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April 08, 2013


Photo of Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher Foundation

Tea With Margaret Thatcher

Dick Gordon was assigned to 10 Downing Street one evening while Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in office. He wrote the following essay about the moment when she welcomed him and offered tea.

The moment I heard that Margaret Thatcher had died, I thought back over the years that I remember her as Britain’s Prime Minister. She was international news. She faced down the unions and the IRA. She forced the privatization of state industries. She never seemed to be fazed by her critics. She had very little patience with reporters. She had this sense of mission in her drive to reinvigorate the U.K. They called her the “Iron Lady,” and she earned the name.

But the memory that comes back to me is almost completely at odds with that image.

I was in London. I was there as a radio reporter with the CBC. The Canadian Prime Minister had held a formal meeting with Thatcher that afternoon, and the report I filed was one of those forgettable stories about bi-lateral trade, and the coordination of policies and other boring news.

That evening though, Margaret Thatcher was hosting a private dinner at 10 Downing Street. There would be no coverage of the speeches. No reporters allowed. But CBC television was given one of the “pool” positions. That means that a TV cameraman and a sound person would be inside 10 Downing Street, stationed in one place, to film the arriving guests, but then they’d be ushered out when the dinner began.

I asked the TV crew if I could be the one who’d go along to do the sound. It was a little bit risky. The rule was that no reporters  were supposed to be a part of the pool, it was for pictures only, but the event seemed to matter so little that the TV people said “Sure, go along if you want to.”

So, about an hour before the guests were to arrive, we showed up at that distinctive black door with the number 10 on it – Downing Street. It’s very deceptive. It looks quite small from the outside, but the formal residence for the Prime Minister goes back forever, with offices and meeting rooms and formal places. We were escorted down one hall and then to the top of a set of wide carpeted stairs just outside the dining room. We were told pretty well to mind our own business until the guests started to arrive. The TV cameraman looked at me and said, “This is the boring part.”

Before long, the serving staff started walking past us with candles and napkins and flowers and dishes and we were just waiting, staying out of their way. It was boring, and I was wondering why I’d volunteered for this.

The next thing I knew though, Margaret Thatcher was walking past. She had an unmistakeable presence. A distinctive stride and that up-sweep of blonde hair. I could be wrong about this, it was almost twenty-five years ago, but I think she was wearing an apron, too. I could see into the dining room, and she was talking with the servants, adjusting the settings, checking the flowers, just the way you would if it was your dinner party. And I’m thinking to myself “This is the Iron Lady? Shouldn’t she be on the phone with Reagan, plotting  their next move in the Cold War?”

When she turned around, and came back past us, I said “Hello.” And to my surprise, she stopped, and she said “Hello. Have you been waiting long?” We said “No”. She offered us tea, and asked one of her staff to bring us a cup. She said “I know it’s still a while before dinner, but please make yourself comfortable, and if there’s anything you need, let me know.” And I’m thinking, “This is Margaret Thatcher? This is the woman who can’t stand the media?”  

The next time we saw her, she was in a well-pressed bright blue jacket and white blouse, greeting the likes of the 007 actor Roger Moore and other notable figures of British society who’d been invited to dinner that night. The Canadian Prime Minister and his wife came past us, she greeted them, we got the “pool” pictures and were escorted back to the street.

It’s funny how such a simple moment can alter your perception. I never doubted that the economic transformation she imposed on Britain caused a lot of hardship for people, and I watched the haughty way in which she dismissed her detractors. But after that one short encounter near the end of her time in office -- she was never quite as “iron” of a lady to me.

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