Mark Cantrell, Author

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BLOG: English PEN Defends Thatcher 'Assassin' Mantel

Posted by Mark Cantrell on September 27, 2014 at 2:40 PM

Here's one for the Mantel piece

A plot to assassinate a world leader has landed a British author in a spot of bother, prompting the organisation English PEN to speak up on her behalf.


For those who don't know, Hilary Mantel – the author of Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up The Bodies (2012) – has caused something of a controversy with her latest work, a short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – August 6th 1983. Perhaps predictably, this hasn't gone down so well in certain quarters.


The Iron Lady is, of course, dead and buried, with none but Father Tyme and the Reaper to blame, but some Tory diehards have taken the Booker Prize winning author's post-mortem pot-shot at their Dear Departed Leader to heart.


It must be said, Thatcher did survive a real-world assassination attempt: the Brighton bombing in 1984, when the Provisional IRA attempted to take out the entire British Cabinet during that year's Conservative Party conference.


So, fair dues, that could leave a sore spot easily inflamed by fictional accounts of assassination, but it's often the role of the author to envision the unthinkable, to revel in the outrageous, to provoke a reaction. Well, Mantel has certainly done that. Equally so, in death as in life the former Prime Minister herself provoked extremes and even revelled in her divisive stature.


As the celebrations following her death reminded there many who felt no love lost, and indeed saw no reason to mourn her passing. By the same measure, and this may indeed shock a contemporary audience, as it no doubt did at the time, but there were those who took a certain gallows delight in the attempt to so cataclysmically terminate the Prime Minister's term of office. (There was probably even some sense of disappointment that she survived).


Well, that's British culture for you; it features a deep streak of raucous satiricism (sic), grim humour, and a steadfast refusal to defer to our self-proclaimed betters. And rightly so. If Tory diehards don't like it, well – tough.


Those who are outraged at Mantel's fictional killing of Margaret Thatcher are entitled to be appalled, of course – part of fiction's purpose is to provoke a reaction – but to call upon the mechanism of the State to intervene simply because the adherents of the Iron Lady are displeased is slippery ground for all of us.


That brings us to English PEN. In its own words, among other things, the organisation is there to "campaign to defend writers and readers in the UK and around the world whose human right to freedom of expression is at risk".


In a statement following the furore, and in particular a call by a member of the House of Lords for the police to investigate Mantel, the organisation expressed its concern.


"Lord Bell's call for the police to investigate Mantel for writing a work of fiction is disproportionate and wholly inappropriate. The fact that Ms Mantel's story has caused offence is not a matter for the police: authors are free to shock or challenge their readership by depicting extraordinary events or extreme acts," the organisation said.


"Mantel's story is a tightly constructed take on the politics of the 1980s and how issues such as social class, and the conflict in Northern Ireland, still permeate British society. It considers questions of political violence, by both dissidents and by the state, which is a subject that Mantel explored in her two Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. It is unfortunate that those condemning Mantel do not appear to recognise these important themes in her short story."


Robert Sharp, English PEN's head of campaigns added: "If depicting a murder in literature were equivalent to inciting murder, then Lord Bell's colleagues Lord Dobbs, Baroness James and Baroness Rendell would all need to be investigated by the police too.


"It is most disturbing when politicians and commentators in a democracy start calling for censorship on the grounds of offence or bad taste. Not only does it undermine the right to freedom of expression in the UK, it sends a very poor signal to politicians in authoritarian regimes who sue, threaten and sometimes kill writers and journalists for satirising or criticising the political class."


Mark Cantrell,


27 September 2014


Copyright © September 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Photo: A cartoon from an election poster in Liverpool, circa 1992


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