Biography, British Parliament, British politics, Carly Fiorina, Charisma, Christopher Hitchens, Donald Trump, François Mitterrand, Government, Hitch-22, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, memoir, New Statesman, Philip Larkin, politics, sex, The New York Times, The War Against Cliché
“I had written a longish article for The New York Times Magazine, saying in effect that, if Labour could not revolutionize British society, then the task might well fall to the right. I had also written a shorter piece for the New Statesman, reporting from the Conservative Party conference and saying in passing that I thought Mrs. Thatcher was surprisingly sexy. (To this day, I have never had so much anger mail, saying, in effect, ‘How could you?’)
I felt immune to Mrs. Thatcher in most other ways, since for all her glib ‘free market’ advocacy on one front she seemed to be an emotional ally of the authoritarian and protectionist white-settler regime in Rhodesia. And it was this very thing that afforded me the opportunity to grapple with her so early in her career…
Almost as soon as we shook hands on immediate introduction, I felt that she knew my name and had perhaps connected it to the socialist weekly that had recently called her rather sexy. While she struggled adorably with this moment of pretty confusion, I felt obliged to seek controversy and picked a fight with her on a detail of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe policy. She took me up on it. I was (as it happened) right on the small point of fact, and she was wrong. But she maintained her wrongness with such adamantine strength that I eventually conceded the point and even bowed slightly to emphasize my acknowledgment. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Bow lower!’ Smiling agreeably, I bent forward a bit farther. ‘No, no,’ she trilled. ‘Much lower!’ By this time, a little group of interested bystanders was gathering. I again bent forward, this time much more self-consciously. Stepping around behind me, she unmasked her batteries and smote me on the rear with the parliamentary order paper that she had been rolling into a cylinder behind her back. I regained the vertical with some awkwardness. As she walked away, she looked over her shoulder and gave an almost imperceptibly slight roll of the hip while mouthing the words ‘Naughty boy!’
I had and have eyewitnesses to this. At the time, though, I hardly believed it myself. It is only from a later perspective, looking back on the manner in which she slaughtered and cowed all the former male leadership of her party and replaced them with pliant tools, that I appreciate the premonitory glimpse—of what someone in another context once called ‘the smack of firm government’—that I had been afforded. Even at the time, as I left that party, I knew I had met someone rather impressive. And the worst of ‘Thatcherism,’ as I was beginning by degrees to discover, was the rodent slowly stirring in my viscera: the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters she might be right.”
A segment from Christopher Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22.
I thought of this encounter during the recent GOP debate in which Carly Fiorina dispensed one by one with her male counterparts, spurring even The Donald to bow in submission (a first for him, no doubt). That their particular clash came on the heels of Trump’s terrible comment about “that face” only doubled the association to Thatcher, whose looks, despite what Austin Powers may’ve thought, had more than a few fans on the left and right. (I’ve heard similar compliments about Carly, confirmed just a few days ago by a female journalist friend who interviewed her last week.)
It was Thatcher who once mused, in a poached version of a famous labor union saying, that, “being powerful is like being ladylike — if you have to say you are, you probably aren’t.” The same goes for other adjectives, like smart, classy, rich, and many of Trump’s other favorite words which he likes to apply to himself. Yet it’s precisely this do-don’t-tell orientation which makes a female politician like Thatcher so potent. What you think you see ain’t necessarily what you’ll get. As Mitterand said, “she had the eyes of Caligula and mouth of Marilyn Monroe.”
If you’re at all familiar with Hitch’s work, you’ll know this type of fixation on and flirtation with women were central to his persona. His best pal, Martin Amis, along with Amis’s father Kingsley and several other Englishmen of those generations, had a lot to say about Mrs. Thatcher — most of which didn’t have to do with her stance on Rhodesia. Martin uses the above interaction as a basis to analyze Thatcher’s appeal to the English male psyche. In an excerpt pulled from his essay collection The War Against Cliché, he writes:
I once discussed Mrs Thatcher’s feminine qualities with Christopher Hitchens who had recently spent some time in her company. This was his verdict: ‘Oh, she stinks of sex.’ And this is my father, Kingsley Amis, in his Memoirs: her beauty, he writes, is ‘so extreme that… it can trap me for a split second into thinking I am looking at a science-fiction illustration of some time ago showing the beautiful girl who has become President of the Solar Federation in the year 2200. The fact that that is not a sensual or sexy beauty does not make it a less sexual beauty, and that sexuality is still, I think, an underrated factor in her appeal (or repellence).’ Helplessley I reach for the commonplace about the glamour of power. I could further infuriate my father’s shade by adducing another cliché: English nostalgia for chastisement. Philip Larkin shared his friend’s enthusiasm for the Prime Minister (‘I adore Mrs Thatcher’). Larkin was a great poet… he once asked Mrs Thatcher, who had professed herself a fan, to quote a line of his. She blinked and said, ‘All the unhurried day/ Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.’
I like that she could quote Larkin. Counts for a lot in my book. What would my Larkin nomination be? I’m glad you asked. “The trees are coming into leaf/ Like something almost being said.”
By the way, is his repetition of “saying, in effect…” in the first paragraph a rare Hitchens misstep? Watch him relay the encounter below.
You can also move on:
- More English diffidence: Charles Darwin makes a spreadsheet to help him decide whether to marry
- Kingley’s moving final tribute to Philip
- A reflection on philosophical contradictions, which makes up my favorite extended section from Hitch-22