Former premier found signing on and on, and on ..: Alex Renton joined the publication-day queue yesterday as Baroness Thatcher autographed 950 copies of her memoirs in 135 minutes

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BARONESS Thatcher, Britain's prime minister from 1979 until 1990, was found yesterday working in a bookshop in central London.

Manual labour seemed to agree with her. She was signing copies of her memoirs at the extraordinary rate of one every eight seconds: General Norman Schwarzkopf could only manage a signing every 45 seconds. Nine hundred and fifty copies at pounds 25 each were inscribed in two-and-a- quarter hours: Lady Thatcher repaid her publishers pounds 23,750 of her pounds 3.5m advance.

Buyers were whizzed past her like complaining Cabinet ministers. We were told that we could only have the signature, no inscription.

'But it's for my daughter's birthday,' pleaded a woman. 'Do you want to argue with her?' asked the security guard.

She sat at a table looking ready to sign a treaty, Sir Denis hovering behind her right shoulder. For the price of the book you got an autograph in blue felt-tip, a quarter-of-a-second blast from her bluer eyes and the chance to ask a question - well, no one was gagged.

One man was going to ask her why, when she thought politicians made bad businessmen, she wanted the NHS run as a business. He lost his bottle. Sycophancy seemed wiser: 'When will you come back and save the country again?' I asked, trembling all over. 'Well, let me finish doing this first,' she said firmly. And smiled. I smiled back. I was ushered away.

People began queuing at Harrods on Sunday evening: by the time Lady Thatcher arrived the line was 250 people long, stretching out of books, through the record department and into kitchen supplies. It was, an assistant said, almost as good as the queue they had for Pavarotti.

First was Steven Logan, 28, a cleaner from Whitechapel in east London, and a fan. 'I think she's the greatest living politician in the country,' he said, breathless after his encounter. Lady Thatcher had given him 'confidence'. 'I started my company under the Enterprise Allowance Scheme in 1986. If it wasn't for her I'd still be doing nothing.'

Most of the queue were true believers, like Tanya Vandyk, there to get four copies for her colleagues in Putney Conservative Association. ('She probably wouldn't come and do a signing in Putney because of, you know, David Mellor and all that.') Others were doing their duty. There was a chauffeur under instructions to get four, get them signed and then deliver them to addresses round London; and a lady from Bermuda, who was collecting copies for the island's premier and deputy premier.

Sixteen-year-old Sally Macdonald of Ealing had come with her cousin, 'because my cousin's from Leicester, and she doesn't often see anyone'. Lady Thatcher, said Ms Macdonald, looked just like her mother's friend, 'which is odd, because he looks just like Edward Heath'.

Lady Thatcher has, according to her publishers, 'the heaviest signing schedule of any author since the beginning of time': 25 events across Britain in the next two weeks.

This, one bookseller said yesterday, will put The Downing Street Years in the same league as Ted Heath's book of memoirs, which has been advertised in the second-hand trade as 'a rare unsigned copy'.

Ed Maggs of Maggs Brothers in London said he would not buy my copy at a premium unless she'd attached a warm personal message to her signature. 'Take it to America,' he advised, 'they don't have the same sense of irony there'.

(Photograph omitted)