When writers had Thatcher for dinner


From conservativehome.com


In a recent post I mentioned a cabinet paper from 1984 that came to light recently and revealed that at the time of the miners’ strike – surprise! – Margaret Thatcher’s government secretly planned to close down 75 British coal mines.  This was about 55 more than the number they publicly declared they wanted closed.  It reminds me of another Thatcher-related story that received no coverage at the time but that was recently given a public airing.


Late in 1982, Britain’s right-wing and supposedly iron-plated lady Prime Minister was riding high in the polls thanks to her victory in the Falklands War earlier that year.  She still, however, hadn’t won the support of much of the country’s artistic and academic intelligentsia.  One evening that autumn, a dinner was organised at the house of historian Hugh Thomas in Ladbroke Grove where Mrs Thatcher would meet and dine with a selection of the country’s leading literary lights.  It was hoped that this meeting would help her win over more of Britain’s creative elite.  (Later in her reign, you got the impression that Thatcher simply gave up trying.  Perhaps she believed that the British population had become so uncultured and coarse in their tastes that it didn’t make a blind bit of difference to her re-election chances what those arty types thought of her.)


Last month the Observer Magazine published a short but amusing account of this dinner, written by Nigel Farndale, who’d interviewed the evening’s survivors – ‘survivors’ seems an apt word somehow.  Among the attendees were novelists Anthony Powell, V.S. Naipaul and Dan Jacobson, poets Philip Larkin, Stephen Spender and Al Alvarez, playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, critic Sir V.S. Pritchett, philosopher Sir Isiah Berlin, historian Sir J.H. Plumb and Anthony Quinton, who was president of Oxford University’s Trinity College.  An unexpected addition to the guest list was Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s great novelist and its future presidential candidate – how Peruvians must have wished later they’d voted for him and not for the ultra-corrupt Alberto Fujimori – who I suppose just happened to be in town at the time.  His fame had evidently not preceded him, since Farndale reports that one guest referred to him as ‘some Panamanian novelist.’


Somebody who might have been expected to be invited, but wasn’t, was celebrated novelist Sir Kingsley Amis.  Amis had now entered his dotage and had already professed his admiration for Mrs Thatcher (for the sake of Amis’s reputation I would like to think those two things were causally connected) so it was thought his presence that night was unnecessary – Mrs T had no need to preach to the converted.  However, Farndale quotes some correspondence that passed between Amis and Philip Larkin afterwards.  Larkin had filled Amis in on the details of the evening.  Writing back, Amis referred to ‘H-F D’ being “down at the Jewish end of the table”.  H-F D stood for ‘Horse-Faced Dwarf’, which was Amis and Larkin’s unedifying nickname for Anthony Powell.  Amis also bitched about Al Alvarez, saying that he “(m)ight have known that Al, lately as lefty as they come, would get his foot in there.  It’ll be Lord Alvarez before we know it.”


In a different set of correspondence, with later-Poet-Laureate Andrew Motion, Larkin described the Thatcher dinner as being “pretty grisly.  Even now I shudder and moan involuntarily.”  Elsewhere in Farndale’s piece, though, there are suggestions that Larkin didn’t find his encounter with Mrs Thatcher as grisly as he made out to Motion.  Indeed, he may have been shuddering and moaning with pleasure rather than dismay.  Talking about the Prime Minister in a letter to Julian Barnes, Larkin supposedly havered about kissing “the ground she treads”, whilst in another letter to the historian Robert Conquest he raved: “What a superb creature she is – right and beautiful – few prime ministers are either.”  One only hopes that Larkin kept his opinions about Mrs Thatcher’s rightness, beauty and overall superb-ness to himself when he returned home, which was ‘up north’ in Hull.


(c) The Daily Telegraph


One person who found himself in unexpected agreement with Larkin regarding the glamour of Mrs T – I use the word ‘glamour’ in its conventional sense, meaning ‘allure’ or ‘glitz’, although its original Scottish meaning, which is ‘a spell or enchantment cast by a witch’, might be more appropriate – was left-leaning Al Alvarez.  He told Farndale: “I hate to say it, but she had good skin and a good figure and I found her rather attractive.  She also had this dazzling aura of power around her.”  Just before you question Alvarez’s sanity, I should say that he added this qualification: “But that may be because being a writer is a bit like being a lighthouse-keeper: you don’t get out much.”


Something that the dinner’s attendees seemed to be in agreement about was Thatcher’s lack of humour.  Larkin observed to Amis that, “I noticed she didn’t laugh much, or make jokes.”  Alvarez actually tried to make a joke to her.  He quipped before the Iron Lady that because of his Spanish-sounding name he’d had to keep his head down since the Falklands.  In reaction, “(h)er face froze and she turned away.”


Actually, this brings to mind some comments made recently by the playwright Alan Bennett, who famously loathed the sight and sound of Thatcher and was never going to be in contention for the guest list that night.  “What also galls,” wrote Bennett in his 2013 diary, “is the notion that Tory MPs throw in almost as an afterthought, namely that her lack of a sense of humour was just a minor failing, of no more significance than being colour-blind, say, or mildly short-sighted.  In fact to have no sense of humour is to be a seriously flawed human being.  It’s not a minor shortcoming; it shuts you off from humanity.  Mrs Thatcher was a mirthless bully…”


What other nuggets of information are contained in Farndale’s piece?  Well, Anthony Powell, who was so cruelly derided behind his back by Larkin and Amis, thought that the red wine served that night was ‘filth’.  Tom Stoppard’s main memory of the evening was not of meeting Thatcher but of meeting Larkin, about whom he was apparently star-struck.  Al Alvarez got seated next to V.S. Naipaul, who spent the meal grilling him about how much he got paid by the New Yorker and if he could get some pieces published in it.  And Alvarez suspected that, really, Thatcher didn’t know who most of her fellow diners were.  “Dick Francis was more her speed.”


(c) The Daily Telegraph


For the full account of that night when Philip Larkin drooled over his political heroine, Al Alvarez felt disturbingly attracted to her, V.S. Naipaul talked New Yorker fees, Mario Vargas Llosa was mistaken for a Panamanian and Margaret Thatcher probably wasn’t sure what was going on, here’s a link to Nigel Farndale’s feature: http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2013/dec/07/dinner-with-margaret-thatcher-literary.