Mrs Thatcher’s assassin’s assistant is making tea for Mrs Thatcher’s assassin, shortly before the assassination takes place:
”Make us another brew. And put sugar in it this time.”
”Oh,” I said. I was flustered by a failing in hospitality. ”I didn’t know you took sugar. I might not have white.”
”The bourgeoisie, eh?”
I was angry. ”You’re not too proud to shoot out of my bourgeois sash window, are you?”
Me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me. The endless, ridiculous “me” of the people who hated Mrs Thatcher, with their scrubbed pine floors and their earth palette paint tones, their oily ciabattas, and their casual, admiring, sexually-charged alliances with IRA gunmen.
What moved Hilary Mantel to write The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is a matter for Ms Mantel, her mirror, and her conscience. She has the right, of course she has the right, to describe into existence any world she wishes; more right than most, given her proven ability and popularity, that those words should then be published.
Mantel has earned the right to be read, and if the subject matter of her short story strikes some as repellent, well: that’s just the endless cost of liberty. Conservatives would no more censor Hilary Mantel for her subject matter than they would have asked “Couldn’t this work just as well if Farishta and Chamcha were sort of Christians?” of Salman Rushdie.
However. What moved the editors of BBC Radio 4 to select Ms Mantel’s story as its “Book at Bedtime” is much less opaque. And much easier to judge.
They will have chosen it for two reasons, I’ll guess. Pour épater le bourgeois will be the official line. “A long history of supporting what once seemed controversial… duty to push boundaries… a thoughtful piece that forces the listener to confront…” Blah blah blah. However expressed, this means: “How frightfully low-minded and suburban you must be, to object to listening to a story about Margaret Thatcher’s murder.”
This reason is artistically defensible, but probably a lie, in that it’s only part of the truth. The actual motivation for choosing the story won’t be spoken aloud: to a certain cast of mind, the opportunity to rub Thatcher supporter noses in the fact of her death is just too delicious to be resisted. “But this is fiction.” But truth lies in fiction; we all agree about that. Ask Hilary.
A BBC editor for whom Elvis “Tramp the dirt down” Costello remains the last word in political sophistication? As we saw in the days following Baroness Thatcher’s actual death, there are plenty such people around, and they’re not all as void of artistic merit as that grinning Labour activist with his “Dance on Thatcher’s grave” tee-shirt.
There are artistically powerful men like Jonathan Miller, who codified his visceral hatred into a sneer about Thatcher’s lower-middle-class values. Miller derided Thatcher’s “odious suburban gentility and sentimental, saccharine patriotism, catering to the worst elements of commuter idiocy.”
We’ll come back to Miller’s words, because they’re relevant to the mistake that Radio 4 has made. But whatever line is chosen, it’s also valid to view this decision as another example of the BBC’s over-simplistic worldview, where Right-wing = bad and Left-wing = caring.
This Manichaean approach leads not only to failures of taste; it succours a failure of art, because it leaves unexplored too many psyches in too much of the world. There are few audio dramas which explore the difficult issue of “What it means to be human in a world of other humans” through anything other than a predictably Guardian-shaped keyhole. If a play starts with the bitter voice of a single mother, for example, it’s not hard to predict where it will end up (here was a stunning exception to the rule.)
This isn’t a matter of wishing for dramatic output that ignores how difficult and unfair life can be. The usual response of the BBC to such criticisms is to point to something brutal, surface and unpleasant, like a Hornblower adaptation. But “brutal, surface and unpleasant”, while the most charitable BBC view of Right-wing sensibility, remains wholly – and artistically – inadequate.
It’s more a request, really – oh, alright, and a threat. I found an estimate that around 100,000 novels and short stories are published in the English language each year. Couldn’t Book at Bedtime choose one of the 99,999 that won’t fuel the wish-fulfilment of the empathetically stunted?
And the threat? That “odious suburban gentility” and its “commuter idiocy” again, the values that Jonathan Miller and (one presumes) Hilary Mantel loathe. What’s wrong with suburbs, and commuting, and gentility? Mrs Thatcher’s sensibility, but not hers alone. The licence-fee is paid largely by people who live according to such values, which include a desire not to speak – or think – ill of the recently dead.
It’s Charter-renewal time: I’d épate le bourgeois another day, were I the Director-General.