Book Festival review: Sara Sheridan | James Runcie | Charles Moore
The Edinburgh International Book Festival goes back in time to the 1950s, where Margaret Thatcher’s early life and the racism and sexism of the decade are examined. By David Robinson
IT WAS back to the 1950s in Charlotte Square yesterday morning, back to that strange decade when there really was such a thing as society, and it was one in which murderers were hanged, homosexuality was illegal, Britain was adjusting to peace and poverty and Margaret Hilda Roberts was starting out on married life.
Watching film from that time as research for her Mirabelle Bevan novels, Sara Sheridan was appalled by the extent of racism and sexism it revealed. “Was Dad ever like that?” she asked her mother. “Took me until 1972 to train him,” her mother replied.
Yet it was from her (clearly adored) father’s random memory of a well-dressed woman dodging the deckchair attendant on Brighton beach that Sheridan got the idea for her series of detective novels, whose inherent cosiness is offset by those very real prejudices.
James Runcie’s Sydney Chambers novels – he too is on his second, also set in the 1950s, with a Cambridgeshire clergyman amateur sleuth – might well owe a similar debt of inspiration to his archbishop father, though he was also drawn by the notion of a series that would reflect social history (“think David Kynaston – with murder”) and the perhaps starker moral dilemmas of the decade. In an excellently chaired session, both writers spoke engagingly about their work. “Maybe Sydney and Mirabelle could have an affair,” suggested Runcie. “Instead of their authors,” he added quickly.
Charles Moore’s biography of Thatcher isn’t rooted in the 1950s even though it did hint that she might have been. At least, those were the years when Thatcher wasn’t a Thatcherite, which only started to happen after the debacle of 1974. Only thereafter did she become the person we know (and, as Scots, generally hate: although we didn’t in 1979 when the Tory vote went up by a third and she had to be protected from cheering crowds on her visit to Edinburgh).
But the truly fascinating part of Moore’s biography isn’t about Thatcher but Margaret Roberts, the Grantham girl who went to Oxford and was educated out of her class but still stayed true to its values of hard work and Methodism. This is the private woman Thatcher was adamant that we would never really see: whose 150 letters to her elder sister, Muriel, show a girl more fascinated by fashion than politics.
She couldn’t bring herself to ditch her Scottish-born Essex farmer boyfriend when she really wanted to (he’d just bought her the handbag of her dreams) so she palmed him off on Muriel, who was, Moore explained, to disbelieving gasps, “even more formidable”.
Moore’s biography clearly isn’t a work of hagiography, but it does at least show a different side to the Iron Lady: the politician who would haver for ages before making a decision (though stick with it rigidly thereafter); the Falklands victor who, when a ship was sunk, cried “for all my young men”. “She’d make a great subject for an opera,” said Moore. “Dama de Ferro. Maybe with an aria – La Donna è immobile”.