~ Posted by Simon Willis, April 9th 2013
During the summer of 2007 the writer Gordon Burn took the stories that were then all over the papers—the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the resignation of Tony Blair—and wrote a novel about them, "Born Yesterday", almost as they happened. When I interviewed him in April 2008, just before the book came out, Burn, who died the following year, told me that he wanted to "restore some ambiguity and complexity to stories that have been stripped of those things in their broad-brush retelling on TV, online and in the press". But the first famous figure you come across as you open the book is someone who had at that time largely disappeared from the public eye—Margaret Thatcher.
The narrator takes his morning walks in a south-London park and occasionally a car sweeps in, and out gets the frail and widowed Maggie, with her special-branch detail and her carer.
Gone was the heightened reality of the "Iron Lady", scourge of the trade unions, victor of the Falklands war, the best man in the cabinet. These were old ladies’ clothes. And her hair now—on these walks at least—was old ladies’ hair.
One day she’s seen bending down to pet a black cocker spaniel called Harry—"one of the techniques she has developed to protect her identity…bending almost double so that only the crown of her head or the sheen of her scarf remain visible". Another time she is seen talking to a nurse, who has "the deferential attitude tinged with boredom of the paid listener". Why, the narrator wonders, does she take the riverside route around the park? Is it because of security? Turns out, her detectives just like the bacon sandwiches from the kiosk nearby, run by two immigrant women who have no idea who she is.
I turned to the novel again yesterday, as the news channels and the papers ran their tributes, obituaries and mini-histories. The victor of the Falklands War, the scourge of the unions was back on the front pages. The most private of Burn’s snapshots draws on her public persona. As prime minister, she was never without her handbag, but she doesn't carry it on her walks. One morning the narrator watches her strolling through a sub-tropical garden. She stops to touch the foliage and examine the leaves.
And muscle memory keeps sending Mrs Thatcher's pale, manicured right hand with its prominent wrist-bone and thin blue veins travelling along her other arm in an attempt to push the slipping strap—which of course isn't there—back towards the clamp of her elbow.
Burn ends the chapter by distinguishing two kinds of life: the life people think you're living, and then the other one.
Painting Lorna Wadsworth
Also on the Editor's Blog: Isabel Lloyd on The Meryl/Maggie dilemma