It’s difficult to imagine anyone more Tory than Charles Moore. He edited the Telegraph, opposes gay marriage and for the past 17 years has been writing Margaret Thatcher’s official biography. Nigel Farndale meets the man who’s been rifling through Maggie’s wardrobe
What can it be like being Charles Moore? Since 1997 he has been trying to get inside the head of Margaret Thatcher, understand her personality, fathom why she was so loved, so hated. That was the year she appointed him as her authorised biographer, and gave him unlimited access to everyone and everything in her life, on condition that he wouldn’t publish until after her death. So that’s a good 17 years of Thinking About Thatcher. Thatcher for breakfast. Thatcher for lunch. Thatcher over port in the evening.
And what can it be like for him being interviewed for the Observer? I had suggested doing an “at home” in Sussex, but he was chary about me describing the “soft furnishings, stuffed lions illegally shot, etc”. And this is understandable, given that many readers will already, no doubt, see him as the devil’s Boswell. To add big-game hunter to his litany of sins would be plain masochism.
So we have opted instead to meet somewhere Thatchery: “her table” at the Goring Hotel in London, around the corner from her house in Chester Square. As we puff our napkins I ask him what effect she had on other diners when she ate here. “On one occasion she got up to leave at the end and they all started clapping,” he says. She told him she found it “kind but embarrassing”, but he could tell she was secretly pleased.
When researching his book, Moore could see from Margaret Roberts’s student days onwards that she was conscious of the attention being paid to her. “When she was talking about her first boyfriend taking her to an Oxford ball she said something like ‘everyone fell silent and looked at me when I walked into the room.'”
That would be the “pink uplift bra”, I say (she refers to one in a letter Moore quotes in the book). A clipped laugh at this. Then: “Favourable attention from men was always noticed. There was an almost actressy side to her.”
We discuss how some men, such as Alan Clark, went weak at the knees. “Not all of course, because a significant minority of her colleagues were irritated and even bored by her style. Too in-your-face for a certain type of Tory. But the majority found her attractive, some sexually. There was also a sub-set who saw her as a gay icon.”
Did Moore find her attractive? “Only in the sense of enjoying her presence – she was, after all, older than my mother.” Part of the attraction seems to have been to do with her reputation as a political dominatrix. He recalls the first proper conversation he had with her. “It was in 1985 and I attacked her about the new Irish agreement and got the terrifying stare. I liked her readiness to engage and whack you.”
She whacked him on many occasions after that, during his formal and informal interviews with her. “It would have been unfair to sit her down for a formal interview in the later years,” he says. “It would have bewildered her.” Instead they would come to lunch here and chat. “She got terribly bad around the time Denis died in 2003, no doubt because he died.” He witnessed moments when she thought Denis was still alive? “Yes, I did see that, yup.”
I ask if sleep offers an escape from this business of thinking about her constantly, or whether the Iron Lady intrudes even upon his dreams. “I have, um, met her in dreams, but I can’t, er, remember specific ones,” he says. “They are more anxiety dreams about being late to meet her or, um, not getting the tape working.”
For an articulate man, Moore ums and ers a lot. He is also prone to use Latin phrases without warning, or translation. And every so often he deploys a white smile, one as engaging as it is unexpected, given the solemnity of his long, undertaker’s face. (He was obliged to have his “English teeth” whitened for the TV cameras before a book tour to America last year, and it seems to have given him a Colgate ring of confidence.)
There is, nevertheless, something unworldly about him. He’s a very English combination of self-effacement, drollery and dogmatism – a listed rectory in a suit and blue tie (unlike his more artistic brother, this paper’s architecture critic, Rowan Moore). The drink he orders with his kedgeree, a spicy virgin mary, seems appropriate and reminds me of the criticism that his friend Auberon Waugh made of him, that he doesn’t drink enough.
Moore met his wife Caroline at Cambridge. She later became an English don, but gave it up to look after their two children, now grown up. When I ask if she gets jealous about there being three people in their marriage, he gives that Colgate smile. “Well, luckily, they have very different personalities.” Present tense, note. “And I can’t imagine ever being married to someone like Margaret Thatcher, so in that sense they are not in competition.”
A few years back I bumped into Moore at a book launch and he told me he had just come from visiting Mrs T’s dresses, which were in storage in Finchley. At the time I teased him that he was like Jimmy Savile, who used to keep his mother’s clothes wrapped in cellophane in a wardrobe. (This was before comparing someone to Savile became actionable.) But I can see now that it is important for a biographer to make that tactile connection with his subject – to handle the things she handled. Did the dresses help him channel her? “Yes I think so, and it’s another reason why she is more interesting than a male politician. I didn’t want to see Tony Blair’s suits, as it were. Each of her garments mattered more, required more decision-making.”
Moore was the original young fogey, having become a writer on the Daily Telegraph straight from university, and then editor of the Spectator at 27. Now, at 57, he seems almost old fogeyish, endearingly so. When I ask how his interview with FW de Klerk went, the one he had told me he would be conducting before our lunch, he looks a little sheepish and says he got his dates muddled up. To be fair, he doesn’t have a PA, and he does have a lot of commitments, such as his constant round of speaking engagements (more than 100 in the past year), his appearances as the token Rightie on Question Time, and his bold and elegantly written columns for the Spectator and Daily Telegraph (which he also used to edit, before Maggie took over his life).
The research he has undertaken for his epic biography has been nothing short of Stakhanovite. And it isn’t over yet. The 800-page first volume is out in paperback this week, having become, when published in hardback after her funeral last April, a number-one bestseller (a prize-winning, critically acclaimed one, no less). Moore is now working on volume two, due out next year.
I guess he has his ending for it now: that poignant funeral. Did he think there would be more protests than there were? “My biggest fear was that the BBC’s focus on the nasty people would keep the nice people away. If you thought there was going to be violent protest, you wouldn’t bring your granny and your children. The streets were full, but they would have been fuller.” The service brought tears to his eyes. “What I found moving was a sense of how far she had come, the grocer’s daughter who ended up with the Queen standing beside her coffin.”
I ask if he was taken aback by the animosity elsewhere, the “Ding-dong! The witch is dead” side of things. “No, I wasn’t surprised, actually.” Not even when Bob Crow said he hoped she would rot in hell? “That I did find outrageous. De mortuis nil nisi bonum [don’t speak ill of the dead]. The BBC only wanted to hear from the minority who hated her, from the Galloways and the Crows, or the half-witted students in Brixton, or the miners from Yorkshire – not the miners from Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire, because they weren’t Scargillites.”
But wearing his journalist’s hat, I say, he must admit that the depth of the hatred from those quarters is fascinating. “Yes, I think in one respect she courted the hatred because when a trade unionist started foaming at the mouth she wanted to have the argument. She was temperamentally incapable of not having the argument. The other reason she inspired hatred was that she won, and kept winning, on an explicitly Conservative ideology. The Left could never forgive her for that.” He also puts the hatred down to misogyny. “A lot of people, both women and men, really didn’t want to be ruled by a bossy woman. There was a sort of shudder about it.”
Cartoonists always portrayed her as looking either slightly mad or angry, I note, and Spitting Image depicted her as man. Did that help or hinder her? “Help, but it was quite wrong to depict her as a pseudo man in trousers and tie.”
I know what he means, but it nevertheless makes him sound like he has missed the joke, as she always did. He claims it’s not true that she didn’t have a sense of humour, by the way. “She was quite witty and observant, but what she didn’t understand were jokes with a set up and punchline.”
When I suggest that she might have been a bit Aspergerish, he is careful in his response. “She was a naturally serious person from a serious background. She was not a relaxed person. She liked humour in others, though, and considered it an attractive quality in Denis and Alistair McAlpine. She was terrifying but not pompous, and she could be quite playful, quite cosy in a strange way.”
We talk about how, if she were here with us now, there would be two police protection officers in the restaurant, because the IRA never withdrew its threat to kill her. The Brighton bomb will feature heavily in the next volume. I put it to him that the speech she made the morning after the bombing might have been her finest hour. She must have been traumatised, yet seemed calm and steely. “She was good at carrying on in situations of high tension,” Moore says, “but she would crack later, as she did in church that Sunday.”
When I read his book I was surprised by his descriptions of her weeping during the Falklands War. Contrary to stereotype, he thinks she had a strong gift of empathy, “but only if she thought the cause was just, as with soldiers and sailors. Obviously there was much less empathy if the person came from the enemy.”
When I try to draw him out on the subject of Charles Moore he folds his arms and starts almost hugging himself like someone in a padded cell. Terrible body language, I say. “Yes well, I don’t like talking about myself. I’d prefer to talk about her.”
Presumably, being an Old Etonian is a big part of his identity, I suggest. “I certainly think being well educated is a great advantage in life. It annoys me when people won’t admit that they were well educated. The tragedy of English life is that there is a constant attack on the good institutions rather than attempts to improve the bad ones.” He’s doing what he accuses Mrs T of always doing: deflecting personal questions by turning them into political ones. “That’s true,” he says with a grin. “I am doing that, yes.”
Another of his friends, the satirist Craig Brown, once described him as moving in a world without friction, as if never having known heartbreak. Fair? “You couldn’t edit newspapers for 20 years and live in a frictionless world.” And heartbreak? Was Caroline his first love? “Effectively yes, not my first girlfriend but first serious girlfriend.”
He has never carved a roast, sewn a button or changed a tyre – sounds like he’s a difficult man to live with. “True, but we have slightly reversed the sex roles in that I write the thank you letters and remember what people’s children are called, and who we had to dinner last time. Poor Caroline, she does all the DIY and the changing of the light bulbs.”
I ask if he was joking about the stuffed lion. He was. But he does have a stuffed fox. “It was road kill. Elegant. Not one of those angry, snarling ones.”
Controversialist – and masochist? – that he is, Moore revels in defending foxhunting. He has also been a vocal opponent of gay marriage, appearing on the Today programme in the run-up to the same-sex marriage bill to warn that it would “cause confusion” – and asking in a Spectator column, after it was passed, “if the law will eventually be changed to allow one to marry one’s dog”. But in terms of which side he will come down on in an argument, he is not easy to second guess.
So what can it be like being Charles Moore? As we order coffees at “her table” and ask for the bill, he tells me he has no idea why he was chosen as biographer over other right-wing thinkers and writers. But it is tempting to imagine that Maggie might have seen in him a kindred spirit, an iconoclast and mischief maker who enjoys playing up to a parodic version of himself. With obvious delight, for example, he says that he hasn’t listened to a pop record since 1974 “unless inadvertently, in a taxi”.
People in morning coats and feathery hats arrive for a late lunch, no doubt straight from an investiture at nearby Buckingham Palace. He must have been offered a knighthood by now I’m guessing, like those other Telegraph editors, Sir Max Hastings and Sir Peregrine Worsthorne. Has he done a Jon Snow and turned it down? “I wouldn’t say, I wouldn’t, um, be pushed to say anything on that, er.”
Besides, he already has a title bestowed by Private Eye: Lord Snooty. “Lord Snooty is a very decent figure,” he says with a flash of white teeth. “In the early Beanos the ditty went ‘Son of a duke but always pally/with his chums in Tin Pan Alley,’ something like that. He was an early apostle of diversity.”
I’ll buy that line about Charles Moore/Lord Snooty being decent, and though I’m not sure he has many friends on the Left, for a foxhunting Old Etonian he doesn’t seem to care much about class. It’s another unexpected thing about him.
The person with whom he had the most laughs in his life, he tells me, was the late Frank Johnson, a journalist who used to pride himself on being a working-class Tory. And let us not forget that his heroine came from Tin Pan Alley, or at least Grantham’s equivalent, the grocer’s shop.