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April 19, 2013 6:43 pm
Although Lady Thatcher was continually described as “divisive”, her funeral did not provoke any open tribalism during my Tube journey to St Paul’s on Wednesday. Given the strict dress code, guests were easy to identify but regarded with curiosity rather than hostility. As I dashed from the Evening Standard offices I reminded our picture editor that pomp and ceremony in front of famous London landmarks is a circulation gift for us.
What made it feel different from a state funeral was the guest list, which seemed to include many of her personal friends rather than global big cheeses. I walked in with the widow of the late attorney-general, Sir Nicholas Lyell, and the head of a Bosnian charity. In front of me was the sister of an RAF pilot killed in the Falklands. The reward for public service was reminiscent of a Buckingham Palace garden party. Naturally, the person who sent all the hats quivering as she walked into the cathedral was the Queen.
The service was also without division, because or in spite of the Bishop of London’s concentration on Lady Thatcher’s religious beliefs. God bless her, they were as revolutionary as her politics. As Richard Chartres pointed out, Methodists marched with the Tolpuddle Martyrs. They are also more socially advanced about the role of women Than many other religions?
Many political leaders have praised Lady Thatcher as a pioneering woman in order to avoid talking about her “divisive” politics. But the two are inseparable. She was basically Joan of Arc. Whenever Chartres spoke of “her” I looked at the coffin again, in the midst of all the majesty, in wonder.
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The previous evening, as Lady Thatcher’s coffin was laid to rest in the chapel of St Mary Undercroft, Westminster, friends came to praise her at an event held by the Conservative think-tank Policy Exchange in nearby Birdcage Walk. Michael Gove, education secretary, spoke warmly of her achievements but, with the preservation of his own government in mind, warned against mythologising her. Lady Thatcher was a historical figure, he said, and existed in the political context of her time.
I was reminded of this later that evening in Wapping, where I watched Sheryl Sandberg cheering on the sisterhood and promoting her book, Lean In. Where Sandberg and Thatcher agree is that confrontation is necessary for change. Tactics differ. Sandberg urges collective action, smiles and humour along with tough negotiation. Thatcher was non-collaborative and used smiles and humour sparingly. Both women recommended obsessive preparation for meetings. Both wanted to win. I think Margaret Thatcher might have been sceptical about the employment legislation attached now to women’s rights and would have been aghast at Sandberg’s insistence that women must share the cooking and housework with their husbands. Thatcher’s patriotism was to her country, Sandberg’s is more corporate. But at heart, they are two impressive and bossy women who would have understood each other.
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The columnist Andrew Sullivan described Thatcher as Britain’s version of the Statue of Liberty. It must have been odd for Mark and Carol Thatcher to reconcile this image of a public figure and a symbol with their private knowledge of her as a mother. I watched a rather piquant take on this theme the other evening when I went to see Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward theatre. Peter, played by Ben Whishaw, is the boy on whom Peter Pan is based and Alice, played by Judi Dench, is the muse for Alice in Wonderland. The play depicts an actual meeting between the couple in their later years. The theme is the discrepancy between the sadness and disappointment of their private lives compared with the immortal characters from the books. The burden proved too much for the real Peter Pan, Peter Llewelyn Davies, who eventually threw himself under the Tube. The end of the play drew gasps of pain from the audience. Sometimes the private figure cannot compete with the public persona. When we talk of the “real Margaret Thatcher” it may be that we mean the woman on the political stage.
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A few weeks ago, I went on a trip with William Hague and Angelina Jolie to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the power couple were raising awareness on sexual violence in war zones. On return, I have been asked two questions. First, why did Hague need to yank in Jolie to the cause? Journalists who asked this saw no clue in the visual coverage of their own television stations or newspapers. The question is why Jolie needed Hague.
Second, why is this issue given such a high profile when there are so many other pressing political and economic concerns? I was asked this by a female Sky News presenter following the G8 summit the other week. Again, the answer is implicit. The plight of women has never been seen as a priority, even by women. The courage of Hague and Jolie was to defy the prevailing order and take women right to the top table.
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Country concerns are of a different order than urban ones. Much of our time in the cold spring months in Norfolk has been taken up with collecting wood. My husband reverted entirely to hunter gatherer, chopping up dead trees and arranging the logs as if they were part of a prize cellar. I regarded this as eccentricity until we met a rather grander neighbour, a celebrated sculptor. The conversation about the merits of different trees for firewood grew animated. The sculptor said that he had been surveying a pile of logs and reflected, to a fellow woodsman, that one particular piece of wood would be perfect to sculpt. The woodsman frowned, explaining that it would burn so well it would be a waste to use it for any other purpose.
Sarah Sands is editor of the Evening Standard
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