Margaret Thatcher : Harris’s biography sheds light on what made her tick

Friends were surprised when they heard I was reading a Margaret Thatcher biography. But for readers of my generation, Margaret Thatcher is an iconic figure. Selected as the Conservative candidate for Finchley in 1958, the next twenty years saw her stature grow. In 1979 following the Conservatives’ election victory she became the first woman British Prime Minister.

In common with many women who break through the glass ceiling, Thatcher believed in succeeding through merit. She thought other women could achieve what she had through hard work, persistence and sheer determination.

Her life story — particularly her public life — is well known and there are few surprises in Robin Harris’s well-researched and documented Margaret Thatcher biography.

Harris works through Thatcher’s early life in Grantham explaining the influence of her father, the role religion played in the household, her early years in the Conservative party.

Period as Prime Minister

The events of her period as Prime Minister are then covered in detail with some illuminating insights into her leadership and thinking for example, her views on war as evidenced during the Falklands crisis.

Harris worked closely with Thatcher from 1985. He drafted speeches and advised on policy.  Consequently, he brings insider insights to this biography. His research is meticulous and the chapters in Not for Turning are richly annotated. He provides an extensive bibliography with interesting observations on the sources referenced.

Sympathetic but not blind to Thatcher’s faults, it is Harris’s insights into her personal traits that I found most interesting. For example, women readers particularly may be struck by her preoccupation with the ordinary challenges of managing family relationships — including the financial troubles of her adult children — general financial worries, health issues, concerns about her husband and so on. Likewise her struggle to keep her weight under control which saw her choose to drink whiskey and soda because it has fewer calories than her preferred gin and tonic.

Late career

However, it Harris’s insights into the latter part of Thatcher’s career that are perhaps the most interesting. The facts from the period are perhaps less well known. He discusses the years after she left office and her subsequent declining health. I was particularly interested in his take on Thatcher’s regard for Tony Blair and her apparent sympathy for the controversial General Pinochet.

Harris’s treatment of Thatcher’s decline — her health issues and the indignities of age — is sensitive and empathetic.

At the outset of the book, Harris explains that his objective in writing Not for Turning was to describe what Margaret Thatcher was like. He sought to explain what she was trying to do and why and to assess the consequences. In my view, he has achieved this.

Not for Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher by Robin Harris is published by St Martin’s Press. ISBN 9781250047151. [Disclosure: An Advance Reader’s Copy was provided by Netgalley].


The tragic love story that triggered World War I

The name  Franz Ferdinand is familiar to students of the first World War but less well known is the tragic love story of  the Austrian Archduke and his wife, Sophie.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo in an incident that led to the outbreak of war. While many people associate the Archduke’s name with the outbreak of the Great War, much less well known is the story of the royal romance.

The Archduke married for love against the wishes of his uncle, the emperor. Franz Ferdinand’s wife, Sophie, was seen as his inferior -and often publicly humiliated. But in this history of their relationship, authors Greg King and Sue Woolmans suggest the couple remained close throughout their marriage and were sustained by their love and by family life.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie had three children — Max, Ernst and Sophie — whose lives would never be the same after the events in Sarajevo. Indeed  these children were to suffer further tragedy and loss during the two world wars.

For anyone with an interest in history or who enjoys reading about royal romances, The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King and Sue Woolmans is a sympathetic and human insight into a period of great change.

Published by St Martin’s Press, September 2013. ISBN 9781250000163. [Disclosure: An advance review copy was provided via]

Just Mary : a memoir by Mary O’Rourke

I found this Mary O’Rourke autobiography an entertaining read. O’Rourke is one of the best known Fianna Fail politicians of the last thirty years or so. A woman renowned for her frankness, she opted not to run for the Irish presidency because she would have felt “too corralled and hemmed in” by not being able to speak her mind.
O’Rourke’s memoir, Just Mary is conversational fast and readable romp through a career in Irish politics which saw her serve in a number of Government departments including stints in Education, Health and Public Enterprise.
O’Rourke trained as a teacher before embarking on her political career. Charles Haughey — whose reputation she believes “will be burnished to a degree which  is difficult to envisage now”– gave her a major break when he appointed her Minister for Education in 1987: “To this day, the things which interests me most in the media and in current affairs are matters of educational interest.
It is striking that O’Rourke sustained a thirty-year career in politics at a time when so few women have succeeded in making a career in Irish public life.


Her insights into her political peers — Haughey, MacSharry, Spring, Reynolds, McCreevy, Cowan, Ahern — are interesting in that they are personal even if they provide little information that is not already well known.
It’s also interesting to read what she has to say about some of the Fianna Fail policies that are now seen as having contributed to Ireland’s economic downturn. Benchmarking, for example, she says  “quickly became an obsessive and ridiculous giant beyond our control” (Chapter 16) and later, in Chapter 22 she comments: “If I were to pick out one other key area of governmental transgression of the years preceding the downturn, it would be the policy of decentralisation.”
Alongside the p0litics, Just Mary is frank and open about O’Rourke’s personal life. She discusses  her love for her late husband Enda, the difficulties she had in her twenties  in conceiving and, later, her sadness at the loss of her brothers and her nephew, Brian Lenihan. O’Rourke comes across as a warm, straight talking, family-oriented woman in a memoir that is a fast and enjoyable read.
Just Mary: a memoir by Mary O’Rourke is published by  Gill & Macmillan.  ISBN-10: 0717154092. ISBN-13: 978-0717154098