Shepherd’s pie in Downing Street

How Margaret Thatcher brought her own flavour to Number 10.

Lady Thatcher's detractors accused her of many things, but they could never accuse her of being spoilt. Her tastes were simple: she liked nursery food and drank whisky and soda. Number Ten always surprises visitors by how cramped it is, but somehow it suited her.

Humanising it fell to Denis Thatcher, said Bill Deedes in a piece written for The Daily Telegraph shortly before he died. Ramsay MacDonald had loathed the place and preferred, as prime minister, to take the Northern Line every night back to his home in Hampstead.

"There were two gas meters there in his time, one registering gas used for cooking his breakfast, for which he paid, and a second for the entertainment of official guests, for which the taxpayer picked up the bill." Much of that tradition had survived when the Thatchers arrived in No. 10. If Denis needed a taxi, he had to call one on his own account.

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There were few luxuries, but Denis helped make the regular Downing Street receptions seem much less "soulless" by constantly introducing strangers to one another. "Archbishop, I want you to meet Mr Walton. He runs a delightful shop in Rotherhithe." In the flat upstairs, the Thatchers fended for themselves; no staff were provided for them.

Mrs Thatcher brought her own cleaner from Flood Street and often did the cooking herself or bought in pre-cooked meals. Every morning, said Cynthia Crawford, Mrs Thatcher's assistant, in the Daily Mail, she would make Denis a full English breakfast, which he'd "eat with relish while she consumed almost nothing". At nine "on the dot" she'd go to her study.

She watched the clock in the evening, too. "We had these speech writing sessions," says her former adviser, Charles Powell, "and we used to break for supper at about nine. She would dish up these monotonous shepherd's pies she got from M&S and, at the end of supper, she would rise smartly and say: All right, come on back to work. Denis will clear away and wash up'." She would have washed up herself if she'd had the time.

In The Guardian, Simon Hoggart recalled her annual visit to Balmoral. "The royals have a picnic and the Queen washes up. Thatcher tried but failed to stop her and do it herself, because she could do the dishes and run the country more efficiently than anyone. At all."

Rolling back the state

I enjoyed Ian McEwan's semi-defence of Mrs T in The Guardian. If today's Guardian readers "time-travelled to the late 1970s they might be irritated to discover that tomorrow's TV listings were a state secret not shared with daily newspapers. A special licence was granted exclusively to the Radio Times It was illegal to put an extension lead on your phone. You would need to wait six weeks for an engineer. There was only one state-approved answering machine available. Your local electricity "board" could be a very unfriendly place."

Our modern world may be harder-edged, but "Thatcher swept way those state monopolies and transformed daily life in a way we now take for granted".

Tales of Mrs T: "red means she's agitato, blue means in command"

Mrs Thatcher could be "appallingly rude" to her colleagues, says Ferdinand Mount in The Daily Telegraph, "but she was forgiving of the btises of her staff and sympathetic to their problems, always on the lookout for a husband for an unmarried secretary".

When Mount, who was head of her policy unit, "groaned aloud" during an interminable meeting, she insisted, despite his repeated denials, that he had a cold coming on, "and kept the meeting waiting while she climbed two and a half flights of stairs to the top-floor flat in No. 10 to fetch some Redoxon".

"Journalists? Brittle, insubstantial people who have never achieved much in their own lives but are only too willing to criticise others who are trying," Mrs Thatcher once told Bernard Ingham, her press secretary. "When the late Christopher Hitchens was a political reporter for the New Statesman," says the novelist Ian McEwan in The Guardian, "he corrected the prime minister on a point of fact, and she was quick to correct Hitchens in turn. She was right, he was wrong.

In front of his journalist colleagues he was told to stand right in front of her so that she could hit him lightly with her order papers. Over the years, and through much re-telling, the story had it that Thatcher told Hitch to bend over, and that she spanked him with her order papers. The truth is less significant than the alteration of it. There was always an element of the erotic in the national obsession with her From the invention of the term sado monetarism' through to the way her powerful ministers seemed to swoon before her... She exerted a glacial hold over the (male) nation's masochistic imagination."

"Lady T was emphatically anti-trousers," says her former personal assistant, Cynthia Crawford. "For casual wear, she preferred a twin set and skirt." The late Alan Clark said he could detect her moods by her dress. "Red means she's agitato, worried. Blue means she's in command."