It seems that Hilary Mantel has pissed off all the right people: Hilary Mantel hits back at critics of her Thatcher assassination short story. And when senior Conservatives (and Nadine Dorries), and the Daily Torygraph are up in arms, you know that you’ve really performed a service to the arts. If you’ve not read it, the story is here.
What struck me is not that it was written, but that it took so long for someone to write it. In 1983 when the story takes place, I was twelve years-old but even then I was aware of the amount of hatred that Thatcher elicited from many people. Much of it was hypocrisy of course: while everyone was voicing resentment at the fact that she had cancelled free milk for school children (Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher!), all of them were buying up their council homes at a discount and in doing so had fashioned the first rungs of the ‘property ladder’.
She was not loved, and when she decided to retake the Falkland Islands (which none of us had heard of, and which none of us still care very much about), she only fooled the lumpen herd who are taken in by all such shallow efforts of distraction and diversion. For ten minutes most of the population forgot what a shit-hole they lived in and instead lived through the TV reports on the might task force and the bravery of our boys. We collectively counted them all out and counted them all back every night.
But we weren’t fooled as society was being dismantled around us. Even at that young age, I knew things weren’t right. Perhaps it was down to Spitting Image?
And, let’s be fair, the assassination of Margaret Thatcher isn’t so far fetched; the IRA did take a good stab at it in Brighton in 1984.
I’m a late-comer to Mantel’s work, but can only prostrate myself before what she did with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She’s has the kind of talent which almost makes you want to give up writing, as you know you’d struggle to come anywhere near her command of language and imagination. And to her additional credit, she doesn’t need to rock the boat and stir up a media storm in order to sell books. She could disappear quietly into the establishment and just reappear every now and then at award dinners. But she’s created a piece of speculative fiction which I can only imagine that some find disturbing due to the fact that it was so very nearly true, and that there were so many who would have formed an orderly queue behind that gun-sight.
And who says that art has to be tasteful? What place does such a consideration have in art at all?
Is a ‘what if’ story about an imaginary assassination worth more condemnation than someone who was best mates with Pinochet and Reagan?
No doubt there is a boat full of drowned Argentine sailors who are now spinning in their watery graves at any attempted to defend her character…