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Margaret Thatcher meets Monty Python

Blog | By Ferdie Rous | Oct 10, 2019

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (CC BY-SA 3.0)

At the Oldie’s October lunch A N Wilson, Andrew Lownie and Charles Moore spoke about their latest books to a crowd of expectant and delighted oldies.

Lord high compère Barry Cryer was in fine fettle. He gave each of the speakers a characteristically witty rhyming introduction. The parrot joke remains in pride of place at the head of the lunch order, where it continues to entertain.

A N Wilson, who was the first speaker to pick up the mic, spoke about Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved The Monarchy. Before getting into the guts of his talk, he apologised for being a tad late. Nothing to do with the protestors that had impeded Lord Cryer, as he came on the tube. But on his way up the escalator he saw a sign stating that ‘dogs must be carried’. It took him an hour and a half to find one.

He explained the idea for the book did not begin auspiciously. At a lunch some two years before, he bumped into the Duke of Edinburgh, who, clearly prompted by a researcher, asked Wilson what he was writing about. ‘Prince Albert’, came the answer. The duke took umbrage to this and walked off complaining of yet another book about Queen Victoria’s husband. A few moments later he returned saying, ‘a thought for you. Prince Albert had a very short life, so you should write a very short book!’

We owe more than we know to Prince Albert. Beyond the V&A, Albertopolis, the Albert Hall, the Royal College of Organists, the Imperial college. These achievements were not just a product of the money raised by Albert in the Great Exhibition of 1851 but of Albert’s inspiration as a cultural force in Britain.

Wilson pondered one of his great regrets of the 19th century, Albert’s not meeting Karl Marx at the university of Bonn. Albert was two years too young. But they had the same lecturers, lessons and principles. Each believed that public figures had a duty to everybody in society: the poor as well as the rich.

Following Wilson was Andrew Lownie, who spoke about The Mountbattens. His book, he explained, had three main focus points: Mountbatten’s royal connections, his marriage and his death.

On the topic of Mountbatten’s marriage, he mentioned the Earl’s extraordinary admission that for most of their lives he and his wife were getting in and out of other people’s beds. He made a particular point of mentioning Edwina Mountbatten’s affair with Jawaharlal Nehru, due to the impact it had on their public images. It made the Muslims of Pakistan understandably suspicious about the impartiality of the Mountbattens.

Edwina Mountbatten comes out of the book with a perhaps rather surprising makeover. She is not the spoilt little rich girl that travelled the world with her lovers but a complex figure, who was trying to make up for lost time by throwing herself into her work with St. John’s ambulance. Which was likely the cause of her early death.

We often think of Mountbatten as a talented naval commander. The opposite is true. If there was a mine to go over, a torpedo to be hit by, Mountbatten was invariably on his ship at the time. A suspected reason for Churchill making him Chief of Combined Operations during the war was because he should never be allowed to go to sea again.

Charles Moore opened his talk about his book, the third and last part of his biography of Margaret Thatcher with a parrot story to match Barry’s.

In 1989, as part of the Liberals rebrand as the Liberal Democrats, they adopted a bird as their logo. And one of Thatcher’s speech-writers had the bright idea of mocking it by referencing Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch. But Mrs Thatcher had never seen the sketch and had never heard of Monty Python.

Nonetheless she watched the sketch. Without anguish but in total incomprehension. Finally, the time came for her to make her speech at the Tory party conference. Before she did so, off stage, she turned to her aide, John Whittingdale and asked, ‘John, who is this Monty Python, and is he one of us?’ Seeing the pointlessness of trying to explain with such little time, Whittingdale replied, ‘Yes ma’am, a great supporter’! She gave her speech to roaring applause and was never the wiser.

Moore explained how her prudish image and perceived censoriousness around matters of sex were misplaced. She was a complete innocent and, in the words of Moore, she did not really know what a homosexual was. But she employed many of them and kept trying to marry them to her secretaries.

A particularly poignant story was an anecdote about when Mrs Thatcher went to visit AIDS sufferers in Mildmay hospital. Some months after her visit, she received a letter from the matron nurse stating that one of the two sufferers that she had met had died. She returned a letter of thanks for the visit and sent £1000 of her own money to the hospital. But she never told a soul.

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