Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

Interview for Birmingham Evening Mail

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Birmingham Evening Mail, 7 September 1978
Journalist: Barbara Henderson, Birmingham Evening Mail
Editorial comments: 1100-1150. Barbara Henderson was woman’s editor. The interview was published to coincide with MT’s visit to the West Midlands.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 1824
Themes: Autobiography (childhood), Autobiography (marriage & children)

How I keep my figure in trim—by Margaret Thatcher

If she called the Russians “dorogie” (dears) in the same soft, modulated tones that she used with me, they might be surprised at the woman they call the “Iron Lady.”

She's no softie. But the one-to-one, private Margaret Thatcher, right away from the political platform and chatting, relaxed, is as approachable as the woman next door.

Though the build-up to an interview in her private sitting-room at the House of Commons is pretty formidable.

“Hey, Hey … it's the good-looking ones who try to smuggle things in” calls the security guard with a touch of the blarney at St. Stephen's entrance ( “Private Appointments Only” ), stopping me in my tracks.

In the Central lobby I report in good time for my half-hour appointment and am escorted into the inner sanctum of Mrs. Thatcher's offices.

Much more placid

And it is a measure of her affability that the 30 minutes extends to 50 and that she insists I sink into her high-back armchair while she perches on a sofa alongside.

Politics, we had previously agreed, were forbidden. It was Margaret Thatcher, woman, wife and mother I had come to talk to.

The first myth she exploded was my image of husband, Denis, as the sobersides behind Margaret Thatcher.

“I'm much more placid than he is,” she says with a smile.

“His blood pressure rises much faster than mine. He could split a blood vessel if something's wrong or if someone says something that annoys him.

“I say, ‘Don't bother, it isn't worth it.’ You know, dear, when anything is going wrong, I'm the one who is still calm and just getting on with it. It's characteristic of many woman.”

She declines my offer of a cigarette. “I don't. But do go on. My husband isn't the sort of person who can give it up, either. He needs the relaxation, and I can't for the life of me see the point in giving it up if you are going to be nervy and tense.”

What started out as an interview had already turned into a cosy chat.

She's feminine enough to pat the golden-blonde hair as our photographer takes pictures. “Is it all right? I haven't looked at it since 7.30 this morning.”

That was after she'd dressed in a pale blue, drip-dry £11 Marks and Spencer frock with a tieneck and pleated skirt, “popped on an apron so I didn't splash while cooking the family breakfast,” and been on an 8.30 a.m. shopping spree.

With only a “daily” to help at their King's Road, Chelsea, town house ( “Small, two good-sized bedrooms, two very small, but the rates are dreadful, over £16 a week” ). Mrs. Thatcher is like most working wives, coping with the housework and cooking in the evenings and weekends.

But it is a happy-go-lucky atmosphere with everyone, family and friends, mucking in.

“If I'm not there, they have to turn to and do it themselves. If someone calls and I say ‘Stay to supper,’ all right, I go in and do it.

“But they've got to get up and bring their things into the kitchen and help to wash up!”

A wistful note crept into her voice as she said: “I'd love a large kitchen. If I had money, if I had really a lot of money, I would like to build the sort of house that I want to suit my type of life.

“We couldn't think of moving to the sort of house I need. We have a little flat in the country as well—in a National Trust House in Kent—which, actually, is larger in floor space than the house.

Sense of shock

The telephone is indispensible to her. Even on their away—from—it—all Scottish holidays where they love to walk and read and she can leave behind “the restrictions of a timetable” there has to be a phone.

There is almost a sense of shock when she exclaims, “Oh, my dear, I can't be without a phone ever. It's impossible.”

There's no impression of grandiose living for the daughter of a grocer, who has happy memories of helping in the shop.

“He had great tea canisters and a whole set of [end p1] what they called ‘fixtures.’ All those little mahogany drawers with different spices. You weighed up the sugar from great big sacks on such beautiful brass scales.”

She smiles as she slips back to her childhood “… I wish I had some of those canisters. You see them in antique shops now.

“I have a big earthen one which I put the dry-cleaning things in. That's the only thing I kept that mother had. They're very expensive now … you had masses of boxes of biscuits in those days,” she went on.

Recipe for happiness

“You could buy them by the half-pound.” We agreed that today's packaging is a nuisance. “The first thing you do is go home and tear it all off … all such a waste.”

There is an obvious affinity with the small shopkeeper. “I bought a leg of lamb this morning to roast from our local butcher. He's just got married.

“I asked him where he'd been for his honeymoon and he said that he hadn't been yet, but they were going to Madeira. I told him, ‘You'll be all right for the next 26 years at least, then we went to Madeira on our honeymoon!”

Twenty-seven of marriage to Denis, what was the recipe for happiness?

“You've got to have a certain companionship. You've got to be a good friend, as well, for things to endure, and you've got to be genuinely interested in what the other does.”

There was an almost apologetic tone to, “It sounds terribly trite to say marriage is give-and-take on both sides.

“Now I do know some marriages where one does all the giving and the other does all the taking. Well, you have to be a very special kind of person in those circumstances.

“But for most of us it is give and take. An awful lot of understanding.

“People often ask me, ‘Don't you ever have a quarrel or a stand—up fight?’ and the answer is ‘Never.’

Why? “Because once things are said they can never be retracted. If I feel like saying something I know I shouldn't, I just go into the kitchen and do a pile of washing up. Or tidy up the airing cupboard. Do something practical.”

She shows the same tolerance and understanding in motherhood.

Value for money

“We don't lead—how can I put it—a restricted family life. Home is the centre. Somewhere to which you always return but you go out and do your own thing. Not constricting at all.

“Children have got to learn responsibility. Whatever happens, they always come home.”

The Thatchers' twin son and daughter, Mark and Carol, are as different, she said, as chalk to cheese.

“Carol's in Sydney, Australia, doing journalism. But she's a fully qualified solicitor. Some young people go on their travels and then come back and qualify.

“But I said, ‘Get a qualification behind you.’ She has a law degree so she always has something to fall back on.

“Carol's very economical, saves every penny and when she does spend, gets real value for money. When she came home on a visit the first thing she did was go to the reduced counters at Marks and Spencers!

“Mark doesn't think so much about money, spends what he's got. Though,” and there was a smile, “He's getting better!

“He was doing accountancy. Unfortunately, he didn't get his exams. He was very dispirited about it, but I doubt if he will take them again.

“At the moment he is articled to an accountant. But basically, he is a businessman. He is good at selling.”

More cosy domesticity creeps into the scene. She seemed pleased as punch that the night before, after a visit to her constituency, that she'd had time to “turn out the cupboards.”

“I went through my wardrobe, piled up all the clothes for cleaning and the ones for washing this weekend, went through my shoes, then got down to more paperwork at nine o'clock.

“The shoes were in a terrible mess. Three separate shoes from three different pairs all with big, triangular jags on the heels. I'd caught them on gratings.

“If the jag is still there I stick it down with Bostik.

“I find this sort of stacked heel—Cuban really—has a comfortable enough base to stand on. I have some high heels but by about six o'clock …!”

The Thatcher way of relaxing is maybe a quiet cocktail with Denis. “One drink, a very small amount of whisky, a lot of soda!” while listening to what she calls “the gramophone,” then quickly changes to “the music-centre” or reading.

“I'm not highbrow in music. I like the popular piano concertos and symphonies, Andy Williams—lovely, that kind of music—and all the hundred most popular tunes.

“We read Agatha Christie, poetry, biographies, Maurice West and a certain amount of history.

“The older you get, if you are interested in current events, politics, the more you enjoy reading history. Not just as a sequence of events, but as stories of how people reacted to circumstances in their own lives.”

They like television, particularly on a Saturday night.

Talk turns to beauty care. And she certainly works at still being being a “standard size 14” at 52.

“If you're very busy you keep younger,” she says. “There are a tremendous amount of housewives who are very busy. But you know, the temptation to pick up food if you are in the kitchen is absolutely enormous.

A smart outfit

“Someone comes in—they want a cup of tea or coffee—out come a couple of biscuits or yesterday's jam tarts and it's that that does the damage.

“I like breakfast, but I rarely have it, I'm so busy getting it ready for the others. But if I do eat it I have half a grapefruit and a boiled egg. No toast.

“Then, just a couple of cups of coffee. I couldn't exist without those, then a small, reasonably nutritious lunch. For supper at home we'll have cold meat or chicken and salad, then fresh fruit and cheese.

“We might,” and she grins wickedly, “have a chocolate with our coffee. But we avoid puddings, which I adore.

“If I have to eat fattening foods when I'm out, I diet. Sometimes I'll diet for a whole week and I weigh every day.”

Her complexion is fresh and clear. “I go to bed with my face as clean as a whistle. I use cleansing milk but never wash my face.

“Some nourishing cream in the bath, otherwise I'd have skin like a prune!”

Clotheswise Margaret Thatcher is economical. She's a Marks and Spencer fan, particularly at sales time. Has a super polo-neck Acrylic dress she bought “at the reduced counter” for £6 and a £13.99 navy velour dress for cocktails which she calls “Classic. It could be a Dior.”

But since she feels she has to be an ambassadress for this country when travelling abroad, she does believe in buying one Yuki outfit a year and also shops at Mansfield and Maureen Baker at Susan Small.

She keeps some clothes in the Commons “just on hooks. You find you often have to change in the Ladies' loo.”

And delights in showing me a smart navy-edged-with-yellow Mansfield dress and jacket. “I got this in 1973 when Princess Margaret came to the Ministry. But it's still ‘best’.”

She shows me the hem she's let down herself. “It wasn't the sort of thing I dare trust to anyone else to do. My mother was a dressmaker.”

I'd met my match. Margaret Thatcher a make-do-and-mend expert and I can hardly sew on a button!