Springing a leak before Mrs Thatcher had decided

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The Independent Online
I HAD no idea when I went to work on Margaret Thatcher's memoirs, that the whole thing would become so newsworthy. If I had, I am sure I would never have signed the HarperCollins form that swore me to such absolute secrecy.

And now that the news is being dominated by people who clearly have not clapped eyes on Mrs T's memoirs and are speculating on what they clearly have not read, I think I am justified

in breaking my promise to say nothing until the book is published, even though it may lead to me being taken away in the middle of the night and thrown in a lonely canal by one of Murdoch's men.

But I have seen the book and I have read the relevant extracts and it would be wicked of me to stay silent now, so I have no hesitation in disclosing what I know of la Thatcher and what she says about the Major.

First of all, I should stress that although I did work on the book, I did not play a major role. Let me be honest: I hardly played a minor role. I was brought in to insert a joke into the Thatcher memoirs.

Even political memoirs are meant to have their lighter side, and although Margaret Thatcher was never known to crack a joke of her own in public, the publishers felt it would be wise to put at least one in the book, so that if anyone condemned it as being totally humourless they could point to my joke as disproving the accusation. So I used to turn up day after day at Fortress HarperCollins to offer my ounce of frivolity at some very serious meetings.

(I say 'Fortress' HarperCollins, but a lot of nonsense has been talked about the security conditions surrounding the Thatcher memoirs. It has been suggested that armed guards and sniffer dogs were used to protect the text. Absolute nonsense] Armed guards and sniffer dogs were used, yes, but not to keep anyone out - it was only to keep those working on the book inside the building and prevent them from escaping.)

The thing was that for people who were used to working on literature and real books, the strain of suddenly having to work on the strident keening of Madame Thatcher proved something of an ordeal, and more than one HarperCollins editor cracked and tried to make a bid for freedom, only to be caught and brought back again.

'It was a bit like having to edit the entire monologues of Ben Elton,' one long-suffering editor told me. 'In fact, Ben Elton at his most indignant and Thatcher at her most eloquent are, ironically, very hard to tell apart.'

Those who knew Mrs Thatcher well will tell you that she tended to reach her opinions after fierce arguments, and this is also how she wrote her memoirs. Most people, writing their life stories, would sit down and write down what happened, as it occurred to them and as they remembered it. Not Thatcher. She saw it more as a case of hammering out the appropriate story, much as she might have reached a Cabinet decision.

Surrounded by three or four ghostwriters, she would goad them into disputing her memories of what had actually happened, and the final version of what she had done in life would emerge from their joint deliberations. Her memoirs are less an account of what happened, more a series of communiques on her life so far.

Sometimes she could not decide what the appropriate verdict was on an event or a person, and this is where the confusion over John Major has crept in. She liked to leave her options open. Thus she might write a sentence like: 'Cecil Parkinson had both charm and talent, but in the final analysis it was his charm/talent that let him down.' The idea was that later she would come back to the sentence and strike out the option that seemed less likely in retrospect.

This is where the John Major trouble arose. She left sentences in the text such as: 'At this point John Major emerged as an intellectual lightweight/shrewd strategist' or 'To his colleagues, Major must have seemed a strong challenger/unlikely candidate', intending to come back later and leave just one of these in - presumably the least offensive. My feeling is that somebody, somewhere, got hold of a copy of the original text and leaked the offensive phrases which had not got into the final copy of the book. But who?

Some HarperCollins executive, terrified of Rupert Murdoch's wrath and desperate for a bit of publicity to help push an unsellable book? Some passing journalist, hired to carry out some minor task such as to insert a joke, and who had the wit to jot down some of what he saw? I think we should be told, but we shall probably never know.