Sunday 14 April 2013

I protected her to the very end... but nothing could prepare me for the final heartbreak: A touching portrait of her last days, by the bodyguard who never left her side

Barry Strevens was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher’s personal protection force.

For more than 20 years, from her days as Opposition leader of the Conservative Party through to the day she quit as Prime Minister, Detective Chief Inspector Strevens, now 69, was constantly by her side. He was head of Mrs Thatcher’s security detail when she left office, accompanying her to Buckingham Palace to tender her resignation to the Queen. In later years, Strevens was one of only a handful of people who visited her regularly, up until her death at the Ritz hotel last Monday.

I wonder if all those rejoicing at Lady Thatcher’s death would feel the same if they had any idea of the true nature of her final months: of the loneliness and frailty that she faced with such courage that it was heartbreaking to watch.

The desire to protect her during that time was as strong as it had ever been, only now the threat came from within, from the countless mini-strokes that relentlessly destroyed her faculties bit by bit. All I could give her by then was my time and, I hope, some comfort.

There was a routine to my visits to Lady Thatcher’s home at Chester Square, Belgravia. She had two carers, one from New Zealand, one from Australia. They had been given a list of names of people who were allowed to see the former Prime Minister.

It included people like Julian Seymour, director of her office, Mark Worthington, manager of her office, Crawfie, her former personal assistant and some of the other secretaries who had worked for her over the years. I would always try and see her at weekends or bank holidays when there were fewer people around. Lady Thatcher would always be waiting in her armchair, by the open fire, in the sitting room on the first floor.

Above the mantelpiece was a large painting of her dressed in a wine coloured dress with a greeny-grey shawl. Photographs of the family were dotted in and around the miniatures friends often bought her and which she liked to show visitors.

I always brought her red roses and at Christmas she loved poinsettias. Despite her failing health, Lady Thatcher was always immaculately dressed, often wearing pearls. She was always fastidious about her hair. She hated wearing hats in case they messed it up. She was also a natural brunette so, as her security officer for 20 years I learnt more than a man should about highlights, hairspray, back combing, the lot.

In fact when a new superintendent arrived in the early Eighties, I remember him saying to me: ‘Who’s this Carmen Roller that the PM sees every morning at 8am?’

Once Lady Thatcher and I were settled in her sitting room, one of the carers would come in with the tea: English breakfast served in a pot, with china cups, and shortbread biscuits as Lady Thatcher knew they were my favourite. It was a thoughtful touch but then she always treated her officers – if not her Ministers – as equals and never let anyone talk down to us.

She liked to pour the tea but in those last months I would do it. It was difficult to see her powers so reduced. She would start formulating an answer to a question but halfway through would forget what that question had been. When I saw her struggling it was hard but I admired her courage. She was a fighter to the end although not, perhaps, fearless.

She seemed so alone. We would talk about the family and the grandchildren. I would ask if she had seen them and she would reply: ‘Not for a while.’ In truth, she might have forgotten they’d been.

Carol visited sometimes. Mark was limited to the number of days he could spend in the country but he always made sure he was there for hospital appointments, as he had done throughout her life. Sir Denis hated hospitals and wouldn’t accompany her.

One of the most upsetting things was the loss of her rescue cat, Marvin, a big white fluffy overfed creature that she adored. He would sit by her chair waiting for the endless flow of titbits, but in the end he had to go as people were frightened of her tripping over him. Some friends have said that in time she had no recollection Marvin had ever existed, but I distinctly remember her asking for him.

There were also lovely moments. The last time I visited Chester Square was in the first week of December. Someone had placed a book about her by her side which contained a lot of pictures from her time in office. There were photographs of official tours we had done together, and as we leafed through her eyes lit up at a picture of Ronald Reagan. In another, when she saw Mikhail Gorbachev, a big smile spread across her face. She was back with them, enjoying their company, if only for a moment.

In the evenings she watched television. She had loved watching the Olympics and would say: ‘We did well.’ She also liked musicals and Frank Sinatra. In the old days, whenever we were abroad and there was a pianist, I would ask him to play My Way when she entered the room.

I would tell her stories about our times together, like the first Christmas after she became Prime Minister in 1979. We were at her bolthole, Scotney Castle, in Lamberhurst, Kent. Mrs Thatcher had already let her driver go home for Christmas, leaving me and another security officer with her. Then he had to leave to attend a family crisis and I was the only one who could get him to the station.

It meant leaving her unprotected – an absolute no-no – but she insisted, and when I returned my office had been transformed. Where it had been a complete tip, it was now spotless and a fire was roaring in the grate. On the table there was a flask of coffee, a tin of biscuits, a miniature bottle of whisky and a Christmas card.

The Prime Minister was just taking off her marigolds as I walked in. ‘Now, that’s a bit better, isn’t it Barry?’ she said. ‘Happy Christmas.’

At weekends she would often cook lunch for us all. Steak and kidney pie was a particular favourite.

Once at Scotney, a senior sergeant had stepped in dog’s mess and didn’t realise until he was standing on the white carpets of Mrs Thatcher’s sitting room. Understandably, he was terrified but as he danced about on one foot, the Prime Minister got down on her hands and knees and started cleaned it up saying: ‘Never mind, we’re in the country now.’

She loved to hear stories about Sir Denis during my visits to Chester Square. I would remind her of all the times he would ask me to make sure he had his ‘special water’ at official functions (a strong gin).

And I would often tell her about the night they came back from a party in the American Embassy a bit squiffy, and Denis told her: ‘Darling, if I lived in an igloo with you, I’d be happy.’
Mind you, I didn’t tell her about one of my favourite memories of Sir Denis.

We were travelling by private jet to America and reading magazines to pass the time. Denis was holding House & Garden but actually it had a copy of Playboy inside. When Mrs Thatcher finished her magazine and leaned over to take his, he threw me a look of panic. I quickly offered her mine instead and the relief on his face was a picture.

Of course, there were difficult times. When HMS Sheffield went down during the Falklands War with the loss of 20 lives, the Prime Minister was at a meeting in the House of Commons. Willie Whitelaw was the last to leave, and I was about to enter the room when he said: ‘Give the Prime Minister some time, Barry.’ When I went in ten minutes later, it was clear she’d been crying.
In November 1990, after she was ousted, I accompanied Mrs Thatcher and Sir Denis in the car to Buckingham Palace. I was acutely aware of the tears in her eyes, we all were. No one said anything on the way there or the way back.

During her first few months out of office she was terribly distressed and didn’t know what to do with herself. We all still called her Prime Minister as we thought it might help ease the blow.
One day I asked her why she hadn’t fought on. She replied: ‘If your generals won’t support you there’s no point in going on.’

At Chester Square we spoke only of happier times .  .  . of the past, yes, but we were still looking to the future. I know Mark certainly was.

The truth is, none of us expected to lose her when we did, perhaps because none of us could quite imagine a life without her.

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