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

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.