BIOGRAPHY BOOKS: Mouth shut and bottoms up

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BELOW THE PARAPET: Biography of Denis Thatcher by Carol Thatcher HarperCollins pounds 16.99

IN THE unlikely event of your meeting the Thatchers on a long train journey, try not to get stuck in the seat next to Denis. According to his daughter's book he hates trade unions, socialism, "fuzzy wuzzies in Brixton", journalists in general and BBC journalists in particular, women rugby players, Henry Moore and black African leaders, except (ho ho) when they are "not as black as they are painted".

You will probably be able to guess that he likes golf, the Army, South Africa, his old school, rugby union, gin, the Queen Mother and (I admit this is harder to predict) President Zia ul-Haq, the former dictator of Pakistan.

In short, he is a pretty good imitation of the Denis Thatcher in Private Eye's Dear Bill letters. But while John Wells and Richard Ingrams' fictional Denis could fill volumes with a running Wodehouseian commentary on the Thatcher years, the life of the real thing is barely enough to fill a pamphlet.

Carol Thatcher has tried to stretch it into a 290-page biography, and the strain shows. The bare facts provide the biographer with little to work on. Denis was a serious boy who, according to his sister Joy, was "born grown up". He saw no action in World War Two. The steady management of the family chemicals business followed demobilisation until a stressed Mr Thatcher sold the firm in the 1960s and ended up on the board of Burmah Oil. Burmah went bust in 1974; yet - strange but true - Thatcher's hatred of socialism did not stop him receiving a large state hand-out from the Bank of England which got the company back on its feet again.

The engagement to Margaret followed a prosaic courtship. Denis was 35 and recovering from a failed wartime marriage. Margaret was 23. According to Carol, the prospective Mrs T could not have written an "equation that balanced more usefully. She was a young workaholic, overflowing with ambition ... Denis was strong, reliable and of independent means." It was a pragmatic union, and neither partner can remember when and where Denis proposed.

His years in Downing Street should be fascinating, but father and daughter have resolved to be discreet. Denis's motto is "keep your mouth shut" and although his loyalty to his wife and friends is admirable in these kiss- and-tell times, it does nothing to excite the reader.

Nor is there any sign of Carol's promised assault on her mother. Advance publicity featured Ms Thatcher saying that the former prime minister was cold, distant and frightening. But the only hints of any tension in the book are odd references to Mrs Thatcher never waving good-bye to her children when she left for work, and occasionally forgetting Carol's name.

Faced with these external and self-imposed limitations, Ms Thatcher is forced to pad like an upholsterer on piece rates. We are presented with the full 11-course menu Denis enjoyed at the White House and the names of civil servants who helped her unearth Edwardian Thatcher ancestors in New Zealand. At times, Ms Thatcher seems to recognise that she is beaten and simply reprints Dear Bill columns.

There are, however, a few gems hidden away. A naive Ms Thatcher wonders why her father, the first man to be a British prime minister's consort, did not have Fleet Street "reptiles" crawling over his past. But the British Press was and is largely controlled by right-wing and far-right-wing proprietors who loved her mother. In the book's most authentic moment, Bernard Ingham is quoted giving young Carol the score. Journalists with an interest in Denis "knew how to behave", he explains. "It wasn't in their interests to slag him off and let him down because they knew that certain consequences would follow." Cherie Blair should read and weep.

Best of all is a glorious poem from Jack Page, which deserves to be immortalised in some future Oxford Book of Toadyism. In January 1982 Mark Thatcher got lost in the desert while taking part in a cross-Sahara rally. Mr Page, the Conservative MP for Harrow West, had spent Christmas with the Thatchers at Chequers. When Mark was found and the nation rejoiced, he sent a bottle of Moet and the following lines to the Prime Minister:

Just after lunch on Boxing Day

I think you may have heard me say

That `dashing verve and courage stark

are all embodied here - in MARK'

I never thought these words would be

so quickly proved for all to see.

And now the agonies are through

(and worries only loved ones knew)

Dear Mark has rightly challenged us

with - `Why ever was there so much fuss?'

So once again now calm and cool

Let's all apply the tried Page Rule

which after crises always is

just `Say your prayers and pop the fizz'.

Mrs Thatcher replied: "Marvellous - absolutely marvellous. How do you do it?" Mr Page was knighted in 1984. If you finish this book, stick out for a dukedom.