In 1982, London’s leading literary lights gathered for a secret dinner party. The guest of honour? Margaret Thatcher. Nigel Farndale interviews the survivors
The Observer, Saturday 7 December 2013
An impromptu receiving line formed. There was a sense of both sides sizing each other up, of mutual curiosity, of reciprocated suspicion. She was wearing blue. It made her stand out among the grey and black suits.
When Margaret Thatcher died in April this year at the age of 87, the singer Morrissey described her as “a terror without an atom of humanity” who “hated the arts”. But was he right? Certainly the arts hated her, from dramatists such as Alan Bleasdale and Mike Leigh, to pop stars such as Paul Weller and Billy Bragg. And the literary world hated her so much that in 1986 it had formed the 20 June Group, an allusion to the 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler. That group included Harold Pinter, David Hare and Salman Rushdie. The usual suspects.
But back in 1982? Well, you won’t find mention of it in the history books – apart from a single line in Charles Moore’s authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher – but that was the year that she and the literary establishment had what amounted to a love-in – or at least a brave attempt to play footsie under the table. The occasion was a dinner party.
In the years since, Lord Thomas and his guests have been reluctant to talk about that night, or even acknowledge that the dinner took place, but not long ago, when I met him for lunch at the House of Lords, he finally agreed to shed some light on the proceedings. I’ve also spoken to some of the surviving guests, including the playwright Sir Tom Stoppard and the poet Al Alvarez, and based on their recollections, as well as diaries and letters, I have been able to piece together what happened on that extraordinary evening.
The guest list read like a who’s who of literary London including, as it did, the poets Stephen Spender and Philip Larkin, the novelists Anthony Powell and Dan Jacobson, the writer and critic Sir VS Pritchett, and the Peruvian novelist (and, later, presidential candidate) Mario Vargas Llosa (described by one guest as “some Panamanian novelist”).
There was only one female invitee, and she was not known for her love of literature. As the death-obsessed Larkin noted in a letter to his friend and biographer Andrew Motion: “The Thatcher dinner was pretty grisly. Even now I shudder and moan involuntarily. M [Monica Jones, his partner] says: ‘Is it death again, or Mrs Thatcher?’ I wipe the froth from my lips (usually beer froth) and try to stop twitching.”
It can’t have been that grisly because, although guests agreed not to talk about the dinner publicly, Larkin clearly enjoyed gossiping about it to his friend Judy Egerton. “I have had a journalist on the phone trying to get ‘copy’ about it… I can’t say I felt at home, because the talk was all about foreign politics, about which I know nothing, but she was pleasant enough. What a blade of steel! It left me prostrate for 48 hours.”
He also described it, in a letter dated 21 November 1982, to his friend the novelist Kingsley Amis. “The Thatcher occasion was tough going… The worst part was after dinner, when old Thomas initiated a ‘conversation’, and everyone talked about fawn countries and fawn politics, just like the college essay society. There was nothing in that for me. At last I got the blue flash: ‘You haven’t said anything yet.’ I draw the veil.”
He compared watching her that night to watching a top-class tennis player: “No ‘Uh huh, well, what do other people think about that?’, just bang back over the net. I noticed she didn’t laugh much, or make jokes.”
Amis replied on 17 December 1982: “Jolly vivid a/c of the Mrs T gathering. Funny that H-F D (you are a shit) was down at the Jewish end of the table. Might have known that Al, lately as lefty as they come, would get his foot in there. It’ll be Lord Alvarez before we know it.”
H-F D stood for Horse-Faced Dwarf, Larkin and Amis’s unkind private nickname for the author of A Dance to the Music of Time. When the Larkin letters were posthumously published in 1992, Anthony Powell wrote in his diary: “Larkin’s unfriendly comments on myself are all but insane. They are absolutely inspired by jealousy.”
Larkin, for all his protestations about Thatcher being “tough going”, was actually a fan. And the feeling was mutual. “Oh, Dr Larkin, I am a great admirer of your poems,” Thatcher remarked when she first met him. “Quote me a line, then,” he replied frostily. She did: “All afternoon her mind lay open like a drawer of knives.” She had slightly misquoted, and this he took as a compliment. “I thought if it weren’t spontaneous, she’d have got it right,” he wrote to Julian Barnes. “I also thought she might think a mind full of knives rather along her own lines, not that I don’t kiss the ground she treads.”
There was much agonising by Lord Thomas over whom to invite. John le Carré was an obvious choice – Thatcher admired his fierce anti-Soviet views – but he had another commitment that night. Kingsley Amis was not invited on the grounds that Thatcher knew him well already.
Thomas wrote letters, rather than sending formal invitations, or “stiffies”.
Then he got cold feet that the novelists, poets and playwrights might be a little tongue-tied and that “good talkers” would be needed, so he invited three academic heavyweights as well: the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, the recently knighted historian JH Plumb, then Master of Christ’s College, Cambridge, and Anthony Quinton, the president of Trinity College, Oxford (and sometime host of Radio 4’s Round Britain Quiz).
The meal was cooked by Lady Thomas (formally Vanessa Jebb, the daughter of Gladwyn Jebb, first acting secretary-general of the United Nations), with their daughter Bella and one of her friends, Maggie Evans, acting as waitresses. They dined on pheasant and drank Rioja, a wine that at the time was something of a novelty (indeed, Powell recalled in his diary that he had never before drunk “such filth”).
So why had Lord Thomas invited the literary A-list to his home in order to meet the prime minister? It seems to have been a grooming exercise.
Thatcher’s popularity had never been higher – the British victory in the Falklands war a few months earlier was seen as her victory – but there was a perception that the world of letters was still suspicious of her. She wanted to woo the literary bigwigs, then, give them the “blue flash”, get them on side.
It was also felt that it wouldn’t hurt for her to schmooze a few leading academics as well, perhaps in the hope of smoothing things over when her reforms of the student grant system began to bite. Already she was cultivating the rightwing philosopher Professor Roger Scruton, the editor of the Salisbury Review, but the leftwing academics and literary figures were proving tougher nuts to crack. Thomas was seen as a bridge between their world and the world of Tory politics. He knew Margaret Thatcher well because he ran her favourite thinktank, the Centre for Policy Studies.
As it turned out, the attempt was futile. Three years later, Oxford dons snubbed her by refusing to award her the honorary doctorate that they traditionally bestowed upon prime ministers. And after that she gave up. In fact, she became even more determined to “stop mollycoddling students”. She also seemed to turn on the arts world, vilifying the Arts Council and accusing it of being pampered, self-indulgent and leftwing.
So what else did they talk about that night? According to Berlin, Thatcher complained about the Berlin Wall. “Surely you don’t want to see a united Germany?” Larkin said. “Well, no,” Thatcher replied, “perhaps not.” “Well, then,” Larkin asked her, “what’s all this hypocrisy about wanting the wall down then?”
Looking fiercely bald and wearing thick, black-rimmed glasses, Larkin was widely regarded as the finest English poet of his generation. Two years later he would turn down the poet laureateship. He preferred instead to live a life of relative anonymity as a university librarian in Hull. The letters he was writing at the time reflected his increasingly racist and rightwing views, as well as his obsession with pornography. He was seated next to Stephen Spender, a poet, novelist and essayist who concentrated on themes of social injustice and the class struggle in his work. No wonder Larkin got drunk.
Al Alvarez, a close friend and early champion of Sylvia Plath, was a short, barrel-chested, broken-nosed man with a passion for poker and rock climbing. His abiding memory of the evening was of joking with Margaret Thatcher about how, with his Spanish name, he had had to keep a low profile since the Falklands. “Her face froze and she turned away.” He had the impression that she wasn’t sure who any of the guests really were. “Dick Francis was more her speed. But we certainly knew who she was.”
In his diaries, Alan Clark talked about the effect Margaret Thatcher had on men. “I got a full dose of personality compulsion,” he wrote, “something of the Führer Kontakt.” There seems to have been an element of that on this occasion. “I hate to say it,” the lefty-as-they-come Alvarez told me, “but she had good skin and a good figure and I found her rather attractive. She also had this dazzling aura of power around her. But that may be because being a writer is a bit like being a lighthouse keeper: you don’t get out much. I was sitting next to VS Naipaul, who was grilling me about how much I got paid by the New Yorker and how he could get some pieces in there. When writers are together all they really want to talk about are fees.”
Most of the guests fancied her, it seems. Anthony Powell did a straw poll on the subject. “I did some market research as to whether people find her as attractive as I do and all, including Vidia [Naipaul], were in complete agreement.”
The handsome, pouting 45-year-old Stoppard, meanwhile, was at the height of his powers (The Real Thing, starring his future lover Felicity Kendal, was in rehearsal at the Strand Theatre, opening to great acclaim on 16 November that year). He was also politically active, regularly attacking the Soviet Union for its human-rights abuses. Thatcher never made much secret of her weakness for clever, good-looking men. To meet one who bashed the Soviet Union as well must have really set her antennae quivering.
When she was later a guest on Dr Miriam Stoppard’s popular television show Woman to Woman, the first question she asked was: “And tell me, how is Tom?” Stoppard’s strongest memory of the evening is not of meeting Thatcher but Larkin. “I was thrilled to meet him. I also remember feeling out of my depth, because I’m not a political animal and I shouldn’t have been there. I listened mostly.” At the other end of the table Quentin and Berlin were leading the debate – “Full of bounce; by no means shy”, according to Thomas – but guests got the impression that, with her brisk manner, Thatcher wasn’t that interested in anything anyone else had to say.
There was a great sigh of relief when she left at 11pm, with guests filing outside to stand in the road and see her off. According to Larkin, Thatcher said good- night “very civilly”. Two days later he was still in a state of “nervous and alcoholic exhaustion”. But he was clearly smitten. In a letter to his friend the poet and historian Robert Conquest, he wrote: “What a superb creature she is – right and beautiful – few prime ministers are either.”