Reviewed: Margaret Thatcher the Authorised Biography by Charles Moore

Charles Moore admires Margaret Thatcher, but he cannot fully relate to her.

Margaret Thatcher: the Authorised Biography – Volume One: Not for Turning
Charles Moore
Allen Lane, 896pp, £30

One of the fascinations of this biography is the way Charles Moore searches for the underlying personality of Margaret Thatcher, whom he admires but cannot fully relate to. Good biographies, and this is an exceptionally good one, tell us things we did not know about the life of their subject. In the absence of any diaries, Moore draws on 150 letters that the then Margaret Roberts wrote to her sister, Muriel, from the end of the 1930s up to the beginning of the 1960s. These cover the war years, her time at school in Grantham, Somerville College, Oxford, where she went shortly before her 18th birthday in October 1943, and her attempts to become an MP.

The letters reveal more about her private life, Moore claims, than all his other sources put together. Only her sister would have known as much about Margaret’s early loves, one of whom she more or less passed on directly to her sister. She writes with tenderness about another close male friend, Robert Henderson, in January 1950: “I think we are both getting very fond of one another – in fact more than that. I hope so.” At 47, he was twice her age when they met and already had a distinguished medical career. A bachelor, he was the medical superintendent at Southern Hospital in the constituency of Dartford, where she was the adopted Conservative candidate and fought two general elections in 1950 and 1951.

Eventually, however, she married Denis Thatcher, whom she was seeing at the same time, perhaps because he had asked her and Henderson had not. Her letters give the distinct impression, which their long and successful marriage bore out, that Denis was ready to accept her powerful ambition and to support her financially but also, crucially, temperamentally.

Politics was a fast-developing passion. Thatcher joined the Oxford University Conservative Association as soon as she arrived and ended up as its president. In those days, a woman could only attend Oxford Union debates in the gallery and then only if she was given tickets by a member.

Dorothy Hodgkin, who later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was her tutor. Described by one of Thatcher’s contemporaries as a “brilliant chemist but an awful tutor”, she held different political views from Margaret but liked her. She gave this careful assessment: “I came to rate her as good. One could always rely on her producing a sensible, well-read essay and yet there was something that some people had that she hadn’t quite got.” Nevertheless, Thatcher’s scientific background as a chemist gave her political position an extra dimension, not revealed much in this first volume, which ends after the Falklands war, but that became a feature as she took a serious and informed interest in environmental issues as prime minister.

What is surprising is how Thatcher was helped in pursuing her political ambitions by a number of powerful and rich Conservatives, notably Lord Bossom. His son Sir Clive was a Conservative MP between 1959 and 1974 who, like me, frequented a bohemian bistro in Chelsea. With no condescension and with no little admiration, he referred to her as the “Blessed Margaret”.

Searching to find the key to Thatcher’s growing support in the party, Moore spends some time, rightly, on Enoch Powell. After Powell’s highly controversial and populist speech on immigration on 20 April 1968, in which he saw the “River Tiber foaming with much blood”, Ted Heath rang around shadow cabinet members. “Enoch must go,” he told Thatcher. She responded by warning Heath not to “heighten what [Enoch] said too much” while also letting it be known in the party that she was quite sympathetic to Powell. She never minded being seen to be on the Tory right. Positioning like this is not uncommon in the race to the top of a party but she was unusual in remaining where she was ideologically and not moving to the centre ground. Nevertheless, she was determined not to be easily typecast: she was in favour of abortion, fairly relaxed about sexual conduct and had no hang-ups about appointing or being seen around gay men, many of whom she rather liked.

Moore rightly gives a mere 36 pages to the Heath government of 1970-74, for Thatcher was not a very influential member of it. As secretary of state for education and the only woman cabinet minister, she removed free milk from all children over the age of seven. She inherited 1,137 comprehensive schools in England and Wales, approved a further 3,286 and rejected only 326 – an early example of her pragmatism. Later, she disguised this by presenting Shirley Williams as the progenitor of comprehensives.

It was not until the early 1970s that I met Thatcher properly and we were able to talk to one another as people rather than as politicians. She had been giving dinner to a psychiatrist with whom I, as a neurologist, had worked at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. We bumped into each other during a division in the House of Commons and she asked my wife and me to join them for coffee. The discussion revealed the strengths and weaknesses of someone who was, I had already sensed, a most unusual person.

She was sufficiently concerned about a constituent’s worries over her teenage son’s health to bother, when she was exceptionally busy, to arrange to meet the doctor who was treating him. Yet it soon became apparent that she neither accepted nor wanted to understand that any adolescent could be depressed. For her, it was all due to a lack of personal drive, effort and will.

As she spoke, her voice hardened and she became ever more assertive about the im - possibility of the adolescent’s condition having anything to do with depression. My wife, normally an active conversationalist, clam - med up, staggered by such an uncomprehending position.

As we rose to leave, Thatcher, right in front of her, said to me: “Is your wife always so quiet?” I have never forgotten that conversation. It showed Thatcher conscientious to a fault yet insensitive to someone she perceived as a non-achiever. This became ever clearer over the years in her attitudes towards poverty, social problems and the ethos of organisations such as the NHS.

On the eve of the first ballot for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975, in which she defeated Heath, she said on tele - vision: “All my ideas about [Britain] were formed before I was 17 or 18.” There is a good deal of truth in this comment. It explains her simplistic view of life, which was part of her appeal, as well as the source of an off-putting certainty. On the day of her election as leader, she told ITN: “You don’t exist as a party unless you have a clear philosophy and clear heritage.” The philosophy was kept in her handbag – Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, of which she is supposed to have said, “This is what we believe.”

Nevertheless, she was pragmatic as prime minister. Encouraged by her foreign secretary Lord Carrington, she dumped some of her previous prejudices, like her passionate support in opposition for Bishop Muzorewa and the internal settlement in Rhodesia. In February 1981, when the moderate miner’s leader Joe Gormley was close to calling a strike, without any cabinet discussion, she told her energy secretary David Howell, “Bring it to an end, David. Make the necessary concessions.” She cost the country £400-500m in the process. Also, as Moore remarks, this contributed to the myth that the miners were invincible, something that was tested to destruction during the strike of 1984-85.

The economic gloom deepened throughout 1981 and the cabinet grew increasingly divided. Her home secretary and confidant Willie Whitelaw warned her: “There comes a moment in politics when you have pushed the tolerance of society too far. We aren’t there but we aren’t far off.”

An opinion poll in the summer of that year showed the SDP/Liberal Alliance on 45 per cent, Labour on 29 per cent and the Conservatives on just 25 per cent. On 28 August, John Hoskyns, the first head of her policy unit, who had built and sold a computer company and was her leading non-career civil servant, addressed to her what he called a “blockbuster” memo entitled “Your Political Survival”. It recognised that: “Your government has achieved the beginning of a nearrevolution in the private sector and especially in industry.” It even ventured, “Things in the economy are better than people realise.” But it went on: “Your own credibility and prestige are draining away very fast.”

Hoskyns then listed her faults. “You lack management competence . . . Your own leadership style is wrong . . . You bully your weaker colleagues . . . You give little praise or credit, and you are too ready to blame others when things go wrong.” A few weeks later, after no discussion, she hissed at him: “I got your letter. No one has ever written like that to a prime minister before.” She was not correct. Clementine Churchill had written a more lovingly phrased but equally blunt letter to her husband in June 1940.

As if to confirm Hoskyns’s diagnosis, late one night in December 1981, Thatcher burst into a meeting at the Treasury, “quite full of whisky”. She berated Geoffrey Howe, who was preparing his Autumn Statement with officials. “If this is the best you can do, then I’d better send you to hospital and deliver the statement myself.” The fuse was being put in place for Howe to ignite publicly nearly nine years later in his now celebrated resignation statement. However, within a few months, in March 1982, there were definite signs that the economy was beginning to turn.

Then, on 31 March, there followed what Thatcher described as “the worst moment of my life”. John Nott, the defence secretary, arrived bearing intelligence about an impending Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands. Moore offers a vivid reconstruction of a meeting that evening in the prime minister’s room in the House of Commons. Nott and his permanent undersecretary Frank Cooper told her that the recapture of the Falkland Islands was all but impossible. She knew from her Foreign Office private secretary in No 10 that this view was shared by the chief of the general staff. The then chief of defence staff, Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, was away in New Zealand.

In the middle of this discussion, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, the first sea lord, arrived from Portsmouth, in uniform. He had dropped in to his office in the Ministry of Defence to find a naval staff briefing on the Falklands that advised: “Don’t touch it.” But this was a man of resolution and intelligence, as I knew from my time as navy minister between 1968 and 1970.

Leach asked the prime minister for political clearance to assemble a task force. “What does that mean?” she asked and Leach explained about ships, aircraft carriers and helicopters. “How long can it take to assemble the task force?” she enquired. “Three days,” replied Leach. “How long to get there?” “Three weeks.” “Three weeks?” Thatcher exclaimed. “Surely you mean three days?” “No, I don’t,” Leach said. “Can we do it?” she asked. “We can, Prime Minister.” “Why do you say that?” In language that echoes down the years, Leach replied: “Because if we don’t do it, if we pussyfoot . . . we’ll be living in a different country whose word will count for little.”

The rest is history. Leach’s analysis was echoed in the emergency parliamentary debate on 3 April, a rare occasion on which the Labour leader Michael Foot and I were in total agreement. The prime minister’s grave decision was supported by all parties. However, the Thatcher premiership was never the same again. She would succumb to hubris and that started with her taking the salute, instead of the Queen, at a victory march-past in the City of London, something that this book mistakenly passes off as of little consequence.

David Owen was foreign secretary from 1977-79 and a co-founder of the Social Democratic Party

An irresistible ascent - Margaret Thatcher. Photo: Bryce Duffy/Corbis.

Lord Owen was Foreign Secretary 1977-79, a founder-member of the SDP and is now a crossbench peer.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain