Hilary Mantel and the ‘vicious’ left

The proposal to stop the broadcast of a fictional portrayal of Margaret Thatcher reveals something far more pernicious than an author's fantasy.

The proposal to stop the broadcast of a fictional portrayal of Margaret Thatcher reveals something far more pernicious than an author’s fantasy

According to Leo McKinstry in the Daily Express today, ‘there is a vicious streak in modern left-wing politics’.

He was reminded of this, apparently, because of the BBC’s ‘grotesque’ decision to broadcast Hilary Mantel’s story ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ on Radio 4.

Despite the fact that it is a work of fiction in question, the right wing press view the decision as a prime example of the BBC’s incorrigible left wing bias.

The story, which McKinstry describes as a ‘sick Leftist fantasy’, imagines the 1983 murder of the then-prime minister by an IRA sniper.

It is just one of the stories in a collection of the same name, the whole of which the BBC will play on its Book at Bedtime series.

Mantel disliked Thatcher, hated her even, and it shows in the story:

“How much will you get for a good shot?”

“Life without parole,” he said.

I laughed. “It’s not a crime.”

“That’s my feeling.”

The story came out of a day in the summer of 1983 when Mantel, by pure chance, watched Mrs Thatcher walk past her flat. Mantel imagined she was someone else, imagined pulling a trigger. And she wrote a story about it.

Putting imagination onto paper is a pretty standard thing for an author to do, but Mantel stands accused of sick fantasy, of having a ‘sick mind’ and ‘adolescent opinions’.

‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ is not a manifesto or a call to action or even a one-sided rant. It is a piece of fiction. Presumably Book at Bedtime’s listeners – and there will be many Thatcher fans among them – will  be able to understand this subtlety.

I take the point – Thatcher was a real person with a family, and IRA violence was real. McKinstry condemns those who glorified in the death of Thatcher last year, and I could not agree more; it was unnecessary and crass and made the people who had actually been harmed by her policies looks like villains.

But Mantel’s book is fiction. Read The Mail pointing out yesterday that the book’s ‘next to last word would have to be bleeped if children were listening’, and we seem to be back in the Lady Chatterley era.

Countless things have been written about this period of history, much of it far nastier than Mantel’s story, which is, after all, just a literary experiment. As her narrator puts it: ‘History could always have been otherwise’.

According to McKinstry, the BBC’s choice to broadcast the story shows them ‘wallowing in the fictional murder of our longest-serving post-war prime minister’. But why should Thatcher be immune to treatment by fiction?

And since when are we supposed to ignore books with controversial themes? Whatever you think of the book, Mantel is widely acclaimed as one of our greatest living writers. She is an important part of modern literature, and this story does what all stories should – it encourages discussion and makes us think.

As the BBC put it,

“Book at Bedtime offers the best of modern and classic literature and, in doing so, presents a wide range of perspectives from around the world.

“The work of Hilary Mantel – a double Booker Prize-winning author – is of significant interest to the public.”

Silencing books, even if only symbolically – and it would be symbolic to remove a story from the BBC – puts artistic freedom in dangerous territory.

To return to McKinley’s article. He says that the left are vicious, that they resort to real nastiness when their opinions are threatened. I would like to point out some of the reactions by readers of the right wing press when Hilary Mantel spoke about modern royalty and the Duchess of Cambridge last year.

Mantel’s lecture was widely misinterpreted as being an attack on Kate’s beauty but in fact was quite clearly a criticism of the machine around her, and of the cult of royalty which demands so much from women like Kate and Diana. Still, reportage of Mantel’s opinion elicited comments like this:

I assume her health problems have made her such a vindictive, jealous sounding old biddy.

Mantel… Mantel, you poor creature, look at yourself. Your picture is the best comment to your belch of jealousy.

Hateful person looks like a hamster on speed

The list goes on. After the Kate furore, Mail and Express readers have already vilified Hilary Mantel beyond redemption, in precisely the same way that they accuse the left of vilifying Thatcher.

Mantel is a writer. She has written some offensive things. Thatcher made policy decisions that affected millions of lives. Which is the more irrational hatred?

Mantel did not like Thatcher, but she is not so stupid or blunt as to simply bring out a book about her own obsession. (Note the persistent use of ‘fantasy’ in the coverage of this story, meant to denote some kind of perversion). She has far more intellectual subtlety than that, and clearly far more than the hysterics who would see her writing shut down.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward, Follow her on Twitter

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34 Responses to “Hilary Mantel and the ‘vicious’ left”

  1. madasafish

    Anyone remember McBride?

    Damian McBride sent the first of two emails that would cost him his job at 6.30pm on 13 January. “….
    The email suggested a series of unfounded and puerile smears against senior Tories. Draper responded 20 minutes later: “Absolutely totally brilliant Damian. I’ll think about timing and sort out the technology this week so we can go as soon as possible.”


    And the writer of this article denies left wingers are nasty?

    Of course they are.

    As are Tories and LibDems and UKIPpers.. And Greens.

    So what?

  2. Leon Wolfeson

    You’re now trying to conflate Labour and the Left again, it’s getting sad.

    Some left wingers might be nasty. Far, far less as a percentage than your right, let alone the far right.

  3. JoeDM

    It is sick and offensive.

  4. Matthew Blott

    The author of this piece never said the Left couldn’t be nasty – they can of course. The point is there is plenty of nastiness on the Right.

  5. Matthew Blott

    I defend the right to air the book and am no fan of Thatcher but I find it hard to believe the Radio 4 producers would have something by Frederick Forsyth imagining the assassination of Nelson Mandela.

  6. Ian Duncan

    “Mantel i[…] She has written some offensive things”

    No, she has written some things that a right wing prick squealed in mock outrage over.

  7. Ian Duncan


  8. Leon Wolfeson

    You’ve come out swinging for “free speech” for your right, of course, several times.

  9. Leon Wolfeson

    Eh. They might well be offensive to some people, from the description.

    But I don’t think people should be stopped from doing that. Equally, people should be free to criticise them for doing so.

  10. swat

    Surprised that some people ‘hated’ Mrs T with such venom and still do that they danced on her grave. Those people are really sick people and need to seek help. Even tho MrsT put them out of jobs and polarised society and favoured the rich over the poor, still doesn’t excuse such hatred of the woman. I myself was one that was made redundant, twice, under Mrs T, but I don’t harbour that much ill will against her. After that I spent 15 years on p/t an temp and zero hr type contrct jobs. But there you go. People who do must be mentally unhinged.The virtue of adversity is fortitude, and when times change, you must change with the times.
    Its a story, rather like ‘Day of the Jackel’; but it would have been better coming from a journalist than an established author.

  11. Selohesra

    Indeed Free Speech is good – even if that means freedom to be sick & offensive – it gives people/organisations the scope to show themselves up for what they really are. Image the outcry though if BBC did similar broadcast about assassination of Gordon Brown or Polly Toynbee – but that’s unlikely given their pro Labour bias

  12. jaydeepee

    I wouldn’t do it personally but I would support people to have the right to piss on her grave if they felt like doing.

  13. CGR

    Mantel is also a very poor writer. I started Wolf Hall and threw it away in disgust after 100 pages. It is written in the most appalling style mixing tenses at will with no logic and the deliberate misuse of pronouns. She seems to be more interested in creating some sort of trendy literary style than with telling the story. Trendy critics seem to be hoodwinked by this ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ approach.

  14. Dave Stewart

    The BBC does not have a pro Labour bias it has a pro-establishment bias as shown by a study by Cardiff university.

    Repeating doesn’t make it true kindly stop.


  15. Selohesra

    Hardly a surprise that a bunch of Lefty ‘academics’ failed to spot the bias – denying the BBC has Left wing bias does not make it true – kindly stop

  16. V Hale

    I’m as disgusted by the people complaining about this as I am of the likes who petitioned to get “Dapper Laughs” off the air, successfully, and those who campaign about Page 3. It’s all pathetic.

  17. Selohesra

    Do you also support their right to piss on your mothers grave?

  18. Richard Honey

    It beggars belief that people can get so exercised by a fictional account of assassinating Thatcher. Someone said: what if it had been Mandela? Well as long as it was part of a fictional exploration of political events and ideas I wouldn’t have problems with that unless it smeared his name with factual inaccuracies. Compared to the real life support Thatcher gave to the likes of Pinochet in Chile who ruled by torture and murder, the covert support for Loyalist death squads in Northern Ireland and the destruction of whole industries in the UK, Mantel’s work is positively mild in intent and execution (no pun intended). As for the so-called left wing bias of the BBC: we can all have our views on bias – iIthink it’s biased to the right, others to the left. I’d rather trust the evidence of a well-researched academic study than my own or anyone else’s subjective opinion.

  19. Chrisso

    Back in the day Cromwell was dug up and hung. So pi**ing on the grave of an evil person nowadays would be mild by comparison. Can’t believe all this hyperbole over Mantel. It’s apparently OK to imagine Hitler ruling over Britain as in ‘Fatherland’ but not OK to imagine the assassination of a PM? It would have been the first since 1812. I’m amazed no-one ever bumped off Blair.

  20. jaydeepee

    Yes, of course. Piss away, though my Mother is not a: dead yet, so technically doesn’t have a grave and b; nor is she the recipient of the visceral hatred that many in this country and abroad have for The Great Satan, Thatcher due to her many crimes.

    Piss away!

  21. Paul S

    The idea of fictionalising the assassination of a political figure is not new. Does nobody remember “Death of a President”, the mockumentary about the assassination of George W Bush? If you check out this wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_alternate_history_fiction), you can also find fictional accounts of the assassinations of Elizabeth I, Winston Churchill and Bill Gates. Isn’t this more about the sanctification of Thatcher than some in-built vicious tendency in the left?

  22. Leon Wolfeson

    Quite – I don’t like page 3 and think it’s pathetic but I’m not out there campaigning against it.

    (And neither would I read the book)

  23. Leon Wolfeson

    Still lying about the BBC, I see.

  24. Leon Wolfeson

    And as usual you demand your lies are just fine, it’s everything else which is the problem. As you hate on real academics, because they didn’t agree with you.

  25. Leon Wolfeson

    I gotta say that if the people here read some sci-fi alternate history books I think their heads would exclude. What-if/alternate-history books are nothing new.

    And the study said it was subservient to the government, which does rather make sense.

  26. Leon Wolfeson

    Seems so!

    This is nothing new under the sun. There’s also alternate history books about what happens if people were *not* assassinated, lots of alternate WWII fiction, and there’s a whole bunch of sci-fi alternate history stuff which isn’t in that list…

    (PS your link has a rogue ) in it)

  27. Leon Wolfeson

    It kinda has.

    “The Tony Blair Witch Project”

    Which apparently was utter crap, but involved Tony Blair being killed off.

  28. Dave Stewart

    Could you please provide a peer reviewed study support your assertions:1) that all academics are “lefty” and 2) that the BBC has a left wing bias.

    Oh wait you can’t because they don’t exist.

    I would also like to add that if you look at the people who are in senior positions in the BBC you’ll find that generally most people would consider them to be right ring. Also many many senior editors (particularly political editors) end up working for the Tory party.

    How do you explain that away?

  29. CharleyFarleyFive


  30. Lynne Roper

    Mantel is an amazing writer with a brain the size of Mars. It’s hard work to get into Wolf Hall which really isn’t an easy read, but how lovely that a modern author doesn’t feel the need to talk down to us. If you make the effort Wolf Hall more than worth it, although of course there is the matter of taste, and if you don’t personally like Mantel’s style that doesn’t make her a poor writer. She’s written many other books; among my favourites are ‘Beyond Black’, and her memoir ‘Giving Up the Ghost’. They are more accessible, and a great way to start.

  31. SarahAB

    I also found the book wearisome and gave up on it – and I disagree with the post that the piece about the D of C was clearly just a criticism of the machine around her. I also thought the story about MT was in bad taste (and a bad story all round in my opinion). In fact – I’m really not a fan of Mantel.

  32. Lynne Roper

    I’m a huge fan of Hilary Mantel who is deliberately rubbished by the nasty, public-school-educated-male-dominated media and political establishment. It must be terrifying for them to find a woman with such intellect and literary skill agitating against the status quo.
    Why indeed are those political and establishment figures with so much power and influence untouchable? Why is it acceptable for our government to demonise poor and disabled people en masse (feckless indolents and so on) while they produce unreasoned hagiographies of their own? You’d almost think there was a conspiracy to silence the opposition.
    Make no mistake that the right dominates political discourse. Thank god for Hilary.

  33. Kate

    Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies is one of the best books of 21 st century and will always remain a classic. It creates a totally new world whereby we see everything through one man,s eyes at the same time as he is thinking and seeing it. It is both a historical and psychological masterpiece! More important for me personally it is one of the few books I have shared with my children and got the same response. We are ” Thomas Moore ” and Mantel groupies !

  34. Guest

    Ah yes, can’t be hating the people sticking the knives in. And yes, directorships are easy to find for you eh. Keep calling for “mental help” (i.e. orwellian drugging, etc.) of vast numbers of people.

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