HOW I KILLED MARGARET THATCHER by Anthony Cartwright (Tindal Street Press, 2012)
Tindal Street Press, based at The Custard Factory in Birmingham, is a not-for-profit independent publishing house that was first established in 1998. Its mission is to seek out contemporary regional writers to counteract the bias towards London or South-East England.
One of these is Anthony Cartwright and they have published his previous two novels – The Afterglow (2004) and Heartland (2009).
The title of this promising writer’s third work is misleading. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that neither Cartwright nor his fictional alter ego Sean Bull actually succeed in assassinating Margaret Thatcher. ‘How I would have dearly liked to have killed Margaret Thatcher’ would be a more accurate, but much less eye-catching, title.
The novel documents a young boy’s harsh political and social education, the direct consequence of coming of age under Thatcher’s iron regime.
Cartwright was born in Dudley and this is where the novel is set, a location described in the novel as being “the frayed edge of the empire”. The Midlands was once the industrial heartland of England and was one of the regions most devastated by the cynical and divisive Tory policies.
The novel is good at showing how the social fabric of Britain was blighted by exacerbating the gulf between rich and poor, the selfish and the altruistic, the compassionate and the cruel, the generous and the mean.
It is the meanness of Thatcher that Cartwright singles out as her worst characteristic, manifest in her voice “working away at you like rust”. The narrowness of her outlook is most vividly evoked in this passage : “Thinking life is only about money is another way of being poor, a way of thinking you might arrive at by counting your coppers in your mean and draughty grocer’s shop, looking across the flat Lincolnshire land and hating us”.
At first the boy proposes simplistic solutions – “If we know why she’s angry, maybe we can stop her” – but when he sees how completely the Tory Party’s savage policies rip apart his family and destroy job prospects he realises that more drastic action is called for.
As my father was born near Walsall in the West Midlands and my mother from Birmingham, I can validate that the Black Country attitudes and speech patterns in the novel are spot on. Examples of the local dialect are ‘cor’ for ‘can’t’ as in “It cor go on like this”; ‘wim’ for ‘we’re’ as in “Wim done for” and ‘doh’ for don’t as in “Doh talk so soft”.
The main timeline of this novel runs from when Thatcher was first elected Prime Minister in 1979 to the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party conference in 1984. It follows the fading fortunes of Sean’s family both through his eyes as a boy (he was 9 when she became PM) and as a much older , wiser man looking back with a mixture of nostalgia, sadness and guilt.
As an adult, Sean left his roots behind, worked on cruise ships for seven years, raised a family of his own and he now runs a pub. These details are only sketched in as the main focus is on the Thatcher years.
I like, and share, the book’s unreserved vindictiveness towards the Iron Lady so had no quibbles with the author’s left of centre politics. I did, however, find that this viewpoint was sometimes spelt out with an unnecessary bluntness as when the young Sean reflects: “There shouldn’t even be a royal family, we should get rid of kings and queens and lords and all that and have a republic”.
It’s clear too that, in the author’s eagerness to highlight the political background, he sometimes confuses the issues. For example, details of Arthur Scargill and the miner’s strike merge incongruously with a description of how many working class people identified with the provocative racist rants of Enoch Powell.
Also it’s not always clear why the first person narrative continually switches between the young boy and older man. In one section both describe learning to play cricket with his dad and the child and adult perspectives become very blurred.
Some tighter editing would also have eliminated sloppy writing like :“I imagined days stretched out in front of me like the wide green valleys of Wales, free” and the clumsy repetition of his mother saying they could “barely afford” to pay for their home.
A good editor would have also highlighted the mixed metaphors in passage about his dad “I picture him with the snow slowly erasing him, like a wave looming above him, white horses spitting and menacing to bring our whole life crashing down”.
These weaknesses aside, this is an honest warm-hearted story and a stark reminder of the dark years of Britain’s recent past.
Thatcher lives on and is still revered my many. It has even been suggested that her imminent passing will be marked by a state funeral. In Cartwright’s novel the young boy’s grandfather angrily reacts to this proposal and suggests a more fitting alternative: “leave her to the bastard crows”.