Read Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography Online

Authors: Charles Moore

Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Biography, #Politics

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As the speaker at the annual dinner of Grantham Rotary on 26 January 1939, Roberts reminded his audience of Rotary’s clear rule of avoiding politics and not recommending ‘forms of government’. ‘They [that is, Rotary] took no sides as to whether there should be a dictatorship, monarchy or republic,’ said the report of his speech. Nor did they enter into controversy about ‘world personalities, either in attack or defence’, but they did have principles of ‘justice, truth and liberty’ which drove them to say that ‘weak nations have sacred rights too, and that they must be respected’. Since Rotarians were animated by these principles, said Roberts, ‘It did not matter to them whether people were strongly armed or whether they were almost unarmed. They had seen, quite recently, what one man could do, armed only with a neatly-rolled umbrella, with his mind made up and his will intent on peace. (Applause.)’
Roberts was referring to Chamberlain’s agreement with Hitler, signed in Munich in October of the previous year and later to became notorious. It is fair to say that, in speaking as he did, Roberts was expressing a sentiment shared by probably three-quarters of the British population. ‘Appeasement’ was not then a dirty word, but one used by the appeasers themselves; they believed that peace could be preserved by talking. Those, like Winston Churchill, who disagreed were attacked as warmongers. Roberts’s views were the conventional ones. At the same dinner, various speakers worried about the banning of Rotary in Germany and Italy, which they attributed to the international character of the organization, but they stuck to the view that Rotary’s concept of ‘fellowship’ offered the best ‘pathway to peace’ in an increasingly threatening climate.

Margaret Thatcher, of course, became famous for her dislike of appeasing dictators (she compared Western weakness towards Saddam Hussein in 1990 with that shown to Hitler, for example)
and for her admiration
of Churchill. For this reason, perhaps, she did not like directly to admit that her father had been a supporter of Chamberlain, but approached the subject rather more obliquely. Chamberlain, she later insisted, ‘was a very honourable man … I often thought he knew that in 1938 he must gain time to get us ready. I believe he gained more in that last year than Hitler … it may be that we owe Chamberlain a great debt of gratitude for his judgment for what happened during those years. And it brought Winston forward that much more.’
She said that honourable men try to find honour in other, foreign governments: ‘perhaps it has been one of the faults of British politicians that we look at other politicians through slightly rose-tinted spectacles thinking they are as we are.’

Once war came in September 1939, however, any hesitations were put on one side, and Alfred Roberts became a more and more important figure in Grantham as the town responded to the crisis. He was one of three councillors appointed, when war began, to the emergency committee which exercised the powers of the full council, becoming its vice-chairman in 1942, and he threw himself into numerous war-related activities. He had been involved in the council’s original ARP (Air Raid Precautions) plans in 1938, and during the war he played a leading part in Civil Defence and became chief raid welfare officer, dealing with questions like the rehousing and care of those who had been bombed. In 1940, he set up a British Restaurant – part of a national scheme for places providing basic food where workers could eat without using up their ration allowances – first for munitions workers in Bridge End Road, and later a second restaurant at the school room attached to the Finkin Street Methodist Church where he preached. He was prominent in the National Savings Movement, whose Local Savings Committees encouraged thrift and helped finance the war effort. All this work was not only worthy but genuinely demanding when combined with running his two shops. In 1940, Roberts was offered the mayoralty of Grantham, but had to refuse owing to lack of time. In February 1943, he was made an alderman, a form of unelected councillor now abolished outside the City of London, appointed by the council itself as a mark of respect and local distinction. Roberts, aged fifty at that time, was probably the youngest Grantham man ever to be chosen for the office. The circumstances in which he lost it, more than ten years later, were to make a profound impression upon his daughter. Just after the war ended, Roberts was again offered, and this time accepted, the mayoralty. From the beginning of the war until her departure for Oxford in October 1943, with Muriel absent in Birmingham for her training as a physiotherapy nurse, Margaret was in effect an only child at home. She witnessed at close quarters the endless labour and public spiritedness of her father, a life which,
because of war, shrank the sphere of private pleasures even smaller. Duty, work, patriotism – and the sense of an enemy – dominated.

Even as he drafted his speech about peace and war to Grantham Rotary, Alfred Roberts was preparing to put his Rotarian principles to a practical test. It was the custom at KGGS that many of the girls had foreign penfriends: Margaret had a French girl called Cilette Pasquier
from the Savoie, but Muriel had an Austrian one called Edith Mühlbauer. Edith was Jewish, and at some point her parents, suffering persecution after Hitler’s
of Austria in March of the previous year, wrote to Roberts asking if he would take Edith in so that she could escape the Nazis. He agreed, and arranged with fellow Rotarians that she should stay with several families in turn. The correspondence between Roberts and Edith’s parents does not survive, but on 21 January 1939 Edith herself wrote from Vienna to Roberts saying that the permit for the visa to England which followed his invitation had arrived. Typing neatly, in uncertain English, she thanked him for his help – ‘I will never in my whole live forgett it you’ – and went on to ask practical questions about reaching the Roberts family: ‘Have I to take the train from London to Grantham

or the ship?’
In fact, the bureaucracy of permitted escape took some time, and on 23 March Edith wrote again, saying there was yet more delay, but that she should be allowed out of Austria within a few weeks: ‘First of all let me thank you for your kind letter and enclosed photograph. I am ever so glad that you helped me and that there are various other people which want to help me too, and take me into their nice homes. I really hope to be happy there.’

Unfortunately, generous though the Robertses were, Edith was not terribly happy with them. Hints of the problem surface in the memories of Margaret and Muriel. ‘We didn’t have a proper bathroom in those days,’ said Margaret; ‘she was used to better things.’
Muriel said Edith was a ‘nice girl’, but also that ‘she had a wonderful wardrobe … and I think that they were well breeched in Austria.’ As if to protect her from possible threat, Edith’s Jewishness was not mentioned, but it seems also to have contributed to the provincial Robertses’ sense that she was rather apart from them.
Edith didn’t like the Robertses’ Sunday-afternoon walk into the fields beyond Grantham: ‘She said, “It’ll ruin my shoes.” ’

What seems to have happened is that Alfred Roberts was shocked by Edith’s sophistication, her smart appearance and her tendency, at that time thought extremely dangerous in teenage girls, to wear make-up. In the slightly acid words of Madeline Edwards, whose family also accommodated her, Edith was ‘a very grown-up seventeen-year-old’.
She would sit at the window of her bedroom in North Parade looking out on to the street and making Roberts feel, according to one of her contemporaries, that ‘it was like Amsterdam’.
Edith told Mary Wallace that she found 1 North Parade a ‘repressive household’.
She was ‘patently unhappy’ there.
This produced a major row between Roberts and his fellow Rotarian, Mr Wallace, the dentist. The two men started shouting at one another and Wallace told Roberts: ‘You asked this girl over, and you’re not looking after her properly and she’s very unhappy.’
This version is implicitly confirmed by Muriel Cullen, who says that ‘Daddy refused to accept responsibility too much and went round to all Rotarians in turn persuading them to have Edith … I sometimes think he regretted having got her over.’

Certainly Edith did not stay in North Parade for long. She arrived some time in April, and by 16 May is writing to Muriel from the house of Madeline Edwards in Welby Gardens. She apologizes for not having replied earlier to Muriel’s letter, but explains that she has already moved house twice before reaching the Edwardses: ‘it seems to me as if I am a gipsy.’ So she probably lived at North Parade for no more than a fortnight. The fact that she writes warmly to Muriel (mentioning Muriel’s sister whom she germanicizes as ‘Margit’) shows that relations were not broken, and her letter states that ‘I often go for a walk to see your dear father Mr Roberts, and ask if there are today any letters for me.’ She was clearly grateful to the Robertses for helping her, and said so again when tracked down by journalists in old age, living in Brazil to which she and her family shortly afterwards escaped. But the experiment did not really work, and she finally came to rest in Grantham in the larger and more sophisticated home of the Wallaces, with whom she stayed for the best part of a year.

The story of Edith shows Alfred Roberts in an interesting light – a well-intentioned man, determined to live by his principles, genuinely kind, but also stern and forbidding. Perhaps it was easier to admire him than to live with him. Margaret, several years younger than Edith, did not know her well, but she was shocked above all by one feature she related of her life in Vienna: ‘She said that Jewish women were being made to scrub the streets.’

Scholarship girl
‘You’re thwarting my ambition’

In Margaret’s earliest known letter,
of which only one sheet survives, she analysed her exams. She had just sat School Certificate (the rough equivalent of the GCSE), in the summer of 1941, and found the pace intense – ‘As you can imagine this mean’t [sic] a terrific amount of swotting.’ The biggest problem was presented by geography. The first paper, based on work with the Ordnance Survey map, was not too bad, but ‘the other paper on the British Isles and one continent was very disappointing. For one continent we did America and the questions on it were not at all bad, but out of the three on the British Isles there was only one we could touch.’ All of them involved a fairly detailed knowledge of Scotland and Ireland and their towns. ‘Unfortunately we had not touched island [sic] and had had precisely two lessons on Scotland … However we managed to survive it and went home to dinner hoping for a decent biology paper in the afternoon.’ Even at the age of fifteen, the map of her future political sympathies is laid out. England and America understood, Scotland little studied, Ireland
terra incognita
and Continental Europe not even mentioned.

Margaret’s sister had just taken her own exams in Birmingham. ‘CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR SPLENDID EXAM RESULTS I think everyone in the town knows about them by this time,’ Margaret inserted at the top of the letter. Confident that the subject of her own School Certificate is overwhelmingly fascinating to Muriel, she wrote, ‘I will send you the papers as soon as I can, but first I want Mr Marks to see them.’ Harold Marks was a master at the King’s School, the boys’ grammar school in Grantham, for whom she had great respect. Her father had arranged for Marks to act as Margaret’s occasional private tutor. It is striking that she should immediately have sought validation and advice from outside her school: there were, of course, no men at KGGS.

In the event, Margaret need not have worried. She got a credit in geography. In her second letter, written to Muriel on 20 September 1941,
tabulates her full results. She got distinctions (the top grade) in chemistry, arithmetic and algebra, and credits in all other subjects with the exception of life drawing, in which she managed only a lowly pass. Having charted these, she lists the results of her fellow pupils. Although she does not make the point from the information she sets out, it is clear from the data that none of the other girls mentioned managed three distinctions. Indeed, eleven out of forty failed. This led to a parting of the ways, with some girls staying in a lower form to retake and others, such as Margaret, setting their sights on university.

With the ready nostalgia of the very young, Margaret laments the changes: ‘Life in 6 Lower is not half as nice as life in form Va. Our crowd have broken up of course and several have left … There is not the form spirit that there used to be … we used to cling together … but now … so many of the old links are missing, there is nothing to hold us together.’ The fall in numbers was astonishing. In V Lower, Margaret recorded, there had been fifty-three girls.
After Christmas 1941, there would be only four – Margaret, Madeline Edwards, Jean Farmer and Lorna Smith, who was new. Many girls had left due to the plentiful availability of jobs during the war. Margaret’s old companions, Joan Orchard and Pat Maidens, had been held down a year; of her intimates, only Jean Farmer survived in the same class. Margaret and Jean were also the only remaining scientists. Always sensitive to possible condescension, Margaret considered the Sixth Form (the year above her) ‘rather superior’, though expressing pleasure that Margaret Goodrich (see previous chapter) had been made head girl, since ‘she is one of the decent ones.’

To mark the last jolly time before school began once more, Margaret went to the pictures:

… Jean came in, and Joan came down [from her parents’ house on a hill outside Grantham], then we all went to the State [one of Grantham’s cinemas] in the afternoon and stayed tea, as a last splash before we started school. We saw
This England
with Constance Cummings, Emlyn Williams, and John Clements. We enjoyed it, although it was a historical film, for the greater part. With it was
Romance of the Rio Grande
with Caesar Romero and Patricia Morrison. For tea we had
salad. We happened to strike a lucky day for there was also jam and chocolate biscuits.

BOOK: Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography
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