Lord Bell has condemned Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and called for the police to investigate. But exactly what crime has been committed here?
Hilary Mantel is waiting for the soft-knock of Scotland Yard. Where her watch ticks steadily her wrist itches in anticipation of handcuffs. She is perhaps enjoying a final cup of tea before being taken into custody. Why? Because she made something up – she wrote a story and it upset some very important people.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher took Mantel 30 years to write and was inspired by a real event – she spotted an unguarded Thatcher from her bedroom window in Windsor and, passingly, thought: “If I wasn’t me, if I was someone else, she’d be dead.” In her story she imagines she is two someone elses – an IRA hit man and a seemingly ordinary woman with a fatally good view. These unlikely allies conspire to kill the prime minister. The writer succeeds where terrorists failed.
“If somebody admits they want to assassinate somebody, surely the police should investigate,” Lord Timothy Bell, a friend and former PR adviser to Thatcher, told the Sunday Times. “This is in unquestionably bad taste.”
Let us deal first with taste. This man’s client-list presently glitters with Rolf Harris and Cuadrilla, the UK fracking company. He has previously managed the reputations of General Pinochet and Asma al-Assad, wife of the Syrian president. “I’m not concerned with taste,” said Mantel in my interview with her. Apparently neither is Lord Bell.
Exactly what crime should the police investigate? I grew up in a former pit village with men and women who spoke openly about just how they’d like to punish Thatcher for crimes against our community. Thatchercide is a crime mentally committed by many Thatcher survivors. Special branch visited Morrissey after he released Margaret on the Guillotine. Should we have a show-trial with him and Mantel and Elvis Costello, too? While we’re at it, let’s jail Frederick Forsyth for having a shot at General de Gaulle in The Day of the Jackal. Sue Townsend should have been thrown in the tower for imagining the republican revolution that put the Royal Family in a council house in The Queen and I.
Good taste is for people who write about fish forks and napkin rings – it is not the purview of novelists. We want, and need our fiction, to shock us out of the everyday. Stories that stem from reality, a glimpse of a woman from a window, are the most unsettling of all. The crime is that Lord Bell, and the great enraged, don’t get that. Thought is not, as yet, a crime.
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