At School with Margaret Thatcher

By Bridgman, Joan | Contemporary Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview

At School with Margaret Thatcher


Bridgman, Joan, Contemporary Review


MARGARET Thatcher, or Margaret Roberts, as she then was, is stamped indelibly on my mind. It was September 1941, yet I can see her as clearly now as though I were studying a photograph. This is due to an accident of my positioning in the hall from the first day at my new school, Kesteven and Grantham Girls' Grammar School. As a new girl I was in the front row at assembly and the school choir was directly in front of me ranged in rows sideways on. Margaret was good at music and sang in the difficult alto section, very close to me and I must have studied her carefully every morning for the best part of my first year. Then the classes shifted back down the hall in order of seniority. I was self-conscious in my new uniform and in awe of my surroundings. It was, I knew, a great new stage in my life. My previous headmistress had said that winning the scholarship was as good as a hundred pounds in my pocket. I'm glad to say it has turned out to be a considerable underestimation. It was my passport to university and a career. Why did this particular girl fascinate me? She was virtually unremarkable in every way and, as I later discovered, not a school heroine or generally popular. The reason was the absolute perfection of her appearance and her air of invincible superiority.

Margaret's school uniform was impeccable. Mine was not. Her gymslip was neatly pleated over a well-developed bosom, which again was not the case with me. Her girdle was perfectly knotted, like a man's tie. The blue gingham blouse looked freshly ironed, every day. Her general build was womanly, plumpish even. Her hair was light brown with a side parting and curly. I thought it was permed. I had long plaits and was desperate for a perm, so I noticed such things. I suppose she would have been seventeen then. She had a rather broad face and a short neck with her head slightly tilted to one side. I thought that she had a wry neck, but that could have been the effect of her gazing soulfully upwards to her right towards the platform where our dragon headmistress, Miss D. J. C. Gillies, M.A. Edin., watched us with a gimlet Scot's eye.

The general effect of Margaret's expression was of rapt devotion like a Raphael Madonna, alternating with disdain for the third form ranged alongside her. Assembly was partly religious, with hymns, a reading and any other business such as who had been seen in town without the school hat. Mine was a dreadful affair with third-hand badges badly sewn on and once I was summoned to see Miss Gillies about it. While she was at it, she asked why I had small teeth--no answer to that, really. But, back to Margaret: if she had gone missing she would have been described as well-nourished. This was another difference between us. I was very skinny. This was wartime and rationing was cruel. Was it two ounces of butter a week? I was a country girl from a village outside Grantham and we did have a share in a pig and were given rabbits, but Margaret's sleekness could have had something to do with her father's two grocery shops.

In writing this I realise that I watched Margaret so closely because I recognised that she was almost a distinct species from myself, who represented a different way of life. I was pressing my nose against the window-pane of another, better world. She was my senior, one to be looked up to, but it was more than that. We really did come from opposite sides of the tracks, as the Americans have it. Margaret's family were respectability personified, Godfearing pillars of the chapel. Her father was then an Alderman and, later, Mayor of the town and Chairman of the Governors of the school. She came from a prosperous, ordered background with a mother who stayed at home and, as I have read many times since, cooked and cleaned and confined herself entirely to the domestic sphere. My mother was considered a bit racy at the time because she was divorced, which was rare then. We lived in a one-room bedsit, shared a kitchen, had no bathroom and used an outdoor earth closet adjoining the pigsty. …

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