Mantel talks about the former Tory PM, and why Jeremy Corbyn is no Robespierreby Sameer Rahim / September 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
Hilary Mantel has been widely praised for her Tudor novels following the life of Thomas Cromwell: Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies both won the Man Booker Prize. (She is currently writing the concluding part of the trilogy The Mirror and the Light.) On Wednesday, she was nominated for the BBC National Short Story Award for her story “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.” The story, which caused controversy in some sections of the media when it was published at the end of last year, is set on 6th August 1983, and imagines an IRA shooter tricking his way into the house of a woman in Windsor, in preparation for killing the Conservative Prime Minister. Over the course of their conversation, the IRA man and his unwilling hostess (who is of Irish descent) discuss their mutual loathing of Thatcher and the morality of political violence. I spoke to Mantel about why Thatcher remains such a potent figure in British politics, what she thinks of Jeremy Corbyn and whether there are similarities between Irish republican terrorism and today’s Islamist terrorism.
Sameer Rahim: At the end of last year, The Daily Telegraph were about to publish your story “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” but pulled it at the last minute because they considered it too hot. Did you think at the time that it was going to be so controversial?
Hilary Mantel: Yes, I did. But I didn’t expect that to happen because I assumed that the Telegraph had also taken on board how controversial it was going to be—and that they had decided to take a risk on it. But it looks as if actually they hadn’t made that assessment until the last minute.
SR: Did you feel disappointed or let down?
HM: I just felt surprised, that’s all. It seemed as though there had been a communication failure somewhere along the line.
SR: Re-reading the story, it seems to me that you were simply treating Margaret Thatcher as you would any other character in your historical fiction—Henry VIII in Wolf Hall or Robespierre in A Place of Greater Safety. Why do think it caused so much upset?
HM: Well, in some ways it is opaque to me. But I know, obviously, she is a polarising figure and although she’s no longer with us, and although her glory days are long behind us, I think she is someone who we perceive to be not really dead. She is still animating the political debate today; the country we’re living in is perceived as very much Mrs Thatcher’s creation, whether they praise her for it or blame her for it. I think it does appear that her legacy is a living one, and we don’t have any distance from her. We’ve not been able to make the kind of assessment that you can make of a figure who has been dead a couple of hundred years. I think one is plunging into the midst of a debate here, and it’s understandable that passions run very high.
SR: Do you think people conflated you, the author, with your female narrator who shows some level of sympathy with the assassination?
HM: I think that people didn’t read the female narrator very well. They focused on the gunman. There were all sorts of strange descriptions of her: middle-class, middle-aged, a housewife. Whereas in fact it’s pretty clear from the story that she shares a background with the assassin. And that’s why he’s there. That part of the story didn’t seem to seep through to people’s attention. I think that what lies between the gunman and his unwilling hostess is a certain shared past. They’re both of Irish extraction and, in my mind certainly, they are of a generation. Obviously their paths in life have diverged, but they’ve come together at this crucial moment. They talk in the story about the situation of the Irish immigrant, they talk about Irishness abroad, about the legacy, about the myth, in a quite different way than if the narrator had been an average home counties housewife. So it does seem in many ways that the top surface of the story blinded people to what was going on underneath.
SR: In the story the narrator reflects on the phrase “violence solves nothing”. She says: “I had said to him earlier, violence solves nothing. But it was only a piety, like a grace before meat. I wasn’t attending to its meaning as I said it, and if I thought about it, I felt like a hypocrite. It’s only what the strong preach to the weak: you never hear it the other way round; the strong don’t lay down their arms.” There seems to be an ambiguity at work in the character, who wants to feel that violence doesn’t work, but then questions her own privileged position. Was that something you wanted to explore?
HM: Yes, I think the gunman and his hostess both have to question what they are doing at this moment in time. When she says that [“violence solves nothing”] it’s just, as she puts it, it’s a piety, it’s a cliche, it’s what people say. Whether it’s really true or not—that violence solves nothing—is obviously the stuff of a thousand-year debate. It’s not a question you can solve while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil. But at least she does get beyond the cliche—she does at least question it.
SR: Because if violence didn’t solve anything then people wouldn’t use it to get what they wanted.
HM: Well, I think she’s making the point from Thucydides that the strong take what they can and the weak yield what they must. And that’s the process of history. And the idea that violence solves nothing is a piety that you cannot expect the victims of violence to embrace because it’s put them where they are. Though it may not be moral or ethical, it is understandable if that’s the way they choose to handle their affairs, if all else has failed… Of course the question is much bigger than the IRA. By saying that you understand why a man can resort to violence that is not, by any means, to express sympathy with the IRA or to justify terrorism or violence. It’s simply, I suppose, a plea to drop the cliches and exercise a little imagination.
SR: Have you been following the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and his political radicalism?
HM: With interest, yes.
SR: Does he remind you of any of the characters that you’ve written about—a Robespierre perhaps?
HM: [Laughs] I’m afraid not. Except I suppose…no, no, he doesn’t. I think it’s an interesting phenomenon. As you mention it, I can’t think of anyone among my characters who is like that. But then I think I’m very wary of such comparisons because circumstances are not comparable. You can’t go back and make meaningful comparisons. When my first Cromwell book came out [Wolf Hall], people were always asking me: who is Thomas Cromwell really, is he Peter Mandelson or Alastair Campbell? Of course, it’s so reductive. You don’t write in that coded way. If you wanted to write about contemporary events, you’d do so. I don’t think you’d bother researching a historical novel simply in order to disguise your purposes—and so I don’t think you can compare political figures across the era. It can be entertaining to do so but it can also be very misleading.
SR: Do you find Corbyn interesting, or have any sympathy with his politics?
HM: Well, I’m not a political journalist. I’m someone who chooses to stand back and take the longer view. I think that the meaning of what’s happening may only emerge in a few years time, and if we look at it in the context of European politics we certainly seem to be undergoing a shakeup. The assumptions that have certainly lasted me my lifetime—about the two-party system—are all gone now. And I think that Jeremy Corbyn’s victory is part of that shake-up. I wouldn’t like to venture predictions on where it will lead the Labour Party, but I think it may be time for a bit of soul-searching. People talk about going into the electoral wilderness etc but actually going into the wilderness is quite a productive thing to do at times. And of course now that Jeremy Corbyn has become leader, the people who talk about his unelectable status are rather making the assumption that one of the other candidates would have been electable. But it’s rather hard to see what would have changed under the other candidates. So I’ve no particular wisdom or predictions to offer, but I think that it’s a very interesting development. It could in the long run be a healthy move, because it’s certainly stirred up political debate. It’s apathy and lack of comprehension and lack of involvement that’s so much the enemy of the political process. And I really think that anyone who energises the debate is to be cheered on.
SR: I know you’ve lived in Saudi Arabia, and I wondered if you saw any similarities between the IRA and Islamist terrorism?
HM: There is a radically different worldview within militant Islam and things can only be understood from that perspective. It’s very different from the ambitions of the IRA or any of the other European separatist movements…I don’t really equate any one struggle or terrorist grouping with any other. These generalisations are coarsening to the debate. I did live in Saudi Arabia and I wrote a novel about that [Eight Months on Ghazzah Street] in the 1980s, and I tried in that novel to engage with the fact that when you’ve living in a Muslim society and you’re not from the Islamic tradition, you have to get hold of the fact that—how can I put it—the values you hold self-evident are not self-evident in other times and other places. And that democracy and equality are not universally considered good. I did try to engage with that in my novel, and through the story to present the fact that there is a radically different worldview that you had better get your head around if you’re a westerner… To try to explain what it might be like to live in a theocracy. And to live in a society where law and morality are equated. I found that my conversations with Muslim women I met were very startling and enlightening to me. They completely shook up my worldview. The lesson I took from it was not to make too many easy assumptions: that this is like that or that two sets of circumstances can be equated or that historical circumstances can be parralled. They were eye-opening years for me.
SR: I very much enjoyed the BBC adaptation of the Cromwell books earlier this year. I was wondering whether the series and the performers—I’m thinking of Mark Rylance in particular as Cromwell—affected the way you are writing the concluding part of the trilogy?
HM: No, it hasn’t. I’ve actually been far closer to the stage productions because I’ve been involved with them from the word go, and actually I took over as co-author when we went to Broadway earlier this year. The plays have evolved across three seasons—starting at Stratford, then at the Aldwych and then on Broadway earlier this year—and I’ve become more and more sucked into the process of making the plays. I think they have had an influence on the third book but with the TV production, I was more at arm’s length because when they were shooting it, which was just last summer, I was very busy in the theatre. My involvement came at the script level—not that I had very much to do because Peter Straughan’s a really brilliant screenwriter, and he got hold of the whole thing instantly, but I did consult with them at that stage. The making of it was something that largely happened out of my sight. There was this was wonderful thing and it was done, and I wasn’t an insider in the process in the way I had been with the theatrical productions. I think they have influenced me simply because we had a very cohesive, committed cast. We hardly replaced anyone across the three seasons. There’s been this bunch of people all getting deeper and deeper into the material and their questions, and their observations and the fact that we made it very live theatre by continuing to polish up the script. They have informed partly what I will do in the new book because they became co-imaginers. There are certainly passages in the new book that are there simply because of a question someone asked or an observation they made. It’s been a very interesting process—unique, I think, to work like that because of course usually when there’s an adaptation the primary work’s done, it’s finished. But in this case there’s a free flow…sometimes I would write something, and drop it in at the stage door before a Saturday double show—I don’t mean I would write new script, I mean a passage from the book—I would drop it in for the actor or actress concerned, and I would be able to see it that afternoon in their performance. They knew something about themselves that they didn’t know yesterday. That was a really fascinating process to watch.
The other authors shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award are: Jonathan Buckley for “Briar Road”; Mark Haddon for “Bunny”; Frances Leviston for “Broderie Anglaise”; and Jeremy Page for “Do It Now, Jump the Table.” All five stories will be broadcast by the BBC next week. The winner will be announced on 6th October.