Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner. 2008.
Carol Thatcher, 55, strides into the lounge in Dublin’s Westbury Hotel full of purpose. Ordering a glass of white wine, she flops onto the sofa. Once thought of as the Thatcher who shunned the limelight, Carol seems set to get noticed. Wearing an oversized necklace, and colourful earrings, her hair is bright blond, and her voice loud.
Her plane was late, and time is short. So we get down to discussing her book, ‘A Swim- On Part in the Goldfish Bowl’ with little preamble. Telling of her life from childhood to the present, there is not much about her personal life.
“It’s not a biography,” snaps Carol. “It’s about living with a famous name. And no, I didn’t mind going to boarding school at nine. I think I rather liked it. I was jolly hockey sticks and I played rounder’s.”
Carol includes some fascinating letters from her mum; written during her time as PM, when Carol was abroad. Along with the political details of the day are domestic trivia; like comments about some earrings they were hoping to buy Carol for Christmas.
“I was thrilled with those letters. How lucky was I to have a political pen pal like that?”
There are some poignant sentiments, like her comment that Mark, who is now famous for all the wrong reasons, was always the star twin. But she swears she was never jealous. And her account of her late golf loving, gin swigging father Dennis, is tender and enlightening. So was she a daddy’s girl?
“No I wasn’t,” she says. “Because he was a mad keen rugby footballer and used to disappear every Saturday to do that. I was his biographer, so I got to know him fairly well doing that.”
I am determined to find the person beneath the bluster, but Carol has other ideas. Talking of Sarah Palin, and the undoubted troubles ahead for her children, she tellingly refers to every ‘speech’ she had made on her publicity tour.
She bats away my questions with glib remarks, and reverts, mid sentence, to saying how proud Ireland must be of Padraig Harrington; or how she is not going to fall into the middle aged trap of whingeing about her life.
Carol has been stung by the criticism in the English press, who suggested that her mention, in the book about her mother’s Alzheimer’s was crass. I’d been warned this was now a ‘taboo’ subject, but Carol brings it up.
“Look it, I wrote about it reasonably and with help from a friend of mine. And it was not a revelation. It was out there. And I talked about it when I came out of the Jungle in 2005. I won’t use the word, ‘unfair,’ but one of the Sunday papers hinted that I had dementia for not realising I’d said it before.” She sighs. “It was a no win situation, because if I’d left it out that would have been wrong.”
Has Carol had moments of closeness with her mother?
“I think, well it’s difficult now,” she says. “I’ve had to learn to be patient. She didn’t just have a good memory, she did Chemistry at Oxford, then Law and both of those are quite useful for training the mind. She could leap off the front bench, quote the rate of inflation and throw in a quote by Gladstone without looking at a note. All this, (her illness,) has taken a bit of getting used to.”
Carol, too studied law.
“My mother said both of us, me and Mark should have a qualification. By the time I’d done it I realised it was not for me. I was a solicitor then went to Australia to do journalism. If I had my time over again I would have the guts to have become a barrister, but I didn’t because she had.”
We don’t read of Carol’s relationships or friends. Was her personal life difficult in her goldfish bowl?
“No No!” she booms. “Half the people wanted to get to know me in expectation of being invited to Number 10 or Chequers.”
What of Thatcher’s detractors?
“Oh yes, people had a real go at me from taxi drivers to polarised parties. But it was 11 1.2 years, not my whole life. If someone got aggressive I would say, ‘I am a member of the Prime Minister’s family, not part of the cabinet. How would you feel if I slagged one of your parents on how they did their job?’
“That diffused the situation, but if they really hated one of her policies it didn’t stop them. I was the nearest they would get to have a real go at her. It gave them a feeling of, ‘I have just snookered the bitch.’”
Carol claims that her best ever achievement was being crowned queen of the jungle in the 2005 edition of I’m A Celebrity, get me out of here. ..But she’s written three books; made some TV documentaries and been a long term travel journalist.
When her mum was Prime Minster she never used her position to get good copy. In fact she often learned things from the papers that she had never known. How did it feel to read, for example, that her Dad had been married before?
“I can’t remember. I don’t think that shocked me,” she says. “I’ve learned quite a lot from the newspapers. Much more recently I was going to Miami on a Saturday morning and I turned on the telly really early and my mother had been carted off to hospital the night before. I didn’t know. I thought, ‘gawd, is this an obituary? Did she die?’
“And Mark as well.” She sighs. “It was ‘can we have your reaction to his being arrested? And it’s ‘what?’ But you know, you are in it, you are in it.”
Carol was away for the IRA’s Brighton Hotel bomb in 1984, that narrowly missed killing her parents.
“I was in Korea. By the time I got to know about it, when I rang to wish her a happy birthday and one of her staff said, ‘I hate to tell you this over the phone,’ I knew they were safe. Then I read in the paper that it was a Thatcher inspired assassination attempt, and I did think, ‘oh gawd, was in that bad.’
“Then I went home to Chequers and it was a lovely sunny day and she said, ‘this was a day I wasn’t meant to see.”
Could it be, I wonder, that Carol Thatcher has enjoyed her life in the goldfish bowl? Certainly it was useful for her victory in the jungle.
“My vicarious political upbringing was useful,” she says. “I did a lot of preparation. I wrote myself some emergency lines, because we were expected to be entertaining , and that is hard when you have cockroaches climbing up your leg.”
Was being in limelight as herself gratifying?
“Yes it was,” she says. “People were stopping me in the streets and on the tube. And ‘how is your mother’ was the second question. Not the first.”
A Swim-on Part in the Goldfish Bowl is published by Headline Review at 22.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2008.