Jonathan Lee on the failed assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Eleanor Wachtel speaks with English novelist Jonathan Lee about his thrilling new book, High Dive. The novel focuses on the events leading up to the 1984 assassination attempt on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
High Dive is Jonathan Lee's third novel. (Tanja Kernweiss)
Listen to the full episode52:14

Jonathan Lee practiced law at a major London firm for six years. Then, five years ago, he quit his job to devote himself full time to writing and editing. His first novel, Who Is Mr. Satoshi?, was inspired by both his grandmother and his posting to Tokyo during his law career. He followed this up with Joy, which centres on young lawyers at a high-flying office in central London.

Lee's new book, High Dive, reimagines the 1984 assassination attempt on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during a Conservative Party conference in the seaside town of Brighton. He spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from New York, where he has lived since 2012.


Leading up to the bombing, Thatcher's popularity was pretty low. She had been recently reelected, but she was in a situation where suddenly she was polling very negative numbers. There was a feeling, in fact, that with everything that was going on, she might be forced to resign at any point. So there is this question, looking back on it, of whether Margaret Thatcher would have faced a leadership challenge at that time if the IRA hadn't tried to assassinate her.

After she survived the bombing, Thatcher's popularity went up by 10 points. And some of the things that she's always been criticized for — of being the Iron Lady, of lacking empathy — suddenly became benefits in the public eye. She walked away from the bombing with this stony look on her face and she didn't blink, and it was hard for a lot of people not to admire that or take a national pride in it. You talk about the British stiff upper lip and all that — while they were pulling people out of the rubble of the hotel, she announced that the conference would go ahead at 9 a.m. as planned, and indeed she had one of her lackeys arrange for Marks & Spencer to open early and provide fresh clothes for conference delegates whose clothes had been ruined in the blast. It turned her career around, in a strange way. 


I kept asking myself, what is lost in a blast like this, in a bombing? What is lost in an unforeseen moment like this where history breaks into this private world of the hotel and disturbs peoples' lives, people who thought they were safe or perhaps who weren't even thinking about politics at any point in their lives? And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that what is lost are the everyday moments. The banter between a father and a daughter. The moments of unease or love between friends on a beach discussing random stuff or seemingly inconsequential things, things that people would throw away and not care about or pay any attention to. It seemed to me like so many disaster narratives start with this big explosion, this moment of an earthquake or whatever it might be, and then you're expected to feel all this sympathy for the characters as you follow the fallout. That's the classic Hollywood movie disaster narrative. What those narratives sometimes exclude is some sense of the lives the characters were living before.


If you look at statements by the police and the press in the '80s — understandably, given the horrors that were inflicted on the people in the hotel in 1984 — you get the IRA men involved referred to as animals, as being completely inhuman or subhuman. These are the kind of words that come up. And it's different for everyone, but I started to feel that those labels were a way of not thinking hard about why people do things like this. I don't have any answers as to why someone goes and plants a bomb, but the more I looked at the situation in Northern Ireland, and the more I did research and spoke to people, it was clear that from the perspective of lots of Catholics in Northern Ireland in the '80s and before, that they were at war. That they really lived substandard lives where they had very little say in the running of Northern Ireland, and they felt that Thatcher was out to get them.

As I say, I don't think I have any answers, but Dan [the Irish character in High Dive who plants the bomb] definitely became real to me. And I became, if not sympathetic with his situation, then kind of empathetic. I had some slender understanding of how somebody in his situation might do some of the things he did. Which is not the same, I hope, as excusing any of them.

Jonathan Lee's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "Exit Music (For a Film)," composed by Radiohead, performed by Brad Mehldau.