The news of Margaret Thatcher’s death immediately brings to mind my ‘meeting’ with her in 1994. No longer Prime Minister, she had lost none of her powerful personality – or her reputation!
It was an odd sequence of events. Thanks to a meeting with my editor Alison Samuel in London, I was invited along to a reception at the Imperial War Museum.
Only a last-minute a question about ‘Security’, led Alison to reveal that the reception was for Sir Laurens van der Post, to celebrate the publication of his book, Feather Fall.
My jaw dropped. The author, philosopher and war hero was known to me chiefly through his book, The Seed and the Sower, and – of course – the film, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. I was also aware that he was friend and mentor to the Prince of Wales. No wonder my late addition to the guest list had alerted certain people.
We were amongst the first arrivals. Drinks were being served. An elderly gentleman smiled at me and, as Alison introduced us, I found myself clasping the outstretched hand of a man who was surely a legend.
I could scarcely believe it. But Sir Laurens was a delightful man, so easy to talk to. We chatted with his daughter and son-in-law, and as other people joined us Sir Laurens was drawn away to meet guests just arriving.
I noticed an older man approaching. Six foot at least, and wiry in build. The face seemed familiar, but his height was not. A moment later, came another introduction – to Sir Denis Thatcher, husband of the former Prime Minister.
As I shook his hand I thought this evening could not be more surreal. I listened to him speaking, and thought: what a nice man. Not a bit like the media image of a slightly ga-ga adjunct to a fascist wife.
And then I noticed the real reason for the security question – a small woman, slightly dumpy, so different from the media image. On TV she looked so commanding – so much taller than those around her, while poor old Denis was the little man in the background.
Margaret Thatcher, the woman of the 80s. The politician I loved to hate. Was it really her? Yes it was – deep in conversation now with Sir Laurens. What were they talking about?
Suddenly people were beginning to move out – along a dark corridor to a dimly-lit theatre. As we entered, I paused and looked up, amazed by all the people seated in the auditorium. Behind the front row, where all the guests of honour were seated, were several empty rows. As I moved towards them, Alison pulled me back.
She nudged me towards the front row – no! Surely not with all those VIPs! But I was holding everyone up. That woman at the front was beckoning. To me. Pushed by Alison, I made my way along the row. I sat down – leaving at least four seats between me and the man next to Mrs Thatcher.
Alison nudged me again. Mrs Thatcher was leaning forward – hand waving, glaring now. Her unmistakable semaphore said, ‘You – whoever you are – come and sit here – now!’
She indicated the seat beside her companion. It was like being told off at school. I knew I was in for it, a detention at the very least, probably with a thousand lines besides. ‘I am writing these lines because…’ But I moved. No choice. So rigid with nerves I couldn’t turn my head. So relieved a moment later when Sir Laurens appeared on stage. He swept all else away with the power of his words.
He was 88 years old, and walked with a stick. Centre stage, he kept one hand on the wing of a high-backed chair and he spoke without notes for three-quarters of an hour.
Mesmerised, my surroundings were forgotten. I could have been anywhere, at any moment in time. I was with him as he spoke about his early life in Africa, his time as a prisoner of the Japanese in WW2, and later, with the Bushmen of the Kalahari. So moved by his lifelong search for truth, his belief in the importance of history and memory, in the underlying brotherhood of all men, I could have fallen at his feet like a disciple.
He was a truly spiritual man who believed in life’s underlying patterns, in the potential for all men to achieve their individual destiny. Choose the positive path, keep in touch with your soul, was his message to the world. (Was Mrs T listening?)
Afterwards, floating on air – Mrs T’s angry-bird gestures quite forgotten – I followed Alison out of the theatre. In the dimly lit corridor a man engaged me in conversation. Barely recognising him as the one I’d been knee to knee with in the theatre, I rabbited on about how marvellous and wonderful Sir Laurens was, and how astonished I was to be invited. Hanging on my every word, he asked how that had come about. So I told him – it had been a last minute thing, but coincidentally, we shared the same editor, so…
He and I parted in the reception room. I was sorry – he was charming and, as I saw in the light, rather a dish. I was introduced to other people, but, drink in hand, whenever I caught his eye, he smiled. The fact that there was at least a decade between us gave his interest a certain frisson. Mrs T’s beady glance was rather more chilling, but hey, what did I care? I was having an incredibly exciting evening – all the more because it was unexpected.
Suddenly a stir went through the room. Amidst a wave of farewells, Margaret and Denis were leaving. Close by her side, to my regret, so was that dishy man.
As truth dawned, I started to smile. Well, of course – he was Margaret Thatcher’s bodyguard. And I was the unexpected guest.
In the Ladies room, glancing in the mirror, I noticed what I was wearing. On the lapel of my jacket, a silver brooch set with green Connemara marble – in the shape of an Irish shamrock…
The unexpected guest – at the height of the Irish Troubles? Oh, **** No wonder I was of interest!
RIP Mrs Thatcher.