08 October 2010

'This Monty Python, is he one of us?'

'Being Margaret Thatcher was a very demanding, 24-hour-a-day job. Like many people held in the grip of their own convictions, Thatcher had trouble understanding the thoughts and words of others. She was, and no doubt is, a kindly woman. Staff were always pleased when she remembered their birthdays, even more when she remembered their children's birthdays. She could be tolerant of other people's way of living, even when she did not understand or sympathise with it. However, if she had a sense of humour, it was well hidden.

There are many stories about this. When the Liberals adopted a sort of stylised yellow bird as their logo, one of her speechwriters produced a passage based on Monty Python's parrot sketch – 'this parrot is no more, it has shuffled off this mortal coil and gone to join the choir invisible . . .' She had to be persuaded that the lines were funny, and would be recognised by the audience. She had one other concern: 'This Monty Python, is he one of us?' (Interestingly, Cameron referred to the same sketch in his party conference speech this week, confident that everyone would get the joke.)

Earlier, Peter Jay, the son-in-law of the then prime minister Jim Callaghan, had said that Callaghan saw himself as Moses, leading his people after long travails into the promised land. It was a silly thing to say, and Thatcher's people seized on it. They wrote a line for her party conference speech: 'My message to Moses is: 'Keep taking the tablets.'' But she didn't get the joke and tried to change it to 'Keep taking the pills.' Only after it was carefully explained to her did she agree to the proper version.

She was nonetheless the source of much unwitting humour. Just as, in an early silent movie, when you see a man up a ladder with a pot of paint, you know with near certainty that the star is going to walk under the ladder at exactly the wrong moment, so with Thatcher. When a double entendre appeared in the offing, you felt she was certain to utter it.

I recall Thatcher being asked in the Commons about pacifists handing out leaflets outside an army barracks. 'I'm sure soldiers will know exactly what they can do with those leaflets!' she said, to outright laughter from the Labour side and surreptitious giggles from the Tories.

At a training centre in Putney, she was introduced to an extremely large youth who was working with a giant wrench. 'Goodness,' she said, 'I've never seen a tool as big as that!'

But Thatcher saved the best of all for her victory tour of the Falkland Islands. She was taken to inspect a large field gun, basically a ride-on lawnmower with a barrel several feet long. It was on a bluff, overlooking a plain on which another Argentine invasion might one day materialise. She admired the weapon, and the soldier manning it asked if she would like to fire a round.

'But mightn't it jerk me off?' she replied. Chris Moncrieff of the Press Association, who was covering the visit, recorded the manful struggle of the soldier to keep his face, indeed his whole body, straight'

- Simon Hoggart, Guardian, 8 October 2010

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