There are summer evenings in London when Piccadilly Circus looks impatient for its neon, when the rain is falling and the tourists appear to be weary of the daylight. And it was on such a night in June 2003 that I met Margaret Thatcher. The meeting wasn’t entirely auspicious: she didn’t know who I was, and, more importantly, I didn’t know who I was, until I saw her across from me and realized I wouldn’t shake her hand. I have never met anyone so politically galvanizing as the person I had known only as Maggie throughout my childhood. She could make heroes and villains of people just by existing. Let us allow, if nothing else, that Maggie’s effectiveness ran proud of the usual standards, for people could decide what kind of person they were just by looking at her and registering their own reaction. I suppose every generation has a leader who personifies the moment when ideology seems lighted up with charisma. Yet the person at the bar seemed entirely dark to me and I froze.
We had gathered at the Carlton Club for a dinner to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Bill Deedes. One should expect to meet English Tories at the Carlton Club: it is one of their primary feeding grounds, encircled by portraits of their political ancestors. Bill Deedes, who died in 2007, was once editor of the Daily Telegraph and a former Conservative member of Parliament for Ashford. He served as a junior minister under Winston Churchill and was later minister of information in Harold Macmillan’s Cabinet.
Deedes had spent most of his life as a valiant and fairly reliable journalist and was the model for William Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop. (The novelist and the young newspaperman had gone out to cover Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia.) Waugh’s characterization annoyed Deedes slightly and I took the risk of teasing him about it as much as possible. We became friends and coagitators for the work of the charity UNICEF in opposing child-soldiery in Sudan. Deedes loved Margaret Thatcher and you could tease him about that, too. But his real hero, friend, and confidant was Thatcher’s husband, Denis. They played golf together, and Deedes, throughout the 1980s, was the imaginary recipient of the “Dear Bill” letters that appeared in the satirical magazine Private Eye.
When I entered the club I approached the bar and immediately saw Bill surrounded by dark, dripping gargoyles. Most of these were made of bronze and set on plinths. But Conrad Black was also there along with Tim Yeo, then a member of the Tory shadow cabinet, and Margaret and Denis Thatcher. On the spot, I made a quick social calculation. If I went to the bar I would have to shake her…
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