Friday, April 12, 2013
A heartfelt letter to my grieving mother and Maggie's great unknown quality - her human kindness
By Tom Utley
At my father’s funeral in 1988, Margaret Thatcher arrived more than an hour before the rest of the mourners. She took her place in a pew at the front of our parish church of St Mary on Paddington Green in West London, sitting alone in the silence, her eyes on the altar.
Our friend the vicar told us later that he’d been taken aback to see the then prime minister there so early, asking her in great trepidation if somebody had given her the wrong time. Her reply has gone down in Utley family history.
‘No,’ she said, ‘I just didn’t want my arrival to upstage the widow.’
After a week in which all the papers have carried page after page of Thatcher coverage, I can imagine that even some of her most fervent fans may be wanting to read about something else. To them, I apologise for what follows.
It’s just that, in all the millions of words of eulogy from the Right and ignorant rants from the Left, one aspect of this extraordinary woman’s character has often been overlooked.
And after the immense kindnesses she showed my family in our bereavement, I feel it would be simply wrong of me to let her own death pass without recording what I know of it.
The quality I mean was her profound thoughtfulness for others — and particularly for people who, in the great scheme of things, couldn’t be said to count for much. This went beyond perfect manners, which can be taught, to a deeper form of fellow-feeling, which cannot.
Norman Lamont, the former chancellor, touched on it in his affectionate tribute in the Lords on Wednesday, when he said that Lady Thatcher seemed ‘compassionate about drivers, secretaries and doorkeepers — but not about ministers’.
And nobody had any trouble believing him when he added that she had once called him ‘utterly hopeless’.
My favourite story about the Lady, which illustrates the point perfectly, is of the grand Chequers dinner at which a nervous waitress dropped a bowl full of scalding soup into the lap of one of the guests (my increasingly unreliable memory tells me the diner in question was Sir Geoffrey Howe; but it was somebody very important, whoever it was).
As the diner whimpered in agony, a horrified Mrs T leaped from her chair, rushed round the table and gave a huge, comforting hug to.... the waitress.
Immediately and instinctively, she understood who was suffering most in that room — and it wasn’t the dignitary with the scalded crotch, whose whimpers she ignored.
I must admit that I wasn’t there, and so can’t testify to the truth of the story.
But it squares so completely with dozens of similar accounts of her kindnesses to little people (whom she would never in a million years have regarded as such) that I believe it. It certainly tallies with my own family’s experience after my father’s death, for which I can vouch absolutely.
Now, I’m not claiming for one moment that anyone would describe the blind journalist and sage T.E. ‘Peter’ Utley, as one of the little people.
As I may just conceivably have mentioned before, Lady Thatcher herself was to call my father ‘the most distinguished Tory thinker of his generation’.
With her love of ideas, she relished his company, the clarity of his mind and his readiness to argue with her (which, as an old-school Tory, suspicious of ‘radicalism’, he often did — though they agreed over much more than they disagreed).
He also helped with some of her most famous speeches.
As I’ve certainly mentioned before, he may even have had a hand in her famous observation that ‘there’s no such thing as society’ — a remark whose meaning has been turned on its head by her thicker enemies (including Nick Clegg, in his fatuous Commons ‘tribute’ to her this week) ever since she uttered it in 1987.
What these twits never cite is the sentence that followed: ‘There are individual men and women and there are families; and no government can do anything except through people.’
But it wasn’t my father of whom Lady Thatcher first thought when he died, aged 67, on Midsummer’s Day, 1988. It was of my housewife mother, whom she had met only rarely.
That day, the prime minister was in Toronto for a G7 summit, discussing international economic policy with leaders including Ronald Reagan, Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand, Noboru Takeshita of Japan and European Commission President Jacques Delors.
Yet before she went to bed, she found time to write a long and moving letter to my mother — four or five pages, in her own hand, woman to woman — praising my father and offering her love and prayers.
A diplomatic messenger delivered it to our flat in London the next morning, producing it from a bag emblazoned with the royal arms.
It was quite the grandest thing that had ever happened to us. And it meant more to my mother than I can say.
I’ve often wondered what Presidents Reagan or Mitterrand would have thought if they’d poked their heads round Lady Thatcher’s door the previous night and asked her what she was working on.
At a time like that, would any other world leader have felt an immediate, compassionate duty to comfort the widow of an occasional speechwriter?
We were amazed, too, when she re-arranged her schedule to come to the funeral, on a day she had to fly to Paris for another summit. Indeed, she went straight from the church to the airport, leaving without any attempt to draw attention to herself, with just a few words to my mother, a handshake for the vicar and a sympathetic nod to me and the rest of the family.
One final, thoughtful touch: her car had got ahead of the funeral cortege as we left for the crematorium. So she told her driver to pull over and let us pass, while her police outriders waved us through the red lights to take the path they had cleared for her. The second grandest moment of our lives, in the space of a week.
But her kindness didn’t stop there. Not only did she come to my father’s memorial service, where she read a lesson, but she offered herself as patron of his memorial fund, appearing at several of its prizegivings over the years. Her thoughtfulness to my mother wasn’t a one-off, but a commitment for life.
She also planted a tree in my father’s memory, at a private ceremony at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.
But so petty and vile are her enemies that, when they saw her name on the plaque soon afterwards, vandals dug it up and destroyed it.
I know that, by now, many of those enemies will be spitting with rage at me.
It’s all very well being kind to waitresses and the bereaved families of friends, they’ll say, but, ‘What about the miners?’
To which I can only answer that they know, as well as anyone else, that no matter whose hand signed the death warrant, it was economics that killed the mines. It was simply unsustainable to go on asking taxpayers to pay men to destroy their lungs, a mile underground, digging out coal that was worth pounds less per ton than it cost to extract.
But quite enough ink has been wasted on the disgusting displays of rejoicing over Lady Thatcher’s death by the ignorant exhibitionists of the Left.
The fact is they don’t hate the real Margaret Thatcher, the great and good woman who did more than any peacetime prime minister for the ordinary people of Britain, whom she cared about and believed in so passionately.
Indeed, they know nothing of her, refusing even to think about what she did for her country, since myth and caricature suit their argument better than the truth.
What they are actually ranting at is her Spitting Image puppet — and that just makes them look profoundly stupid.