Toppling Maggie: a blown-up photo of Thatcher is taken down at the end of the Conservative Party Conference, 2 October. Photo: Getty
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Darkly humorous vision: Hilary Mantel’s “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher”

The conceit of this book’s title story has prompted calls for Mantel’s head – but how well would Wolf Hall have gone down at the court of Henry VIII?

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate, 256pp, £14.99

It begins and ends with an open door. In the first story of Hilary Mantel’s blistering new collection, the narrator allows Ijaz, a salesman, into her apartment to use her phone. It is June 1983 and she is living in Jeddah with her husband, who works as a geologist. She is confined within the prison walls of her home, for this is Saudi Arabia; she is hoping her book might be published. (Readers who know something of Mantel’s life might see parallels with the author’s. Indeed, “Sorry to Disturb” was first published in the London Review of Books – under the title “Someone to Disturb” – as “a memoir”. Here those words have been excised.)

Ijaz makes his phone call but he returns and returns again. The narrator is drawn unwillingly into his life. He adds to a sense of oppression and menace present in all of these stories. Those who leave Jeddah are “escapees”, cockroaches scuttle in the shower, wardrobes disassemble themselves overnight and the narrator notes in her diary: “Execution dream again.”

And so, at the end of this collection – but just two months later, for the date is 6 August 1983 – another narrator lets another stranger over her threshold. She thinks he has come to fix her boiler; instead, he has come with a gun to assassinate the prime minister as she leaves a hospital in Windsor after an eye operation. As in “Sorry to Disturb”, reality and fiction blur. The website of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation will inform you that “MT left Windsor for Chequers at 1045” after being discharged from the Princess Christian’s Hospital. Mantel’s story – chatty, convincing, all the more sinister for that – reminds us simply, “History could always have been otherwise.”

The assassin’s rifle is called “the widow­maker”. Mantel always has her eye to its sight. Her elevation, in recent years, to the status of national treasure has obscured the dark, mordant humour of her vision. The conceit of this book’s title story has prompted calls for her head – Tim Bell, Thatcher’s former PR man, barked, “Surely the police should investigate” – which might cause some readers to smile, wondering how Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies would have gone down at the court of Henry VIII.

The ten stories that make up this collection have as their common thread the ability to measure the distance – it’s very small indeed – between our supposedly civilised daily behaviour and the darkest recesses of the human soul. In Mantel’s worlds, desire, or its opposite, is made manifest in the poltergeist movement of furniture, or, as in “Terminus”, a father’s ghost glimpsed on a train bound for Waterloo. That story, the shortest in the book, asks baldly how we can tell the living from the dead. You will never see rush hour in the same way again: “For how many of those surging thousands are solid, and how many of these assumptions are tricks of the light? How many, I ask you, are connected at all points, how many are utterly and convincingly in the state they purport to be: which is, alive?”

Sometimes her writing has this incantatory hauteur. It is blended with piercingly accurate descriptions (“the horse-chestnut whiff of nocturnal emissions”) and zinging juxtapositions (in the final story, the narrator wonders whether the gunman’s pockets are crammed with “assassin’s requisites”).

Collections of stories don’t always succeed as unified works. One of the pleasures of this book is its sense of wholeness, achieved even though all except the title story have been published before, one (“Harley Street”) as long ago as 1993. Like her novel Beyond Black, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher has an acid grip. The spirits that informed her haunting memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, have their echo here, too. Mantel has the ability to make the reader complicit with the narrator’s voice, whispering in her ear. This is especially disturbing in “Winter Break” – its ending made this particular reader jump out of her skin.

The most ordinary things take a strange turn: hanging fly strips are “a glazed yellow studded plump with prey”; a bed of geraniums is “so scarlet – as if the earth had bled through the pavements”. The dark humour of “How Shall I Know You?” takes the itinerant life of a moderately successful writer and makes it both funny (“. . . for sure A S Byatt would have managed it better”) and weirdly, indefinably creepy.

Mantel’s narrators are not comfortable companions: so much the better. They made me recall the time when a journalist got herself into hot water with Claire Messud. They were discussing Messud’s novel The Woman Upstairs and its character Nora Eldridge. Remarking that Nora’s outlook was “unbearably grim”, the journalist asked: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Messud’s reply was bracingly blunt. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp?”

The correct question to ask about fiction, Messud said, was not whether its characters were “likeable” but whether they were “alive”. Mantel’s characters are certainly that, even if they are haunted, like the reader, by the bleak and bitter spirits that live at the edge of our sight.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser