Margaret Thatcher and the books of her time

I blogged about Margaret Thatcher and the music of her time and have seen quite a few articles since then about the British pop music scene of that era. One should recall the books, too. It was a grand time for booklovers.

P.G. Wodehouse died in 1975, but one could look forward to new books by  John le Carre, Len Deighton, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ruth Rendell, Gerald Durrell and a phalanx of literary fiction.

Just think back to the Booker Prize winners. V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River was shortlisted in 1979 – the year Thatcher came to power – when the prize went to Penelope Lively’s Offshore instead. William Golding’s Rites of Passage took the prize in 1980.

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children won the Booker in 1981 – narrowly, one might add. The chairman of the jury, Malcolm Bradbury, and the other writer on the panel, Brian Aldiss,  voted to give the prize to D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel, but the three other judges on the panel – TV presenter Joan Bakewell, critic Hermione Lee and Professor Sam Hynes of Princeton University – voted for Midnight’s Children, Rushdie recalls in his memoir, Joseph Anton.

Peter Carey’s hugely successful Oscar and Lucinda won the prize in 1988 when Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was also on the shortlist. The late Labour Party leader, Michael Foot, wanted the prize to be given to Rushdie, but the four other judges voted for Carey, says Rushdie.

The judges were split between Peter Carey’s Illywhacker and Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist in 1985 and compromised by giving the prize to Kerry Hulme’s The Bone People that year, Rushdie adds.

Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils won the Booker in 1986 after his more amusing Jake’s Thing failed to get it in 1978.

Among notable books that were shortlisted but did not get the prize were Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers in 1980, William Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War in 1982, Salman Rushdie’s Shame in 1983, J.G. Farrell’s Empire of the Sun and Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot in 1984, and Rose Tremain’s Restoration in 1989.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s poignant The Remains of the Day won the Booker in 1989.

The winner in 1990 – when Thatcher was forced to step down as prime minister – was A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance, another classic.

There were other writers making their mark. Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers was shortlisted in 1981 but he had to wait till 1997 when he won the prize for Amsterdam.

Martin Amis, Kingsley Amis’s son, has never won the Booker though his Time’s Arrow was shortlisted in 1991. But he and Rushdie are among the most brilliant writers to come up during the Thatcher years, I think.

Money, by Martin Amis, is one book that captures the spirit of those times when economic liberalization made some people very rich, leading to wild excesses.

It’s about a big-spending, hard-drinking, womanizing British adman coming unstuck in America. You may be reminded of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of Vanities if you have read that book or seen that film. Much of the action takes place in New York.

I can’t say I liked the novel – it’s too cynical – but the writing is brilliant. Here is the adman, John Self, busted and back in London, ruing his shortcomings:

And Georgina loves me. She said so. Tonight I’m going to make it clear just how grateful I am. Without Georgina, I’d be a dead man. She will shine with pleasure, if I do it right. Selina shined to money, Martina to paintings but most of all to flowers… Georgina would probably shine to flowers – and money too, come to that. I can’t afford to give her any. And when I can, I tell myself, Georgina won’t do any more. I’ll be off with someone like Martina (no. No. That won’t happen again) or Selina or any other Tina or Lina or Nina.

All afternoon the sky has looked like an empty eggtray, with maybe an egg here, an egg there. Then the sunset’s streaky bacon. Now in the far west the night clouds are gaunt and equine, like doorkeys or Spanish locomotives. But the clouds obey their natural functions and do not know or care how beautiful they are. What does know, what does care about its own beauty? Only beautiful women – oh yeah, and artists, I suppose, real artists, not the sack, piss, con and bullshit varieties that I’ve always had to work my way around. I am an artist – an escape artist.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is the exact opposite, touching in its restraint, recalling an older Britain of great houses, lords and stiff-lipped butlers.

The protagonist, Stevens, the butler, cuts a sad figure, so devoted in his service to his noble lord that he cannot even see a woman is in love with him. The scenes between him and Miss Kenton, who is in the charge of the maids, are touching in their restraint. She throws out enough hints she is in love with him, but he is too obtuse to see that.

He realizes it only when, years later, his new American master sends him off on a motoring holiday. Driving his master’s Ford car, he meets up with Miss Kenton, now married and no longer working, at her request.

When he asks her if she is happy, she says she was unhappy for a long time but has finally come to love her husband. “You spend so much time with someone, you find you  get used to him,” she says.

Then she adds she had been in love with him. There are times, she says, when “I get to thinking about a life I might have had with you, Mr Stevens”.”But each time I do so, I realize before long – my rightful place is with my husband,” she adds. “After all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t forever be dwelling on what might have been. One should realize one has good as most, perhaps better, and be grateful.”

Stevens, the narrator, is overcome with emotion. He did not know she was in love with him. He writes:

I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton…my heart was breaking. Before long, however, I turned to her and said with a smile:

‘You’re very correct, Mrs Benn. As you say, it is too late to turn back the clock. Indeed, I would not be able to rest if I thought such ideas were the cause of unhappiness for you and your husband. We must each of us, as you point, be grateful for what we do have…’

“Of course, you’re right, Mr Stevens. You’re so kind,” she replies.

And then she takes the bus home.

At the end of the novel, the lonely butler is sitting on a seaside pier, thinking new ways to please his master.

It is sad, tender, filled with self-sacrifice and good intentions, old-fashioned in its restraint – different in every way from Thatcher’s brassy, materialistic Britain. But the book came out in her time. We should be grateful for that.

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