her resignation. During her time in power, she presided over a country fiercely divided about economic policies that many felt targeted society’s most vulnerable citizens (Thatcher was a proponent of the U.S. economic platform favouring low taxes, spending cuts, and tax breaks for the rich and powerful, a platform that came to be known in the 1980s as “Reganomics”). More potently, perhaps, she was also a fierce policy hawk, advocating increased spending on the military and intervention abroad, most notoriously in the Falkland Islands. In 1982, Thatcher went to war against Argentina in the tiny South Atlantic colony, a contentious move that nevertheless resulted in her election victory the following year.

To say that Thatcher was a divisive figure is anodyne, though her opposition was solidified – as Costello and Morrissey’s musical responses attest – among artists, a group largely disdained by the government of the day, and a group that can usually be counted upon to express empathy for the victims of neoconservative policies – victims who typically congregate among the ranks of the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, and the disaffected.

What is remarkable about artistic responses to Thatcher along the lines of Costello’s and Morrissey’s is the fact that they focus, explicitly and literally, upon the desire for their subject’s death. Costello assumes a death by natural causes, whereas Morrissey imagines a more violent retribution; in this, he is closer to Hilary Mantel in her story “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” which caused a stir last year when it was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s “Book at Bedtime” program.

Whether a story that imagines Thatcher’s assassination in 1983 at the hands of an IRA assassin could be considered gentle bedtime fare is one thing. But the furore that erupted around the broadcast took a much more political bent, with conservative commentators expressing outrage that a writer could imaginatively convey the murder of a British leader, even one year after the former politician’s death and some twenty-four years after her stepping down as prime minister. A commentary in the Mail on Sunday at the time referred to Mantel’s story as “an insignificant catchpenny squib,” and stated that her opinions of the former prime minister are “adolescent.” The editorial did grant the author a certain backhanded freedom: “She is free to offend and upset those who were maimed or bereaved in an actual IRA attempt to murder this country’s legitimate premier – just as others are rightly free to despise the author’s views.” But it went on to suggest that the BBC’s decision to broadcast the story was a result of left-wing media bias.

The attacks on the story arose, naturally, from a position of outrage and completely ignored the fact that it is a work of imagination (whose author, significantly, waited until its subject was actually dead to publish it, unlike the two musicians cited above, and unlike the American author Nicholson Baker, whose fantasia about killing George W. Bush, Checkpoint, was published while the notorious U.S. president remained in office). Nor do they note the story’s evident literary qualities. The IRA sniper’s gun, for instance, is colloquially known as a “widowmaker,” a defiantly ironic appellation when dealing with a story about Britain’s first female prime minister. The first-person voice (that of a woman whose apartment the sniper cons his way into in order to carry out his scheme) is consistent and believable, shifting imperceptibly from the kind of tea she has to offer the intruder to considerations of whether he plans to murder her, too.

And the political analysis is, all protestation to the contrary, nuanced and thoughtful. Here, for instance, is the narrator ruminating on the state of Ireland during the Troubles:

Patriotism was only an excuse to get what they called pie-eyed, while their wives had tea and gingernuts then recited the rosary in the back kitchen. The whole thing was an excuse: why we are oppressed. Why we are sat here being oppressed, while people from other tribes are hauling themselves up by their own ungodly efforts and buying three-piece suits. While we are rooted here going la-la-la auld Ireland (because at this distance in time the words escape us) our neighbours are patching their quarrels, losing their origins and moving on, to modern, non-sectarian forms of stigma, expressed in modern songs: you are a scouser, a dirty scouser. I’m not, personally. But the north is all the same to southerners. And in Berkshire and the Home Countries, all causes are the same, all ideas for which a person might care to die: they are nuisances, a breach of the peace, and likely to hold up the traffic or delay the trains.

Moreover, the same controversy did not befall the author’s two Man Booker Prize–winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which similarly deal with political violence and intrigue, but are set far enough in the past that sensitive readers can refrain from having their feathers too unduly ruffled. (Though certain cynical commentators did note the timing of the BBC’s broadcast of “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” and suggested that it was a PR stunt to promote the upcoming television adaptation of Wolf Hall.)

And if the story gives offence, where is the harm? It should give offence: its subject is grave, the history behind it is dire, and the issues it raises are still ongoing. As a work of imagination, it reckons with difficult material in a way that is direct and unsparing, but not without empathy for all that. It’s just that its empathy is located with the victims of the Iron Lady’s reign, not the government she presided over or its beneficiaries.

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