Political writing: The ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – August 6th, 1983’ by Hilary Mantel

In the eleven years we’ve been running the Bath Short Story Award, we’ve been treated to over 12,000 stories on a wide range of themes and genres, presented in a variety of styles. Our anthologies have showcased some 210 of those wonderful stories, many of which have induced tears of sadness, recognition and laughter. But in all the years I’ve been part of the BSSA reading team I can’t remember coming across an overtly political story, say, one just about Brexit, party political shenanigans, or the reality of a protest march.

Of course, stories that deal with topics such as war, refugees, pandemics, homelessness, crime and the climate, for example, will naturally be political in the broad sense and will probably be richer and more textured for it, but one specifically pinning its colours to a ‘party political’ or an issue-specific mast?

Perhaps, there’s a dearth of such stories? And then you come across ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – August 6th, 1983’ by the late Hilary Mantel. It was the title story in Mantel’s second collection, published in 2014; she has been more highly acclaimed for her long historical narratives but the collection, as a whole, bears her trademark style of framing moments in disquieting prose. In 2015 it was selected for the BBC National Short Story Award and generated a huge amount of publicity, with the Daily Mail calling it ‘warped’ and ‘a distasteful fantasy.’ The subject matter was certainly shocking as the highly divisive former Prime Minister had only been dead for a year when the story was first published.

Set during the eleven years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership it focuses on a specific event when Thatcher visited a private hospital for an eye operation. Suburban houses overlooked the grounds from where you could get an excellent shot of the Prime Minister walking around – using either a camera or a gun. An IRA assassin has inveigled his way into the narrator’s flat, under the guise of being a plumber and, as he assembles his equipment at an open window overlooking the hospital grounds, she realises he’s not paparazzi. Rather than being horrified at what’s he’s intending to do, she’s broadly sympathetic and the pair indulge in reeling off the reasons why they both hate Thatcher. This is, for me, where the story stumbles; it does shock and there is much dark humour and keenly observed detail but the political rants work against it and the subtlety is lost in those moments.

The idea for the story came when Mantel had a ‘what if’ moment when standing at the window of her flat overlooking the hospital where Thatcher, at that moment, was walking around the grounds alone. Mantel denied the narrator was an extension of her and a vehicle for proclaiming her distaste for Thatcher, about whom she said, in an interview for The Guardian, ‘When I think of her, I can still feel that boiling detestation. She did long-standing damage in many areas of national life, but I am not either of those people in that room (the characters in the story). I am standing by the window with my notebook.’

But, is it just that? When you use the subjects close to your heart as inspiration for fiction, is there a risk of reductiveness? See what you think. You can read the story here
but do buy the collection
as the first story ‘Sorry to Disturb’ is the best. If you enjoy political stories, check out this list 

I’ll leave you with the words of Damian Barr, writing in The Guardian, about the controversy surrounding the story’s publication: ‘We want, and need our fiction, to shock us out of the everyday. Stories that stem from reality, a glimpse of a woman from a window, are the most unsettling of all. The crime is that … the great enraged, don’t get that. Thought is not, as yet, a crime.’

So, please send us your shocking, extraordinary, wonderful stories by April 15th