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Margaret Thatcher’s Love of Quack Remedies

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

As a leftie I’m biased of course, but I always thought the old witch Margaret Thatcher was more or less off her trolley (as we Brits say) — she had that mad glint in her eyes, and the recent release of a batch of Thatcher’s private papers, made public after the 30-year embargo was lifted, serves somewhat to confirm this impression.

Some of the papers in this set of releases show Thatcher to have been a sucker for what quacks were quick to offer her.

Thatcher’s biggest supplier of quack remedies was Dame Barbara Cartland (1901-2000), the author of 723 novels (mostly trashy bodice-rippers) that sold over 750 million copies and were translated into 38 languages.  Cartland, incidentally, was Princess Diana’s step-grandmother, and it is reported that Cartland’s novels were the only books read by the untutored Diana.

Thatcher, known to be a workaholic, received “nutrimental capsules” from the ever-solicitous Dame Barbara “in case you ever feel tired”.

Some of these capsules were made from “crushed sheep’s brain plus heart”.

Did it ever occur to the good dame that some may view capsules made from the crushed brains and hearts of donkeys to possess as much “nutrimental” value as her sheep-derived capsules?

In addition to the capsules, Thatcher also received a “magic acorn” from the novelist. According to The Guardian:

“The nut in question appears to have originated from an oak tree in the garden of Cartland’s estate near Hatfield, Hertfordshire. The tree was reputedly planted by Queen Elizabeth I on shooting her first stag, and Cartland believed it had magical powers.

In a 1994 interview with the Sunday Telegraph, the author related how she had given one of the “magic acorns” to a couple who appeared unable to have children, “and now they have a beautiful bouncing baby”. She added: ‘Of course, she [the mother] was always taking my vitamins’”.

Cartland took about 100 “all-natural” pills each day, which may or may not have contributed to her longevity (she died just short of her 99th birthday).

Thatcher had studied chemistry at Oxford, so it is perhaps surprising she fell for Cartland’s mumbo-jumbo. But then her Oxford chemistry tutor Dorothy Hodgkin (winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964) did not rate Thatcher highly as a chemist.

Another to give Thatcher advice on supplements was the millionaire industrialist Emmanuel Kaye, who visited Thatcher at home in 1989. According to The Independent, “’He [Kaye] said he could “sort out vitamins, minerals etc. and, if you like … check whether the vitamin C and the royal jelly you are having are of the best variety for you and work out the optimum dosage’”.

However, vitamins and royal jelly were small beer for the millionaire– his real specialty was something called “body tuning”.

Alas the newly released documents do not indicate whether the Iron Lady accepted this offer of “body tuning”.

The just-released papers detailing Thatcher’s predilection for quackery brought renewed attention to a 1989 Vanity Fair profile of her, titled The Blooming of Margaret Thatcher, which raised some eyebrows when it was published.

The Vanity Fair profile mentioned Thatcher’s use of “electric baths” in an effort to stay young. She visited an Indian practitioner who would run 0.3 amps of electricity through her bath water.

I thought at that time the unnamed practitioner would have saved large numbers of Brits any amount of misery if he decided to amp the electricity in Thatcher’s bath up to 30 amps!

I also recall The Guardian reporting in 2003 of Thatcher’s fondness for vitamin B12 shots, which her doctor was required to inject straight into her buttocks.

Alas the Tories aren’t the only UK party with a leader susceptible to New Age hocus pocus.  The Blairs, when Tony was Labour party leader and prime minister, had a controversial “lifestyle guru”, Carole Caplin.

Ms Caplin was personal shopper, fashion adviser, and fitness trainer to the Blairs (in addition to being a stylist and “spiritual adviser” to Cherie Blair–under Caplin’s tutelage, Mrs Blair was known to wear “magic crystals”).

Caplin gave Tony Blair “neck massages”, and chose his clothes, including his underwear.

In the 2002 “Cheriegate Affair” it was revealed that Caplin’s former lover Peter Foster, a convicted Australian conman, had helped Cherie Blair buy 2 properties at a discount.

Carole Caplin had already acquired notoriety in 1994 when the Murdoch-owned rag The Sun informed Blair’s office they had topless photographs of her which they intended to publish under the headline “Secrets of Blairs’ Girl Friday” on the day of Blair’s first Labour conference speech as leader.

Blair’s Svengali and spin doctor Alastair Campbell, who was hostile to Caplin from the beginning,  threatened to resign over this episode.

The Blairs had an American precursor in hiring a controversial “guru”, to wit, the Reagan White House’s court “astrologer” Joan Quigley. Donald Regan, the president’s chief of staff, who was no fan of Quigley’s, later wrote in his memoirs:

“Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House Chief of Staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco [Quigley] who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favorable alignment for the enterprise”.

Ours is of course the time par excellence of postmodern political leadership, where leaders dealing with the pressures of office can resort to equally postmodern therapies and salves for the anxious soul.

Leaders from a previous generation had ways and means of dealing with stress more attuned with the mores of the time.

Churchill’s formidable drinking regimen comes to mind (his motto: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me”)— hence for him a morning whisky “mouthwash”, a bottle of champagne at lunch, a glass of whisky by his side for the rest of the day, and more champers for dinner with brandy to follow. The old brute lived to be 90.

Thatcher, her partiality for “nutrimental capsules” and “magic acorns” aside, was known to drink whisky through the night when she was under pressure.

And let’s not get started on Boris Yeltsin!

When it came to over-eating, and not just boozing, the leader of them all in our times must surely be the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1930-2017), with whom Thatcher had a poor relationship, primarily because she opposed German reunification, which he accomplished.

Kohl was a big man (6’4”/1.94m and weighing over 300lbs/136kgs) with an appetite to match, especially for the typical dishes of his home province, such as stuffed pig’s stomach (saumagen), pickled pig’s head (schweinskopfsülze), strudel made of blood sausage and liverwurst, liver dumplings, and steamed yeast rolls. His wife Hannelore tried to control his weight and gargantuan appetite, so Kohl had to resort to secret eating.

All this is by and by, because it is impossible to imagine Churchill, Kohl, or Yeltsin dealing with the travails of office by resorting to lifestyle gurus, crystals, magic acorns, vitamin shots administered to the buttocks, electric baths, or astrology.

Another bottle of scotch or vodka (per day), or plate of blood sausages, was their order of the day.

More articles by:

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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