Should you work for a British national newspaper, there are two regular assignments you’re certain to cover. One is football, the other is the Prime Minister of the day. I’ve never got on with football, but have probably been stuck at as many big matches in various parts of the UK as the most dedicated well-heeled fans. And as for the PM, for a long time when I worked on The Times, that was the domineering, often quite ferocious, Margaret Thatcher. I confess I wasn’t much of a fan of her either, politically. But personally, it was different.
I travelled a great deal with her, spent a lot of time around her, and perhaps surprisingly for many now she was incredibly well known, whether feared, loathed or respected, and not just in the UK as you would perhaps expect, but in many regions of the world: Indeed recognised in places she would never herself be moved to visit. Once on assignment on the eve of the first Gulf War, walking along the Tigris in Baghdad passing many street stalls selling rip off Mickey Mouse towels, American style baseball hats, and being asked in perfect English where I was from: England. A big smile of recognition spread on the friendly traders’ faces, and together they chanted “Iron Lady, Iron lady.” You can guess that American ‘shock and awe’ was a way off yet.
However much I didn’t like the politics, she herself, personally, was, well it’s hard to say, but believe it or not actually quite beguiling and had a sort of motherly charm. Is it sexist to say that? She would often stop to ask after you on a long tour, checking that the UK press corps were being looked after properly, that we were getting the pictures we needed, refreshments and so on. And on one memorable occasion in the middle of a chaotic walkabout in Istanbul, admonishing an overzealous Turkish policeman whom she had witnessed shove me aggressively to the pavement. An action which meant for the rest of the PM’s visit over two days I was treated as her personal photographer by the local security and police, greatly to the amusement of the PM’s staff.
But the last time I saw Margaret Thatcher, she was no Iron Lady. Frail, blankly staring out at a noisy celebration at Lincoln’s Inn, the former PM was indeed the main attraction of the evening. This was the annual Falkland Islands dinner. I had been asked at the last minute by The Sunday Times desk to cover the event (I had long ceased to work full time in editorial) as apparently the organisers had specified that only photographers who had been to the South Atlantic islands were to attend. Yet the star, the centre of all this, was Baroness Thatcher herself, and it was quite clear to me she was oblivious to the commotion surrounding her. I could see she was in her own private world. I could hear her repeatedly asking, “why is it so cold in here dear?” Classic symptoms of dementia.
Enthusiastic young Tories, many of whom I would guess hadn’t been born when the fleet left in 1982 on the seemingly impossible task to sail to the South Atlantic and retake the Falkland Islands, were lining up to get pictures and selfies with their former leader, barely able to conceal their excitement, as she stared blankly from side to side, benign, but distant.
At long last I was tipped off that she was about to leave and hastily I set up on the pavement outside the hall to catch her departure. As she slowly emerged, she stopped for a moment and looked straight at me. Turning to the veteran MP Sir Gerald Howarth, her face suddenly flickered back into animation and she said, “look The Times is here.” Sir Gerald turned to me and whispered as she carefully got into the car, “you’ll be telling that story for a long time.” He was right. This would be the Iron Lady’s last public event, the last time I would see her, and she would be dead within months.