At a dinner in the White House, George Bush Sr once invited Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Denis, to say a few words. Denis Thatcher always played the role of consort with discretion. She held the spotlight; he stayed in the shadow. She, not he, did the talking. He was not about to make an exception, even for the president of the United States.
In response to the call, Mr Thatcher stood up and said: “As Mark Anthony remarked when he entered Cleopatra’s room, I have not come here to speak,” and sat down. Laughter and applause was general — except, we may assume, on the part of the Iron Lady. Matthew Parris, a former Conservative parliamentarian who had worked with her, wrote the other day in The Times that Thatcher was incapable of understanding a joke. Unlike her husband and most of her compatriots, she was quite devoid of a sense of humor. The English pride themselves on their irony, but she, who wrapped herself in the flag like no one since World War II, did not understand it. She just lacked the right chip.
Another curiosity that set her apart from the people, was that she had no feeling for sport. She just didn’t like it; didn’t see the point in it. There must be some connection between her nonexistent sense of humor and her lack of interest in soccer or tennis or (unlike the Queen) in horse racing. Sport is play, and Thatcher had no time for play. She was a woman of ferocious pragmatism, and didn’t see the use of running after a ball. For her everything was reduced to utility; and sport, in the driest sense of the word, is not useful. Sport is joy, life for the sake of living, but it is not a thing indispensable for the survival of the species, or the development of the economy.
When you play a sport, you expose yourself to the possibility of defeat. She would not have known what to do
One thing that is, however, indispensable for the sportsman is a sense of humor. He wouldn’t last long without it. Otherwise defeat, inevitable defeat, would be too unbearable. He who is incapable of accepting with a dash of ironic resignation the frustration of his team’s loss, would run melancholy mad. In that case, better get out of sport. It’s a danger to your health. The joke is the refuge of the loser.
Thatcher was not a loser. It now appears that she wanted her memoirs to be titled The Undefeated. When you play a sport, you expose yourself to the possibility of defeat. In that case she would not have known what to do — would not have possessed the resource of humor, which cushions the shock to the ego that goes with defeat.
We know of two cases in which she tried to intervene in the world of sport. In both cases it had nothing to do with enjoyment, and everything to do with having a political ax to grind. In her first year as prime minister she tried to convince British athletes to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics on ideological grounds.
Two years later she wanted to demand of the English, Scottish and Northern Irish national soccer teams that they forbear from playing in the World Cup to be held in Spain. The Falklands war was on with Argentina, and Thatcher feared that if Maradona’s team beat one of the British teams, it would be a propaganda victory for the enemy.
In both cases Thatcher had to back down. She could never understand it, but her compatriots valued soccer more highly than political games.
Thatcher was hated by a large number of British people. But, even among those who admired her iron leadership, very few felt any affection for her. There were divisions of opinion about her political project, but the almost universal consensus was that she was not a beloved person. The lack of the sense of humor and the incapacity to enjoy sport were two of the causes of this affective distancing. An emotionally limited woman, Thatcher. Too bad for her.