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‘Margaret Thatcher is an utterly impossible act to follow’

Simon O'Neill. Simon O'Neill.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013
9:06 AM

Simon O’Neill is editor of the Oxford Mail. He began his career as a trainee reporter on the Barnet Adviser in 1982, three years into Finchley MP Margaret Thatcher’s time as British prime minister. Following her death, he told the Ham&High about his memories of Baroness Thatcher, the local MP.

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“Finchley in 1982 was at the eye of a hurricane. All was calm and cosy in N3, while elsewhere the country was starting to tear itself apart over the policies of Margaret Hilda Thatcher, PM.

“This was my first ‘patch’ as a reporter and one I knew well, having grown up in nearby New Southgate.

“An added bonus was that the sitting MP was the hurricane starter herself. It’s been downhill ever since for me as far as MPs are concerned.

“No disrespect to some fine men and women, but Thatcher was an utterly impossible act to follow.

“During my 32-year career, I have met every prime minister up to and including David Cameron, who is MP for Witney, part of my current newspaper circulation area.

“They all had presence, except for Gordon Brown, who mainly just had the hump.

“But merge them together and they would not match Thatcher’s charisma and electric personality. Meeting her was like being jabbed with a cattle prod.

“As my career took me across London and then north to Derbyshire via the nationals, my perspective on her widened and the divisiveness that defined her time in office came into sharp focus, as did the devastating effects of some of her policies.

“But back then I was 21, new to the job, had no formal training and was, to be honest, rather shallow. I saw only what was in front of me; that Margaret Thatcher was a fine constituency MP who was incredibly accommodating to the local press, often at the expense of national newspapers and broadcasters.

“She was also unfailingly gentle and kind towards me whenever we met and even helped me with an interview on one memorable occasion (she asked the questions, I wrote down the answers). Dare I say it, she was downright motherly.

“Thatcher regularly included the three local papers covering Finchley at the time in her engagements. So I found myself wandering around a new shopping arcade with her, or opening a new school building, or memorably looking on one evening at Woodhouse Grammar School while she enthralled students with up-to-the-minute news on the progress of the Falklands War.

“Outside, behind a cordon, were the assembled hordes of the national press pack, panting like dogs for any scraps they could get their hands on.

“I remember covering a 100th birthday in Finchley Central. Mrs Thatcher served tea and cakes to me, the centenarian and her family.

“In her constituency, she was still the prime minister. But she was different, in voice and style, to the woman who handbagged her way through national and international politics.

“I will remember her as a woman who dominated in a man’s world, an extraordinary leader, a divisive politician and someone who could run a government, conduct a war and still find time to deliver tea, cake and kindness to a young journalist, a bewildered centenarian and her awestruck family.”

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