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Who, What and When

This little book contains fictional conversations between two famous women: Margaret Thatcher and Dorothy Hodgkin. There is an important link between them - Margaret studied chemistry at Oxford and Dorothy was her tutor. Furthermore, in the last year of her course Margaret was a research student in Dorothy's X-ray crystallography lab. Though they have this in common, they were very different people in background, in politics and in character.


Margaret Thatcher requires no introduction. She was a staunch Conservative and the first woman Prime Minister of the UK. In her own lifetime she became famous throughout the world. Dorothy Hodgkin is less well known, though in the world of biochemistry she is very famous indeed. Using X-ray crystallography, she determined the structure of many important substances including penicillin, vitamin B12, and insulin. She is the first and only woman from the UK to be awarded a Nobel Prize in science. She was very definitely a lady of the left and, like Margaret, not one for turning.


Margaret was the daughter of a grocer from Grantham, a small market town in Lincolnshire. Dorothy was the daughter of a colonial civil servant. Their upbringing was very different, their attitudes to life, morality, religion, marriage, in fact almost everything, poles apart.


Both women were highly intelligent. However, whereas Margaret was a thrusting, confident, abrasive woman with little tolerance for those she thought of as fools; Dorothy was a shy, unobtrusive, friendly woman with no taste for the labyrinthine committee politics of academic Oxford.


The inspiration for this book came from my day job as an Oxford city guide. Whilst designing a new walking tour based on North Oxford I thought how refreshing it was to talk about famous women for a change rather than exclusively men. Most tours focus on the older colleges, all of which were for men only until the 1970s, whereas North Oxford is the home of the early women's colleges. Prime amongst these famous women are Dorothy and Margaret of Somerville College. I began to wonder, given their strong links at Oxford and extremely different characters and opinions, what those intimate moments at the end of a one-to-one tutorial might be like. What would they have discussed, what might they have said?


On the lighter side, what right have I to imagine the conversations which might have taken place between these two interesting women? Well, my first name is Robert and Margaret's surname at the relevant time was Roberts. My wife's name is Margaret. We called our first goat Dorothy. I have had my photograph taken with Margaret Thatcher (and quite a few other people) at a conference in Salt Lake City. I live almost equidistant between the college of both women, Somerville, and Dorothy's main Oxford residence in the Woodstock Road. Margaret Thatcher privatised me back in 1984 (along with about a quarter of a million others in British Telecom). As mentioned, I am nowadays a city guide in Oxford and regularly talk to my groups about the two famous ladies. I have, during my life, traversed a well-beaten road between very left and slightly right in politics. The book is set in the year of my birth (roughly). I have read, with great pleasure, Georgina Ferry's excellent book 'Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life'. I have also dipped into various biographies of Margaret Thatcher including, 'Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality' by Jonathan Aitken and 'The Iron Lady' by John Campbell. I have also spent many happy hours rifling through the Internet for articles on the immediate post WWII years in which these conversations are set.


When I created these conversations fifty years had passed since Dorothy received the Nobel Prize and just under a year since Margaret died. It therefore seemed timely to write this little work of historical fiction, if that is what this is. The Historical Novel Society decrees that a historical novel "must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events". Well, I just fail on the latter, but forgive me since I was alive, but not sentient, at the time.


The meetings between the two women are assumed to have taken place in the 1946/7 academic year. So, travelling back to that time, Dorothy and Margaret are thirty-seven and twenty-two years old respectively. The war is over and a Labour government has just swept into power. The country's economy is wrecked and the troops are coming home. Dorothy has recently cracked the penicillin molecule and Margaret is researching into the structure of gramicidin S in order to earn her BSc at Oxford. Oh, by the way, terms like "BSc" and many other abbreviations and words have special meanings in the heady  world of Oxford, its university and colleges, so I have included a list of definitions at the end of the book should you need them.


Most of the facts used during the conversations are true, but, once again, the conversations are fictional, though they do at times utilise utterances based loosely on the two women's own words.


Margaret Thatcher once asserted that she and Dorothy did not discuss politics - but what if they had? Read on.




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Margaret Thatcher and Dorothy Hodgkin

Political Chemistry