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Maggie's difficulties with small talk

Blog | By Harry Mount | Sep 30, 2020

When Harry met Maggie, Islington, summer 1990

Gillian Anderson is to play Mrs Thatcher in the new series of The Crown. Harry Mount remembers meeting the Prime Minister weeks before her final downfall – and having a very awkward conversation

40 years ago Margaret Thatcher won her first general election. I don't remember it – I was only seven at the time.

I do, though, remember meeting her in the summer of 1990, only months before her downfall. Aged 18, I was on my university holidays, and she was visiting an Islington house that had won an award for being environmentally friendly (lagged boilers, double-glazing etc) – a sign of Thatcher's early taste for ecopolitics.

The house was just down the road from my home and so, when I saw a small crowd gathering in the street, I went and joined it. Along with the couple who lived in the environmentally friendly home (standing in the photo between Maggie and me), the rest of the onlookers were local homeowners. I must have stood out as a lone student, dressed in a long-sleeved Fred Perry shirt and a Muttley badge (as in Wacky Races).

Perhaps because she thought the homeowners were natural Thatcherites, she made a beeline for me as a possible convert to the Tory cause.

“The problem round here is the Tube stations,” was her conversation-opener. “They’re all equidistant and they’re all a long walk away.”

She was quite right about the Tube stations. At my Islington childhood home, there are three stations and they're all quite a big walk away – around a 20-minute stroll.

But it was a very strange way to start a chat. She must have known that I knew that she couldn't possibly have known about the three equidistant Tube stations. A special adviser must have been employed to investigate what she might say to a young person on that day's special visit. Most of us, in that situation, would say, 'I've been told about the Tube stations...'.

I don't think she was showing off, pretending to omniscience about the Tube network of London and the distance of all stations to all neighbouring homes. It was more that she wasn't a natural master of small talk – and so just directly repeated what she'd been told in a brief.

It came as no surprise to me that she had to have Monty Python's Dead Parrot joke explained to her when her speechwriter inserted this reference to it in her Tory Conference speech a few months later, in October 1990:

"I gather that during the last few days there have been some ill-natured jokes about their new symbol, a bird of some kind, adopted by the Liberal Democrats at Blackpool.

"Politics is a serious business and one should not lower the tone unduly.

"So I will say only this of the Liberal Democrat symbol and of the party it symbolises - this is an ex-parrot.

"It is not merely stunned, it has ceased to be, expired and gone to meet its maker.

"It is a parrot no more. It has run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is a late parrot. And now for something completely different."

When the Dead Parrot joke was explained to her, Thatcher said, "This Monty Python, is he one of us?"