Below the Parapet by Carol Thatcher

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Below the Parapet by Carol Thatcher

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Category: Biography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A unique insight into the life of a male consort to a national leader written by his daughter. Description of events is good if a little biased but there's no examination of political beliefs. It's one to borrow rather than buy.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 364 Date: April 1997
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 0006384587

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I didn't open this book with any great expectations. I'm far from being a fan of what Mrs Thatcher achieved as the UK's first woman Prime Minister and I don't think that children are the best people to write biographies of their parents. I well remember reading Dominic Carman's biography of his father, George Carman. I was pleasantly surprised though - the book was read over a couple of evenings and I felt that I knew Denis Thatcher rather better than before I opened the book. I'd also warmed to him, even if only a little.

It's only because Denis Thatcher married the woman who was to become the first female Prime Minister that he became the subject of a biography. He would otherwise have been a successful businessman and reasonably wealthy in his own right, known and well-respected in the local area. The meat of this book is the relationship between him and Margaret and how he enabled her to achieve what she did.

His family roots were in New Zealand and Carol Thatcher visited the country to research the family back into the early nineteenth century. Frankly I found this part of the book tedious, but my husband thought it fascinating. It's really down to whether or not this interests you, and, in fairness, it isn't a large chunk of the book. After a successful war Thatcher returned to rebuild the family business. He threw himself into this when his first marriage fell apart at the end of the war. Carol Thatcher interviewed the first wife and I felt that she covered this sympathetically, if not in great detail.

Denis met Margaret on a blind date in 1949 and they married two years later. Margaret's relationship with her father has always been known to be close, but his reception of Denis was hardly warm:

"Margaret made the introductions and said, "Denis likes a drink," and I swear her father had to blow the dust off the sherry bottle."

If you add to this the facts that Denis already had a failed marriage behind him, drove a sports car and lived in Chelsea, I suppose it's not difficult to understand the Alderman's feelings.

The early years of the marriage are covered briefly. Margaret seems to have had a rather distant relationship with Carol and her twin, Mark - in fact, having had one child of each sex she had no intention of going through it all again. The most substantial part of the book begins when Margaret Thatcher is elected leader of the Conservative party. Throughout the book there's no attempt to justify either Margaret or Denis's political beliefs. Events, actions are described but the book steers clear of examining ideology.

Denis Thatcher retired from employment just a matter of weeks after his wife became leader of the opposition. The reality of it was that he retired from paid employment only to work equally hard in a voluntary capacity - scanning his wife's appointments diary to see when he would be required and generally responding to Margaret's "Denis will do that." There was an obvious love on his part but I was less sure about her feelings for him. She relied on him but the relationship seemed more employer/valued employee than husband and wife.

Elsewhere, Carol Thatcher has made no secret of the fact that she has no time for her twin, Mark. The feeling is thinly disguised in the book. There's very little, if anything, that's positive about him and much is made of such events as his getting lost in the course of a car rally. There's even a photograph taken after he was rescued which reflects Denis's disgust at the turn events had taken. Most telling though was the quote from Denis after another of Mark's debacles that he'd never expected to see his family name in the national papers in connection with the word "fraud".

Denis had an obvious pride in his family and its history and what does seem to have given him great joy is that it was his family name which his wife made famous - or infamous, depending upon your point of view. There is one way in which Denis held a unique position - that of male consort to a leader, a position which had never been held before. His great strength here was his absolute refusal to give any interviews on the basis that it was better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. What he didn't say could not be held against him - or his wife. His great weakness was his ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong moment. During the lull in conversation at a number ten cocktail party he was heard to enquire "Who do you think is worse, Sonny bloody Ramphal or Ma sodding Ghandi?"

Denis was obviously not the buffoon that he was thought to be. The image was perpetuated by the Dear Bill letters in Private Eye and I had often wondered if Thatcher would have found them hurtful. There were occasions when they were wounding, or too close to an uncomfortable truth, but both husband and wife came to see their value. Whilst Denis was thought to be an idiot no one would think that he was having any influence on the policies made by his wife.

For me the saddest part of the book was the final part - after the resignation as Prime Minister. I had imagined that Denis would have more of his wife's company but their lives seemed to be, if anything, more separate than before. I was left with the feeling that he deserved better.

John Sweeney in The Observer has compared Carol Thatcher's book to Alan Clark's Diaries as the best book on the Thatcher years. I'd hesitate to go that far despite the fact that this book doesn't have Clark's cloying 'aren't I just too clever' overtone. Clark did make some attempt to look at the ideology behind policy, whilst Thatcher simply narrates events. The big advantage is, of course, the insight into a man who never gave interviews but even this can be countered by the 'rose-coloured glasses' effect of the obvious affection Carol Thatcher had for her father.

I'm glad I read the book, although I doubt that I'll want to read it again.

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