The poignant and rather touching tribute to the late Baroness Thatcher in this week`s Walsall Advertiser from, of all people, Councillor Pete Smith reminds me of my own encounter with the former Prime Minister.
The circumstances that led to me driving towards St James`s Park (the one in London, not the one on Tyneside) at six thirty on a spring morning in 1988 are too complex to describe in detail. Suffice to say that it involved a friend who worked for a television news company, a Ford Fiesta that refused to start, my reliable if battered Mini and a government photo opportunity. I pulled over at the end of The Mall near Admiralty Arch to let her out and find her camera crew then went on to find somewhere to park. By the time I joined her at the Horse Guards end of the park, a host of photographers and camera crews stood around looking bored and opening flasks of coffee. That was about to change.
From the direction of Whitehall, a group of six or seven young men in expensive suits approached and they seemed pleased at the number of cameras that had turned up so early in the morning. Presently, however, these “special advisors” detected a problem. Looking at a clipboard and the Rolex, one chinless wonder turned to another and said:
“Where`s the rubbish? Where`s the bloody rubbish? It was booked for seven. Find it Nigel, find it now.”
Nigel started looking in the bushes much to the amusement of the waiting photographers. Then, striding across the grass came the colossal figure of Nicholas Ridley, the then Secretary of State for the Environment. It could be that he was suffering from some illness or that he might not be a morning person, but given the ungodly hour, the minister appeared to be drunk. Surveying the scene, he lit a cigarette and turned the air blue with some very unparliamentary language. Spad panic ensued and two ran off in the direction of Great George Street and the others started screwing up papers from their clipboards and throwing them on the ground. The press, now openly guffawing, joined in by screwing up their briefing notes and throwing them at the Spads. Ridley contributed by flicking his cigarette end at the laughing snappers and sparking up another fag.
The two young suits who legged it soon returned weighed down with what turned out to be junk food. Depositing the burgers, chips and coffee in the bushes, they scattered the empty cartons and cups across the greensward. Camera crews were now wiping tears of laughter from their eyes. Then, heralded by two police motorcycles and a close protection car, the Prime Minister arrived in her limo. After a brief word with Ridley and a look that would burn steel, the Iron Lady was handed a pair of marigolds and a bin liner. She was very light on her feet and after picking up three or four bits of paper handed the bin bag to Ridley and headed back toward the car. At this point, a flat bed trailer piled high with rubbish slowly reversed to join the scene. A small, slightly aged bin man called out:
“Is this where you want your rubbish?”
Mrs Thatcher was recalled for a few photographs and then was gone. Nigel berated the latecomer who replied by saying:
“It says eight o`clock on my chitty. You ordered your rubbish for eight o`clock, mate.”
By now, battle-hardened camera crews and veteran political hacks had to hold each other up such was intensity of helpless, hysterical laughter. Ridley flicked another fag end at them and left followed by the gaggle of chinless wonders desperate not to be deployed as an election agent in a constituency in the South Yorkshire coalfield. The camera crews packed up and the photographers talked of a pub in Fleet Street that was open very early. The small, slightly aged bin man picked up the litter deposited by the Spads and threw it into the back of his trailer.
Clearly, this memoir cannot be compared with Councillor Smith`s “one-to-one conversation” with the Prime Minister which was, it seems, “quiet, pleasant and interesting” but I hope it is as illuminating even if there is no mention of meeting Indira Gandhi. Mrs Thatcher tended to employ some truly dreadful speech writers. In an attempt to make her seem amusing and endearing, they came up with “Bag it, bin it, together we`ll win it” as part of her campaign against litter. The unbroadcast footage of the rubbish pantomime was streets ahead in terms of amusement than a weak and meaningless sound bite. Councillor Smith reminds us that at the time of his meeting with Mrs T, he was a member of the Labour Party. It is interesting then, that he should sign his letter as a member of Democratic Labour, even though he stood and was elected as an Independent councillor representing Blakenall ward.
Thatcher`s speech writers also gave us the hilariously unfunny “you turn if you want to; the lady`s not for turning.” Councillor Smith, whatever party or not a party his letter represents, seems to prefer Margaret Thatcher rather to Tony Blair because she stuck to her guns.
No wonder the left is unelectable.