Well, alright then, "Me and the Thatchers" is somewhat over-billing this morsel of a political reminiscence, but I'll forge ahead anyway.
I met both Denis and Margaret Thatcher during the 1983 general election campaign. I was working on an industrial estate off the Oxford Road in Reading. It was a very nondescript place, and the last place where you would expect to be descended upon by the Prime Minister and her entourage all of a sudden.
I went to work at 8am and noticed that cars weren't parked in the car park as usual. I thought nothing of it. I was working in a warehouse type environment and we often opened our roller-shutter doors to look out. About 9am we saw a couple of large gents in suits with bulges under their arms wondering around the car park.
It turned out that, unbeknownst to those us working in our unit, the Conservative party had a printing office right opposite us. And, we were told at about 9.30am, Maggie Thatcher was visiting the printing office later that very morning. Excitement on sticks! It certainly beat packing up another 200 LA120 printer ribbons.
We all got very excited. Everyone, that is, except a poor fellow who had just left the navy after some terrible experience on one of the ships in the Falklands war. He, poor fellow, retreated into his shell and withdrew to the back of the warehouse to quietly count some nuts while all this was going on.
Anyway, at about 11am a helicopter landed nearby and then a Jaguar arrived, with supporting ensemble, and we saw the Thatch and Denis, a le Duke of Ed, following three paces behind.
About twenty minutes went by while the Thatch met the printing staff and no doubt, examined the latest "In Touch" leaflet.
Then she started to emerge from the building and walked out to where a two or three people waiting to greet her and where the police had arranged a walkway.
On an impulse, I thought, "Sod it" and rushed over and queued up for a Prime Ministerial handshake. "Good Morning" she said in her usual way as I reflected that she had matronly bread-kneading hands.
Denis Thatcher was wondering along behind her and no one was talking to him or shaking his hand. So I turned to him and shook his hand. He seemed quite surprised that someone would take an interest in him. But I was a great fan of the "Dear Bill" letters in Private Eye and I had the conflated real and imaginary Denis Thatchers in my head. He said "It's a nice place to work...are you busy?" to me.
I reflected afterwards that, in fact, it wasn't really a nice place to work, it was just...er...OK, and that he probably said that to everyone he met. A bit like the Royal "Where have you come from?"
I could have stood on the sidelines. Was I right not to? I don't know. It's nice to be able to say I shook such an historic and arguably devastating hand as that of The Thatch.
There was an entertaining end to this Prime Ministerial visit. The Thatcher party had to leave by Wallace Arnold coach. The coach was lined up in the car park to go. Once the PM had got in, however, the driver had to do about seven shunts backwards and forwards to get out. This involved a lot of noise from the air brakes and some fairly severe juddering of the whole coach. Mrs Thatcher was mounted at the top of the coach for this shunting episode. However, her eye line was now level with that of thirty order processing staff in our office who had gathered to wave at her. I joined them for this bit. So Maggie Thatcher was there sat a few feet away from us while she went back and forward seven times.
At first she just smiled. Then she retreated backwards with the coach and then reappeared before us. She couldn't just smile simply again. So she did a sort of shrugging of her shoulders and a sort of resigned smile. Then she went backwards and disappeared from our view and then went forwards and reappeared to our view. This time she had to do a different smile to us. She couldn't just ignore thirty voters could she? So we got seven different types of smiles and little comedy routines from the Prime Minister. It was hilarious. She knew how to play to the crowd.
Anyway, the next step in my admittedly highly tenuous relationship with theThatchers followed, in the case of Denis, a few years later.
I was flying to Geneva on business. Fortunately, I was getting a taxi at the other end, so I indulged in some free wine, courtesy of Swiss Air. I then opened up a complimentary Daily Telegraph and saw a picture of Denis Thatcher dressed in a complete "Deer Stalker" outfit wondering around Jermyn Street in London. The picture was published on the occasion of his 72nd birthday on May 10th 1987.
I don't know what came over me but, again confusing the Dear Bill Denis and the real Denis to a certain extent, and also having drunk quite a bit of wine - which always goes to my head a bit more when it is free - I wrote a short note to Denis Thatcher using the Swiss Air complimentary stationery saying:
Dear Mr Thatcher,
May I wish you many happy returns upon your 72nd birthday. I don't agree with your wife's policies, being a Liberal, but I do agree that you are a perfect gentleman.
I posted the letter and thought nothing more of it.
About a week letter I was most surprised to receive a hand written reply from Denis himself. He even wrote the name and address on the envelope in a very grand hand in blue ink. It said "10 DOWNING STREET" on the back of the envelope.
The letter (pictured below) , over four pages, said:
Dear Mr Walter,
Thank you for your most kind letter on my now numerous birthdays.
I noted that you are of a different political persuasion to myself. You and I should thank God you have the right as a free Englishman to say so.
Never forget if Socialism should ever be the Government of this country that right would assuredly be removed more quickly than you realise; never forget also that the Liberal Party in the House of Commons kept a Socialist Government in power through that awful "winter of 78/79" when striking Socialist Unions refused to bury the dead.
You were most kind to write to me.
I laughed when I received this letter and I have laughed whenever I have remembered it. I cherish the letter to this day and if our house ever burnt down, I would certainly give a moment's thought to its retrieval.