This article is not intended to be either a judgment on Thatcher or Thatcherism, but simply my account of when I met her.
Meeting Margaret Thatcher was one of the most bizarre and most memorable experiences of my life. That is because the Thatcher I met was not the Thatcher I had expected to meet.
At Sixth Form College, I had a friend who was actively involved in the local Conservative Future branch. In May, 2004, she asked whether I would like to accompany her to an event at The East India Club. The event was organised to celebrate 25 years since Baroness Thatcher became prime minister. Without hesitation, I accepted her invitation. As a lover of history - I was clambering up castles as soon as I could walk and memorising the order of monarchs' reigns soon after - I could not turn down the opportunity to glimpse a woman who had shaped our country, and the world, like few others.
On arriving at The East India Club, it became apparent I was the only person not in a full suit. Instead, I was wearing a shirt and tie, which my friend, for some reason, had said would be fine and I, for some reason, had accepted the advice. To tell the truth, I have always hated dressing up and "poncing about," so it was probably my fault.
On entering The East India Club, we made our way towards the staircase. A member of staff cut across my path, apprehending me, and informed me that without a jacket I would get no further. Disaster! However, I was told I might be in luck as the doorman occasionally kept a spare jacket behind his counter. We strode over to his counter, near the door. It looked as if I was being thrown out. Fortunately there was a spare jacket (I say fortunately but moments later, after having thanked the doorman and started again towards the staircase, it was to occur to me that this jacket must be one of Lennox Lewis' hand-me-downs. It was massive!)
Eyes started to gravitate towards me like Victoria Beckham to paparazzi cameras. I could not have looked more out of place if I'd gone along as a miner singing the Red Flag. The sleeves almost touched my fingertips and the hem was perilously close to my knees. It became quite apparent - and I'm not a sensitive sort - that a fair number of other attendees weren't so much looking down at me, as peering down at me from a great height.
So, with my levels of self-consciousness increasing, I continued up the grand, winding, portrait laden staircase with my friends. Upon reaching the top, we took a right into the room in which the reception was being held. It was already a throng of activity - the wine was flowing and more networking taking place than BT could ever dream of.
It is a lady's prerogative to be half an hour late and it is a prime minister's prerogative to be an hour late. As was her prerogative, Baroness Thatcher combined both. While waiting, there were many false declarations that Baroness Thatcher was about to enter; helpfully spread by Chinese whispers. Each time, a violent scrum to secure a favourable position would ensue, where gentile handshakes had previously been the order of play. I saw a young guy - who had the appearance of someone who could not have been better fed and watered if he'd been planted at Kew - kick my female friend, who was using a crutch. It was then it began to dawn on me just how desperately they all wanted to shake her hand.
This bow-tied violence was something I was all too keen to keep well clear of, so I leant against a wall which appeared to be supporting an old master. All of a sudden, the large oak doors were flung open and a diminutive woman appeared, wearing a burgundy silk outfit. She was dwarfed by the towering oak door frame. At the precise same moment, two massive television screens and several speakers - which had previously lain dormant - sprung into action. The footage was of Thatcher during the Falklands War, resplendent with headscarf blowing in the wind. The speakers boomed out Land of Hope and Glory. The room erupted, with everyone waving their fists, triumphantly, while singing along. I pinched myself; was this real? Baroness Thatcher proceeded to walk in the room and her presence immediately filled it. The manic crowd parted, as if by divine command.
Baroness Thatcher then proceeded to make her way towards the front of the room, where the television screens and speakers were. She did not make a speech, but Liam Fox MP greeted everyone in attendance on her behalf. It was like Madonna being supported by The Corrs' brother.
It was at this point I realised that it was probably best to keep a safe distance. However, it was also at this point I recollected that I had seen what must have originally been a servants' door halfway up the grand staircase. This small door, I thought, must connect with the private lounge Baroness Thatcher had come from before the reception and would presumably return to, afterwards. I decided to go through this servants' door, up a few steps and found myself in what could only be described as an anteroom.
There was only one other person in the anteroom: the photographer of the York University student newspaper. I chatted to her for a while, as the reception was in full flow. Then, after some time had passed, the doors opened and Thatcher came through. She faced me head-on and it occurred to me that I was seeing her employ the same stance she must have adopted in the Commons, over the dispatch box. She came towards me, shook my hand and said: "Thank you so much for coming along; it's great to have you here."
Then, a huddle quickly formed for a photograph to be taken. I was standing with Thatcher next to me and a swathe of others around us.
After the photograph, a ring developed around Baroness Thatcher: a Tory doughnut, if you like. All were anxious to share a few words with her. In contrast, I was happy to stand away from this melee, which resembled an affectionate mugging.
However, after about ten minutes, Baroness Thatcher's attendant said that it was time for her to retire. She didn't look like she needed to - she looked in her element. It reminded me of a parent telling their child they should go to bed because they are tired saying "No, I'm not..." The attendant cleared a break in the crowd but, immediately before she left, she walked over to the side of the doughnut I was on, reached through the crowd, clasped my hand, and said: "Like I said, great to meet you." I was both shocked and bemused. We'd never met before, I was not a Tory, nor even had I previously attended a Tory event. Despite this, she went out of her way to talk to me - twice. Every guest looked at me with faces screaming the question: Who is he? Basically, think of Nikki from Big Brother and that's what they looked like. And I don't blame them. I was a Nobody.
For some time afterwards, I wondered why she had gone out of her way like that - greeting me so warmly, when she was surrounded by so many others who were literally desperate to talk to her. Then it dawned on me - the jacket... I not only looked out of place; I must have looked as though I knew I looked out of place. Maybe Baroness Thatcher picked up on my awkwardness and attempted to put me at ease. I don't know, but if this was the case it would shine a light on a Mrs Thatcher I had not expected to meet.
This experience did not affect my political allegiance, though - I joined the Labour Party less than a year later. I am still a member - but it provided a personal anecdote about a woman who is not universally liked, yet who is historically fascinating as someone who revolutionized our country and the world.
For those of you who have short memories, I re-state: This article is not intended to be either a judgment on Thatcher or Thatcherism, but simply my account of when I met her.