THE ASSASSINATION OF MARGARET THATCHER -
So this is the one that caused all the fuss - The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel. The publishers, Fourth Estate, might have known the title would be 'controversial' which is why they would have opted for it to be the main title out of a choice of ten others from the collection and the thing is, it's not even the best of the short stories collected here. And amusingly, it's not even really very controversial at all.
The story in question starts by quoting the famous news clip of when Thatcher and her Secretary of State announced the recapture of South Georgia at the start of the Falklands war in 1982 and a reporter asked if Britain was going to now declare war on Argentina? "Just rejoice at that news and congratulate our forces and the marines" replied Thatcher "Rejoice!"
The Falklands war was a war that dared not speak its name and it was only when the Belgrano was sunk and the Sun reported it as 'Gotcha!' that the reality suddenly sunk in, if you can excuse the pun? Some 321 Argentine conscripts had been killed in the most horrible way so what the fuck was there now to rejoice? So the Argentine Junta was a Fascist one? What did Thatcher care? It had never stopped Britain trading with them or stopped America being a good friend or stopped France selling them Exocet missiles. And what did Thatcher care that the Falkland islanders were British? So were the miners of Yorkshire but we didn't see Thatcher sending in her forces to save them. The complete opposite, actually. Come to think of it, if the Falklands had been a British but solidly socialist enclave would she have been so passionate in her defence of them?
But I digress.
Hilary's story concerns itself with the time when Thatcher entered into hospital for an eye operation. The narrator has a view of the hospital grounds from her apartment window and on the day that Thatcher's due to leave, the narrator has a visitor who she at first believes to be the plumber she was expecting. It's only when he unpacks his canvas holdall and she sees it's not a set of spanners he's arrived with but what is known in the trade as a widowmaker that she realises it's not a radiator that's going to be bled that day.
Hilary has much fun with the situation of a respectable lady encountering and accommodating an IRA hitman in his mission of assassinating the Prime Minister and even throws in a few digs from the lady herself: "It's the fake femininity I can't stand, and the counterfeit voice. The way she boasts about her dad the grocer and what he taught her, but you know she would change it all if she could, and be born to rich people. It's the way she loves the rich, the way she worships them. It's her philistinism, her ignorance, and the way she revels in her ignorance. It's her lack of pity. Why does she need an eye operation? Is it because she can't cry?"
The point that was lost on a few people, however, is that Hilary Mantel is a writer and this is a work of fiction. It's not a shocking story in the slightest, particularly when contrasted with the reality of Thatcher and all that she was responsible for. It just doesn't compare.
It was the Daily Mail, of course, who led the charge with their usual prejudiced and foaming-at-the-mouth ridiculousness masquerading as news-reporting who accused Hilary of being... well, I don't know what, really. What the Mail does, you see, is to go to a few of their stock-in-trade Right-wingers to get a quote and then use that quote to hang their agenda upon. On this particular occasion they hooked a typically juicy quote from Norman Tebbit who said it was "a sick book from a sick mind". Then from former Thatcher adviser Tim Bell they got this: "If somebody admits they want to assassinate somebody, surely the police should investigate."
The Mail then throws the whole lot at their readership who then let rip on the comments section of their website. And if you think the comments posted by 13 year-old boys on You Tube are bad then check out the Mail on-line comments from adults of voting age.
It was patently obvious, by the way, that neither Tebbit or Bell had actually read the book for if they had they would have seen that as well as wishing to assassinate Thatcher, Hilary was also an accomplice in the killing of a child as confessed in the story Winter Break. Or was that a so-called work of fiction also?
The real merit of Hilary's short story, however, is in the greater purpose it serves; that being to expose the dire hopelessness of conservative opinion and the sand on which it's built. It emits the faintest of tingles to those of a politically perverted disposition and burns a hole in the gossamer-thin shell of their opinion to reveal the gaping void beneath.
Hilary's story shows us the power of the written word.
But as I mentioned, The Assassination isn't even the best of the ten short stories collected here. That honour goes to the story entitled Terminus, in which Hilary (or rather, the narrator) describes the occasion when she saw her dead father on a train pulling out of Clapham Junction, bound for Waterloo. Quite simply, her thoughts whilst searching for him among the surging thousands at Waterloo Station are sublime.
The plaudits and the praise that's been heaped upon Hilary Mantel over the years is quite staggering. She's won the Man Booker Prize twice now and according to Sir Peter Stothard, The Chair of the judges for the Man Booker Prize 2012 she's "The greatest modern English prose writer working today". And that's a pretty far cry from being labelled 'sick' by Norman Tebbit. I know who I might be inclined to agree with but until I read Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, I withhold my judgement. She's very good though, I'll give her that; which I'm sure she'll appreciate coming from me and The Art Of Exmouth rather than such fly-by-nights as the New Statesman, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Spectator, the Sunday Times, the New Yorker, the Economist, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Daily Mail...