Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 18, 2017

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, by Hilary Mantel

I’ve picked this book up a couple of times at the library and put it back, because I don’t usually read short stories – the novel is my choice of form (though I like novellas too).  But I brought the book home this time because I wanted to read the title story with its very provocative title…

Without giving too much away, the story goes like this: it begins with what is presumably a quotation from a doorstopper at No 10 Downing St, where Margaret Thatcher announces the landing of British troops on the Falkland Islands, and airily dismisses a reporter’s question about the prospect of declaring war on Argentina.  On the next page, the story proper begins, like this:

Picture first the street where she breathed her last.  It is a quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees: a street of tall houses, their facades smooth as white icing, their brickwork the colour of honey.  (p. 207, the title story is the last in the book).

So.  A middle-class narrator is wittering on about her nice middle-class suburb where nothing much happens, on a day when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after some minor eye surgery is due to be released from a private hospital down the road. The normally quiet street is awash with media and the locals, who we are advised include some intelligentsia and gosh! even some closet republicans, gather on the streets where the dissidents find each other and voice their loathing for Thatcher.  The narrator joins in, until she has to go indoors to wait for a tradesman called Duggan to mend her boiler.

When a man arrives on her doorstep she lets him in, only to discover that he is not the expected tradesman; he is a man who has tricked his way into her house so that he can set up an observation post from her window to events below.  Polite in a nice middle-class way, she acquiesces because she feels that it’s her fault:

He stood back from the tall window, mopping his face; face and handkerchief were both crumpled and grey.  Clearly it was something he wasn’t used to, tricking himself into private houses.  I was more annoyed with myself than with him.  He had a living to make, and perhaps you couldn’t blame him for pushing in when some fool of a woman held the door open for him.  (p. 216)

Making conversation, and misunderstanding his purpose, she asks him how much he’ll be paid for a good shot:

‘Life without parole,’ he said.
I laughed.  ‘It’s not a crime.’
‘That’s my feeling.’
‘It’s a fair distance,’ I said. ‘I mean, I know you have special lenses, and you’re the only one up here, but don’t you want a close up?’
‘Nah,’ he said. ‘As long as I get a clear view, the distance is a doddle.’
[…]
… he grunted, and applied himself to unstrapping his bag, a canvas holdall I supposed would be as suitable for a photographer as for any tradesman.  But one by one he took out metal parts which, even in my ignorance, I knew were not part of a photographer’s kit.  He began to assemble them; his fingertips were delicate. (p.217)

This provocative story in a collection that is, according to the blurb bracingly transgressive, asks the question, what would you do if you had an unexpected opportunity to facilitate the assassination of a much-loathed politician?  Of course, the assassin might kill the narrator too if she got in his way, but she still has some choices.  Risk martyrdom by screaming out a warning?  Try to dissuade, stay silent, or encourage?  Be friendly and hospitable, or be sulky and hostile?  Tell about a possible escape route, or say nothing?

In an era when so-called civilised societies have unleashed vitriol on social media so that we all know about how much visceral hatred there is for politicians, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher exposes this hatred within the quiet streets of London.  The positioning of Thatcher’s casual rebuttal of an important question from a journalist suggests that any one of us – given a cause for grievance – might succumb to approving of terrorism.  Take the story out of 1983 and apply it to contemporary people and events, and you can see what she is getting at…

PS These crisp short stories show that Mantel can not only write big baggy fictionalisations of historical events as in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, but also has mastery of the short form on contemporary issues.  I liked the dark  humour of her early work too…

Author: Hilary Mantel
Title: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Stories
Publisher: Fourth Estate, 2014
ISBN: 9780007580972
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher


Responses

  1. My first thoughts weren’t on the morality of shooting politicians but on whether it would make a difference. Not in the long run probably, but it still annoys me how popular the Falklands war made Thatcher.

    • It was amazing, wasn’t it? Sometimes we think we have values in common with the Brits because of our history, but then something like that happens and we just scratch our heads in disbelief…

      • I think that the yobs, the right wing, or at least nationalist, working class in Aust, Britain and US are different (and similar!) in ways that explain how Thatcher, Howard and most US politicians get elected. Alf Garnett’s Australian counterpart is an upwardly aspirational tradesman on 150,000 a year.

        • *chuckle* Which is why they can spurn our pleas to come and fix our plumbing, wiring etc!

  2. I read this collection a while ago and decided against posting about it, on the grounds I didn’t really have much to say about it. The Thatcher story is the most interesting, and raises some pertinent questions, but I daresay it’d be considered inflammatory and tasteless by anyone of a less than liberal nature!

    • Yes, I care say you’re right if it were read literally.

  3. I heard Hilary Mantel speak via satellite at the Perth Writers Festival one year—she was amazing! I remember her talking about this story and saying she’d copped a lot of flak! She was completely surprised by the reaction because, firstly, it was obviously fiction, and secondly, she thought people couldn’t stand Maggie Thatcher anyway!

    • Well, that might have been a bit disingenuous of her… I mean, *chuckle* even Tony Abbott has his fans, and she must have known that many people liked Thatcher because she kept getting re-elected for so long. But I thought it was about more than the politician anyway, I thought it was about the silent approval of acts of violence against people who are symbols of power, approval coming from places you wouldn’t otherwise expect.
      From what I could see at Goodreads, Mantel has a problem with her audience since Wolf Hall. People who’d never read her dark, satirical stories ‘discovered’ her when she wrote historical fiction, and now they are disappointed if she writes something that’s not.

      • That did come up, too, and how hard she found it because these are her stories, and her, too. I tweeted lots of quotes from the session, but I didn’t take notes, so I can’t refresh my memory without scrolling through about three years of tweets in between! (Note to self: At future literary events, take notes and tweet later!)

        • LOL I have tried live-blogging, taking notes on a laptop, and tweeting, and I have come back to using a small note book. I can still write much faster than I can type, and it makes me think better too…

  4. I read this shortly after it was published and wasn’t all that enamoured with it. i understood the question she was posing about ‘what if’ but something just did not work with the story as a whole. Maybe its because I too have an issue with short stories. Mantel was surprised at the reaction to the story but then she has also expressed surprise about more recent comments she’s made about Princess Diana. Mantel is an intelligent woman so I’m don’t buy into the level of innocent surprise….

  5. Thing is, she’s always been provocative, but people notice since her Booker win – and it’s given her licence to be even more so.
    I’ve just re-read that Diana article in The Guardian, and as one who was startled like a deer by the mass outpouring of grief, I still admire it. I don’t buy the ‘innocent surprise’ either, but I think it’s a necessary posture for Mantel. Intellectually, she couldn’t possibly have anything in common with Diana’s Darlings, so she couldn’t be expected to predict their outrage, right?


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