It was June 1990. I was 18, had just left school and had started work for Office Cleaning Services (OCS). I joined a mobile cleaning ‘hit squad’ which each day rendezvoused in a van on the Strand every morning at 6.30am.
I had just finished my ‘A’ Levels but my new colleagues gave me a whole new education. It was a crash course in the outlook of ‘White Van Man’ in Thatcher’s Britain. Europe, Poll Tax and Gazza were the big issues and our core texts were The Sun and The Mirror.
I was not used to being in central London that early in the morning. The biggest thing which struck me was the vast number of homeless people sleeping rough. At that time there were two or three people huddled under every doorway all around Charing Cross. A road like Villiers Street, which leads down to the Embankment, was like a Dickensian scene with scores of homeless people emerging from the shadows. The rapid rise in rough sleeping in the late 1980s was largely blamed on the social policies of Thatcher’s Tory government – not that they got much sympathy from my new colleagues.
After a few weeks with OCS I was transferred to Lancaster House, a large building on The Mall, next door to Clarence House, which was used for government hospitality and conferences. The building was grand but in those days a bit neglected and I was told that I would be helping getting the place ready for a NATO Summit due to start in a few days. This new position required security clearance and I went for an interview at Buckingham Palace where they probed me on whether I had any ‘extreme views’. I was suitably moderate and joined the team of eight others at Lancaster House.
Meeting the Prime Minister
Late on the day before the conference was due to start the there was a sudden panic around the building. Our supervisor told us we had to assemble on the ground floor immediately and we all assumed we were in trouble. But as we gathered, it was explained that Mrs Thatcher had stopped by for an impromptu visit on her way back to Downing Street. She wanted to check on progress and meet the team preparing the building. Some of my older colleagues started going on about how much they disliked her: ‘If I see her I’ll give her a piece of my mind’.
It was good fighting talk. But as the Prime Minister walked in, everyone fell very quiet. Any dissent dissolved quickly into half-hearted curtsies and politely mumbled words of greeting.
I don’t think a group of people could have felt more intimidated than we did. Almost as amazing as her hair was the powerful aura which surrounded her. I will never forget watching her as she actually ran her finger along one of the surfaces of a sideboard as she came in to check how clean the place was. She did not look happy and was obviously concerned about how the building would look for the conference. She was determined to take a ‘hands-on’ approach.
After meeting each of us and shaking our hands, she gave us a pep-talk. I can’t recall exactly what she said but it was something like this:
‘Thank you for your work here. This is building is in a somewhat shabby state – that’s not your fault but we need to do all we can to make it look as good as possible for our guests tomorrow. Your hard work is appreciated.’
And then she was gone. And we got on with the cleaning.
I think we got the building looking decent and the next day the NATO leaders all arrived. I added to my name-dropping portfolio by meeting George Bush (Senior) in the Men’s Toilet. But that’s a tale for another time…
Two perspectives on Thatcher
In the years since I have read quite a few books about Thatcher – the best being Hugo Young’s One of Us. Everything I have read has confirmed two opinions I formed during my summer of cleaning in 1990:
The first is how much I disagreed with and disliked her politics. I acknowledge that she had to tackle the inefficiencies and self-interest which brought the country to its knees in the 1970s. But her ideological belief in perpetuating inequality as a way of increasing aspiration was a disaster for the poor. Her policies created homelessness and decimated communities, especially in the North as I was to learn more about when I moved to Hull.
But the second is the sneaking admiration I have for her courage and chutzpah. Her visit that day to check on Lancaster House was an example of her leadership style. It embodied her desire to take situations on, not to tolerate mediocrity, to bypass bureaucracy and do what was needed.
As we have seen in the debate over the last 24 hours, there is no doubt that Margaret Thatcher still sharply divides opinion. But no one can deny she was a remarkable woman .
5 thoughts on “The day I met Margaret Thatcher”
A remarkable woman, yes, however much or little we shared her politics. At this point she becomes (as she has been for a while) simply a human being who as us all faces (has faced) old age and death. She is God’s responsibility now. The vitriol on the net has saddened me: when we lose our compassion for the other, however different, we lose something of our humanity.
Thanks Jeannie – I agree and hearing people on the radio this morning saying ‘she wasn’t human’ is very, very sad.
sorry but i don’t find her remarkable as a person.i can’t comment on that,i never knew or met her.Frankly,i would not have wanted to meet her.As some kind of christian believer,i was taught if i can’t say something good,then to stay silent.What i am left with is an overwhelming horror at how her policies and attitudes impacted on real people around me.i myself felt i was described as”one of the enemy within”,and was personally at the end of a decision her government made which undermined my personal securiity(home,livelihood),though my outlook is not informed by personal bitterness.i won’t go on but there really is nothing good i can find to say.
i’m just a working class man.as a social worker(now retired),it is mainly amongst working people,the poor and the distressed i have moved.i know few people from the higher echelons of society,and mostly dont like or feel uncomfortable amongst them.i know where i belong and amongst whom-though i do not have a subservient view of the world.i do not revel in or celebrate her death,it simply is a fact.
if i am meant to be in another emotional/psychological/spiritual place i think that is only possible by being honest to god and honest to myself(by the way,i mean no offence by writing in lower case)
She might have encouraged you with the cleaning; I’ve heard she could be charming in person, particularly when she wanted something. But she was also adept at avoiding ever giving anything back. Millions of public sector workers were made to feel like worthless failures because they weren’t making massive amounts of money for themselves.
I wouldn’t have wanted to meet her. There is nothing admirable about the courage to do the wrong, selfish and wicked thing. Would you admire the courage and chutzpah of her close allies like Pinochet and, at one time, Saddam Hussein? I suspect not. There are some very unpleasant people who were nevertheless were good at getting things done. In fact, perhaps that sort of single-minded determination often goes hand-in-hand with a complete willingness to ignore the human consequences.
My father knew Margaret as Miss Roberts,and she had all the time in the world for him……an ordinary working class man,and a member of the local conservative club.Thanks to MT the Iron Curtain came down,and Communism was destroyed in Europe;I remember the difficult days of the Cold War;I praise God that my grandchildren will not have to live with a divided Europe,with “no go areas” and the terrible pictures of people fleeing for their lives under the barbed wire of East Berlin.Thanks to MT we regained the Falklands;no one should be allowed to walk in and take over another country’s sovereign territory. Thanks to MT union power was curtailed;the secret ballot was initiated ……no more just “a show of Hands”,for strike action ,with all the intimidation that involved :no more “wild cat strikes” or “flying pickets”,and mercifully we seem to have lost the phrase “being sent to Coventry” from the English language.(For the uninitiated ,it meant that your colleagues refused to speak to you if you refused agree to strike action). It is worth noting ,that the Labour party DID NOT REPEAL any of the trade union acts that MT implemented.
My father would not hear a word said against Margaret Thatcher,and neither will I.