Remember the fearful bate the Tories got in last year over Hilary Mantel’s short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher? This was a counterfactual narrative, speculating on what would have happened if someone had managed to blow away the Leaderene, as almost happened when the IRA bomb blew up the hotel the Tory delegates were staying in during their Brighton Conference. Thatcher escaped, but it left Norman Tebbitt’s wife crippled and in a wheelchair. Unable to cope with the idea that someone might actually want to off their idol, the Tories worked themselves up into a howling frenzy, baying that the prize-winning lady novelist was encouraging terrorism.
It’s hard to see how this could be so. Mantel’s one of the great figures in contemporary literary fiction. As well as winning literary prizes and awards, her book about Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey and the dark intrigues of the Tudor court, Wolf Hall, was turned into an acclaimed drama series by the Beeb. She’s very far from a Marxist or Irish Republican radical firebrand, let alone an Islamist jihadi, spewing hate for the Kufar and demanding the destruction of the ‘Little Satan’ by fire and sword. These groups don’t need much encouragement from genteel, respectable novelists. They’ve got their own sources of propaganda, fanning their fanaticism. I somehow don’t think they’re terribly interested in modern highbrow literature. You don’t, after all, see them hurriedly putting down the Times Literary Supplement as their latest butcher gets up to vomit out his rant in the latest beheading video from ISIS. In fact, considering that one group didn’t even have a copy of the Qu’ran, and a British jihadi had to order Islam For Dummies to get acquainted with even the rudiments of the faith he claimed to be fighting for, I’m frankly amazed that any of them can even read. Possibly they do so much screaming of ‘Allahu Akbar!’ because it’s just about the only Islamic phrase they know.
But long before Mantel raised a stir discussing Thatcher’s possible assassination, Hunter S. Thompson had done the same, in a piece addressed to his illustrator, Ralph Steadman. Steadman had been having problems with his son’s behaviour. From the letter’s contents, it appeared that his son had been smashing windows. Thompson ascribed this to the boy’s father’s own profession as a cartoonist, one of whose targets was the PM.
England is the wrong place for a boy who wants to smash windows. Because he’s right, of course. He should smash window. Anybody growing up in England today without a serious urge to smash windows is probably too dumb for help.
You are reaping the whirlwind, Ralph. Where in the name of art or anything else did you ever see anything that said you could raw queer pictures of the prime minister and call her worse than a denatured pig-but your own son shouldn’t want to smash windows
And Thompson made it very clear that he shared the lad’s anger and contempt for the Saint of Finchley:
The prime minister is a denatured pig, Ralph, and you should beat her like a gong. Draw horrible cartoons of the bitch, and sell them for many dollars to The Times and Private Eye … but don’t come weeping to me when your own son takes it into his head to smash a few windows.
He goes further, and states that the lad should be taking pot shots at Maggie, instead of just acts of petty vandalism.
You snivelling hypocritical bastard. If your son had your instincts, he’d be shooting at the Prime Minister, instead of just smashing windows.
Are you ready for that? How are you going to feel when you wake up one of these mornings and flip on the telly at Old Loose Court just in time to catch a news bulletin about the prime minister being shot through the gizzard in Piccadilly Circus … and then some B.B.C. hot rod comes up with exclusive picture of the dirty freak who did it, and he turns out to be your own son?
The piece was published in April, 1986, and was included in the volume of pieces from the great man’s journalism, Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s. That first came out in 1988, and was republished by Picador in 2011. To my knowledge, the Tories signally failed to work themselves up into any lather about Thompson wondering how it is that Steadman’s son hasn’t assassinated Maggie, despite the fact that this took place at about the same time the PM’s life, as well as so many others, was threatened by Northern Irish paramilitaries. Possibly it’s because they knew humour and satire when they saw it, though that’s unlikely. More likely, they just hadn’t read it. I got the impression that the staple reading of the Tory classes, when it isn’t the Sun, is the Times and Telegraph, and the glossy magazines of the County set, like Sporting Gun, Shooting & Conservative, The Lady and Country Life. Bile-soaked pieces of radical journalism, filled with the blazing hate of the man, who invented gonzo journalism for the political classes, TV preachers and the depraved and debauched creatures prowling business and the dark undergrowth of modern society, probably wasn’t on their literary horizon. They probably didn’t notice. Either that, or they were afraid of Thompson. He was a life-long gun freak, like that other countercultural literary icon and drug fiend, William S. Burroughs. Holed up in the Rockies as he was, the Tories may have been afraid of Thompson as he had more firepower available for him than they did.
So as far as I know, they ignored Thompson’s piece on Steadman’s son and the possible shooting of the Leaderene. If they were aware of it, they probably realised it was all literary artifice and satire. Thompson probably did hate Thatcher, but he wasn’t recommending that anyone should shoot her. Not if Nixon had escaped, anyway. And they should similarly have recognised that it was all literary artifice and the craft of the novelist when Mantel too wrote her piece about the assassination of Maggie. But this was too much. By the time she wrote, they’d elevated her into a virtual saint, St. Maggie of Monetarism, the high priestess of the idolatrous cult of von Hayek and Milton Friedman. Mantel uttered blasphemy, which they just had to decry.
It shows the stupidity, emotionalism and sheer selectiveness of the Tory party when it comes to any assault on Thatcher and the squalid political values she stood for. Unable to understand literary fiction, they had to censor it instead. Just as they’re doing their level best to clamp down on ordinary free speech. Thompson, had he lived, could have had a field day with this new generation of Tory swine.