Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Letters from Everest - George Lowe / View from the Summit: The Remarkable Memoir by the First Person to Conquer Everest - Sir Edmund Hilary

Letters from Everest - George Lowe

Sixty years after the first ascent of Mount Everest, this unique book of letters celebrates, in a very personal way, this most majestic of mountains. With exclusive access to the private archives of pioneering New Zealand climber George Lowe, this is a welcome tribute to an unsung hero. The conquest of Everest in the summer of 1953 was one of the twentieth-century's greatest triumphs of exploration. George Lowe's exploits on the mountain would become legendary. He was one of the lead climbers, forging the route up Everest's Lhotse Face without oxygen, and later cutting steps for his partners up the summit ridge. In this touching book, a trove of unpublished letters from the Lowe collection are brought together for the first time, to describe the day-by-day moments of this historic expedition as never before. In clear and elegant prose, this is a unique testimony of a superlative human achievement.

    View from the Summit: The Remarkable Memoir by the First Person to Conquer Everest - Sir Edmund Hilary   Adventurers the world over have been inspired by the achievements of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man ever to set foot on the summit of Mount Everest. In this candid, wry, and vastly entertaining autobiography, Hillary looks back on that 1953 landmark expedition, as well as his remarkable explorations in other exotic locales, from the South Pole to the Ganges. View From The Summit is the compelling life story of a New Zealand country boy who daydreamed of wild adventures; the pioneering climber who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth after scaling the world's tallest peak; and the elder statesman and unlikely diplomat whose groundbreaking program of aid to Nepal continues to this day, paying his debt of worldwide fame to the Himalayan region.

More than four decades after Hillary looked down from Everest's 29,000 feet, his impact is still felt -- in our fascination with the perils and triumphs of mountain climbing, and in today's phenomenon of extreme sports. The call to adventure is alive and real on every page of this gripping memoir.

Sterling stuff, indeed.  You can only stand back and gape in admiration at the man who was just utterly determined.  And along the way did so much.  He has a direct love of what he's doing.  The was no real grab for glory for him or others.  I admire that.  This book is probably still the best of a crop now available on the subject.  It's Unavoidably gripping and gives an excellent sense of the constant risk when climbing at high altitude.  It's a most marvellous life.  And at a time when New Zealand was at it's most feeble A tale of a true survivor, who not only overcame the hazards of Everest but put the fame this brought him to remarkable use.  We'll miss ya, Ed! - Right that bastard's knocked off!

From Bee Keper to World Explorer

This day in 1953, Ed and Sherpa Tenzing made history!

Sir Edmund Hillary was born in 1919 and grew up in Auckland, New Zealand. It was in New Zealand that he became interested in mountain climbing. Although he made his living as a beekeeper, he climbed mountains in New Zealand, then in the Alps, and finally in the Himalayas, where he climbed 11 different peaks of over 20,000 feet. By this time, Hillary was ready to confront the world's highest mountain.

Mt. Everest lies between Tibet and Nepal. Between 1920 and 1952, seven major expeditions had failed to reach the summit. In 1924, the famous mountaineer George Leigh-Mallory had perished in the attempt. In 1952, a team of Swiss climbers had been forced to turn back after reaching the south peak, only 1000 feet from the summit.

Edmund Hillary joined in Everest reconnaissance expeditions in 1951 and again in 1952. These exploits brought Hillary to the attention of Sir John Hunt, leader of an expedition sponsored by the Joint Himalayan Committee of the Alpine Club of Great Britain and the Royal Geographic Society to make the assault on Everest in 1953.

The expedition reached the South Peak on May, but all but two of the climbers who had come this far were forced to turn back by exhaustion at the high altitude. At last, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a native Nepalese climber who had participated in five previous Everest trips, were the only members of the party able to make the final assault on the summit. At 11:30 on the morning of May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit, 29,028 feet above sea level, the highest spot on earth. As remarkable as the feat of reaching the summit was the treacherous climb back down the peak.

By coincidence, the conquest of Everest was announced to the British public on the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The triumph of a British-led expedition combined with the inauguration of the young Queen did much to restore the confidence of a nation weary from long years of wartime hardship and postwar shortages. Edmund Hillary returned to Britain with the other climbers and was knighted by the Queen.

Now world famous, Sir Edmund Hillary turned to Antarctic exploration and led the New Zealand section of the Trans-Antarctic expedition from 1955 to 1958. In 1958 he participated in the first mechanized expedition to the South Pole. Hillary went on to organize further mountain-climbing expeditions but, as the years passed, he became more and more concerned with the welfare of the Nepalese people. In the 1960s, he returned to Nepal, to aid in the development of the society, building clinics, hospitals and 17 schools.

To facilitate these projects, two airstrips were built. These airstrips had the unforeseen consequence of bringing more tourists and would-be mountain climbers to the remote region. The Nepalese cut down ever more of their forests to provide fuel for the mountaineers. Edmund Hillary became concerned about the degradation of the environment of the Himalayas and persuaded the Nepalese government to pass laws protecting the forest and to declare the area around Everest a National Park. The Nepalese could not afford to fund this project themselves and had no experience in park management. Hillary used his great prestige to persuade the government of New Zealand to provide the necessary aid.

Immediately after the successful Everest expedition, Hillary and Sir John Hunt published their account of the expedition, The Ascent of Everest. The book was published in the U.S as The Conquest of Everest. Sir Edmund Hillary's autobiography Nothing Venture, Nothing Win was published in 1975. In 1979, he published From the Ocean to the Sky, an account of his 1977 expedition on the Ganges river from its mouth to its source in the Himalayas.

Sir Edmund's life was darkened by the loss of his wife and daughter in a plane crash in 1975. He continued to occupy himself with environmental causes and humanitarian work on the behalf of the Nepalese people for the rest of his life. He died at home in New Zealand at the age of 88, mourned by his countrymen and by legions of admirers around the world.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Athfield Architects by Julia Gatley - Auckland University Press $75.00

Anyone who’s grown up in Lower Hutt, especially around the council chambers will be familiar with Plishke’s austere, post-holocaustal modernity. The Bunker style Library, which resembles an ice cream factory or an enormous fridge; the soul-less clock towered council chambers; the stark, mater-of-fact-ness of the town hall and the Agricultural hall; even the horror of the new Dowse which mimics those other buidings or the ghettoised industrial abortion of the local police station. All these buildings scream for the ghosts of personality. Large, white and bland. Theyy shun any sense of individuality of humanity. They tell us to stay away, remain in our silos , be good little worker bees. Do not think, do not dream here in this new world of post war modernity! Listen to your government, do what they say, think what they tell you!

These are buildings that lack almost any features. Where function over form prevail.

Lower Hutt Town Hall
 The need to reject the shackles of pre war excess at the expense of clean efficient lineage simply dehumanised public and private architectural and raised it’s respect in modern day life to the clinical extreme. And that modernity was not just a product of the 40’s and 50’s – no, it remains with us today, still. I guarantee now that if you look around any home on the market you will see attempts to make clean, manila walls, new renovations are clean, lack frivolity, the lines are straight and perpendicular. In every home journal or house and garden, not a cord to be seen. There is no clutter, every surface is cleansed of human occupation. This is the legacy of all that modernity. Today houses and buildings are assets, to be cared fore but seldom to be enjoyed. Gatley’s first book, in Praise of Modern was a celebration of that tradition, which , alas is with us even in our newest works. Many of the latest buildings as simply reconfigured boxes of austerity. Domestic and corporate prisons, that whilst squeaky clean at first simply become looming and oppressive over time. Don’t believe me? Then observe the tired, bureaucratic European efficiency that is Lambton Quay’s Massey House. This is a building that needs more that a clean. It’s an geometric, algorithmic post Nazi reminder that we are all here to work to our employer’s bidding.
Massy House
There is little room for frivolity, inventiveness or creativity in the crowded real estate of the Golden Mile.

All this is why Ian Athfield was such a breath of fresh air. When his work appeared on the scene he brought the ideas of cohabitation and community from the masters such as Le Courbusier and Van Der Roe to Wellington. But unlike them, his vision was not to stack every body up like sample in a specimen cabinet. He believed in levels, surprises, twists and unpredictability. All which mixed in his work with the core requirements of the client. Athfield brought his hippy, trippy ideas into a country that was not yet able to break from the traditions of function as ‘all’. He introduced us to white buildings, as a way of adding colour to the surroundings (not teother way around). He introduced the communal living concepts of family, and proved the model in his own spiralling metropolis high above the Hutt Road in Khandallah. He Suggested adaptive re-use with first the Clyde Key Tavern and then the Broderick tavern,, which became his offices, for a while on Onslow Road. He reinvented the concept of the Council Flat in Hankey St and showed us that these dwellings didn’t necessarily need to reflect the hell hole nighmares of the English Estates. And now his thinking, in small and large projects focuses on the rebuild of Christchurch. Athfield thinks of the future heritage buildings. He asks ‘what can we build now that people may cherish in the future?’
Buck House - Designed by Athfield - Te Mata

Athfield Architects is a fabulous document of one of New Zealand’s most inventive architects. My only gripe
is that his influence has not been greater, and that too many bad buildings were constructed even after he started to get successful, perhaps those abominations will be destroyed in honour of work such as his. Gatley’s book is almost a personal admiration. As a student she was clearly involved with his projects and remains connected, as all architects do to his work. But more so, she is in a position to speak for him and articulate his thinking. In this way we can enjoy, and perhaps envy some of his achievements, as we sit in those lesser buildings, in our suburban compromise or our leaky homes, cursing our own faithlessness in a good quality design.

Julia Gatley’s a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland School of Architecture, a passionate boffin who’s penned tomes on modernism and the Group Architects in New Zealand. She also actually worked in 1987 on Athfield's bach at Awaroa Bay in the Abel Tasman National Park, so she can write from ‘proper experience’. As she says, ‘this was the most memorable’ time at architecture school, which may be why, occasionally, her tone appears still a bit gob-smacked at the ‘starchitecture’ of this humble quirky man. Mostly, the book is meticulous, scholarly but not university bookish. Real people need real architecture. And real people want to read real books about it. Don’t they? Thre is here in this investment a fantastically, preserved record of 200 Athfield Architects projects since the 60s.

She also does her best to write up his life, influences, and extraordinary times in over 300-odd footnoted pages, with a stack of high res photos and drawings. But Athfield isn't easy. The early work can be seen as counter-culture, picturesque and romantic, neo-colonial, "a mini-Islamic village of plastered pyramids and arched windows" she reminds us. In the 2000’s where does all this now site? Well if it’s lines up against some of the new work, perhaps it can be seen as a prototype, or a model for progress. As my mother would say ‘very nice, but does it leak, is it drafty, and where does the couch and telly go?” I laughed at the suggestion that the repeated use of twin chimneys could be interpreted as the "two-finger gesture to the establishment of the time". Really, I hope so. Architecture should reflect the mood of the people – not be the preserve of the filthy rich! Interestingly, and not without reason, Athfield moved from the necessary rebel to become the new establishment (in his elevation to president of the New Zealand Institute of Architects and other public roles). But as a good punk at heart we hope he still fights banality and commerce over people!

A little about the Man ....

In brief, Ian Athfield started work on his first major project, Athfield House, for his family and a studio in 1965. His early projects were constructed with a broad palette of materials including corrugated iron, plaster, stainless steel and fibre glass. As a reaction to much of the bland "Modern" architecture of the period, Athfield built in a deliberately vernacular style using features harking back to colonial buildings. His designs incorporated finials, steeply pitched roofs, timber weatherboards, verandahs and double hung windows. He was also inspired by the architecture of the Greek Islands with their exterior envelopes of continuous plaster and small windows. Conversely, he also much admired the work of Mies van der Rohe with their precise and refined detailing of industrial materials.

Athfield's sprawling metrololis over khandallah

Yet another area of influence was the geometric massing of the Japanese Metabolists. Athfield combined all these disparate elements into a highly eclectic and personal style. During the 1970s Athfield built and renovated numerous domestic houses and buildings, developing a distinctive and highly personal design approach based on the repetition of small scale elements and complex massing. Critical opposition to these 'cartoon houses' did not bother him (Manson). Another criticism of Athfield's houses were that they were built for charm and not practicality. Athfield believed, however, that “in a house, you should get a surprise every time you turn a corner and look up” (Manson).

Workers construct a concrete public toilet on the Petone foreshore in 1971 (near Hikoi koi). Concrete blocks are a popular building material due to the speed of construction. At this time concrete water pipes – used on this roof – were being used in houses as window frames by experimental architects such as Ian Athfield.

Athfield's practice expanded during the 1980s from mainly residential work to a wider variety of community and commercial buildings. As well as continuing to work on small-scale projects, his portfolio has included churches, pubs, council flats, stadiums and commercial high-rise buildings. Athfield’s best known works include Telecom Towers, Civic Square and Wellington Library, Jade Stadium in Christchurch and work on the design of the Bangkok rapid transport system.
Le Corbusier's use of Concrete
He is a past President of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, judges many design competitions and is a keynote speaker at many overseas conferences. His firm's current projects include Chews Lane Precinct, the Wellington Overseas Passenger Terminal redevelopment and the Wellington Marine Education Centre.

A documentary on Athfield, Architect of Dreams, has been produced for the NZ Documentary Festival.

Following the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, Athfield was appointed as an Architectural Ambassador to Christchurch.

For more information - go here:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré - Viking (about $30.00)

When this first landed on my desk I was immediately transported back to the Cold War days of George Smiley. Of course that was the hey day of Le Carré, I think even my parents had a stash in their book case. I’m sure they did. Even today you’ll find dusty first editions of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Looking Glass War.

To anyone who read Brittish literature the Cold War was entirely waged by Albert Broccoli and Ian Fleming and John Le Carré’s war. But once the Berlin Wall fell, then so did Le Carré. Well James Bond carried on. He found new enemies to fight. And so did Old John. I completely missed the book, but the film version of The Constant Gardener, perhaps his well-received post Cold War effort, was a brilliant story. The book explored the world of global pharmaceuticals tracing a plot of deception and cunning. All a subject we are familiar with and love to delve into. Its popularity was probably helped along by starring of actor Ralph Fiennes in the movie adaption.

But A Delicate Truth is a new beast. Toby Bell, a brand new character becomes embroiled in more recent history, and particularly the use by government of corporate security forces to engage in war. He is allowed to explore the new order (the new Government prcesses and the way politics and ‘homeland security’ mingle as close enemies and bedfellows. I get the feeling Le Carré does not seems to approve. He bitterly slams the invasion of Iraq. Tony Blair is tarred up as blatantly corporate: “New Labour loves Big Greed and Big Greed has armies of amoral lawyers and accountants on the make . . .” he shouts from the roof tops in early chapters.

Now Bell is a compelling and complex character. Apparently he signed up to the Foreign Service “to make a difference . . . take part in his country’s discovery of its true identity in a post-imperial, post-Cold War world.” But he’s also an ambitious young diplomat in the making, stationed to serve Fergus Quinn a Scottish MP, a ghastly “marooned Blairite of the Gordon Brown Era,” – actually a finely rendered caricature of a corrupt beneficence, with an apparently dodgy past. Meanwhile, a private intelligence company, Ethical Outcomes (wonderfully ironic name, don’t you think?) had been hired to kidnap a high-profile jihadist arms dealer whose boat is moored just off of Gibraltar. The company’s bankrolled by a wealthy, evangelical Christian, Republican American widow Mrs. Spencer Hardy, and staffed with global mercenaries including South African Jay Crispin. To keep an eye on them a U.K. soldier named Jeb is on the mission, as is Christopher “Kit” Probyn — codename “Paul” — a diplomat nearing the end of his career. He’s considered safe and is given the duty of being the British government’s “red telephone” — just in case the proverbial brown stuff should hit the big spinning blades. The mission (hope you’re keeping up) is carried out and hailed a success. Everybody goes back to their pre-mission lives. Probyn is awarded a coveted post in the Caribbean and a knighthood.

But then. But then . But then (hold your breath….). Against the odds, three years later, Probyn runs into Jeb accidentally. Jeb’s the worse for wear. He’s broke and is intent on exposing the truth about Operation Wildlife and an alleged disastrous ending! Probyn, along with Bell, is convinced of the need to get the truth out and the pair offer a delicate balance between the old way of doing things and the new. Le Carré makes the point that, with the corporatization of war, democracy is eroded. A Delicate Truth is Le Carré’s denouement of the new identity the West is creating for itself. “What the gods and all reasonable humans fought in vain wasn’t stupidity at all. It was sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody’s interests but their own.”

It’s a warning Bell (‘scuse the pun) on the sort of society we might create when the truth is doomed to remain secret! You have been warned!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Not For Turning - Robin Harris Bantam Press / Not For Turning, The Life of Margaret Thatcher - Charles Moore

Margaret Thatcher, circa 1970 … ‘After all the eulogies, it is refreshing to read about an odd, driven, believable person.' Photograph: Terry O'Neill/Getty Images

UK writer Dr. Robin Harris has written for The Daily Telegraph and Prospect amongst others but in hardback he’s a true blue Tory. Originally the Director of the Conservative Research Department (1985 to 1988) and a member of the Prime Minister's Policy Unit from 1989 to 1990, an author of the draft Conservative Party manifesto (1987 general election) he’s responsible for a at least three major Conservative Party histories: The Conservative Community: The Roots of Thatcherism - and its Future (Centre for Policy Studies, 1989); A Tale of Two Chileans - Pinochet and Allende (Chilean Supporters Abroad, 1999); and The Conservatives - A History (Bantam Press, 2011). So given all that Harris is definitely the man to know all about the days and nights of the Iron Lady, Maggie Thatcher.

Yet how much more is there to say about Margaret Thatcher? This is not the first and will certainly not be the last word on the woman. This, his own work is more a personal memory, although it’s pretty obvious from the get go that it’s more an historically accurate homage than a work of academic historian importance. The title is not original, e – taken from one of her most self-mythologising moments, her studiedly defiant speech to the doubting 1980 Conservative conference – and I wonder how much real originality will ooze out. Given Robin Harris "close" working relationship with the lady, for quarter of a century from the late 70s, as a speechwriter, ghostwriter, adviser, organiser and diehard supporter he’s bound to have the blublockers on through out. If you accept that then reading this will be easier. Actually, in her memoirs, she calls him "my indispensable sherpa" Interesting, though, that it was the more controversial Charles Moore who was chosen by Thatcher to be her official biographer in 1997. Remember, if you can, that it was the year her party finally lost power: her reputation, it was reasonable to assume, was going to need some protecting. "The arrangement that Lady Thatcher offered me," writes Moore, "was that I would have full access to herself … and to her papers. She would assist all my requests for interviews with others … As a result of her support … the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, gave permission for all existing and former civil servants to speak freely to me about the Thatcher years, and allowed me to inspect government papers, held back from public view under the thirty-year rule." In his eventual biography, Moore exploited this unique access with thoroughness and skill; but there’s still a sense of the British establishment granting favours to one of its own hanging, like a blunt instrument, over this book. Harris, on the other hand feels compelled to print his ‘letter of permission’ from the good Lady, including letterhead for authenticity, almost as a way of dispelling any myths that he’s writing this work out of spite for being discarded for Moore on her biography. "I can think of no one better placed than you to tackle the subject … You know, better than anyone else, what I wanted our reforms to achieve." Shame, if he was a bit more disgruntled, then we may have got more dirt and less boot polish!

Harris began his book in 2005, the year of another post-Thatcher Tory general election defeat. Despite the existence of the Moore project, it appears she was keen to collaborate with Harris too. I wonder if this was part of reputation-damage control or a genuine attempt to stay loved in a world of Thacherite hate backlash. Remember, next to Regan she was the most despised politician on the planet., even more so than Pinochet! He reprints a letter from her: "I can think of no one better placed than you to tackle the subject … You know, better than anyone else, what I wanted our reforms to achieve."

More alas, both biographies begin with a reverent depiction of her Grantham childhood, all formative hard graft and smalltown English virtues, which in the retelling – not least by Thatcher as a rising politician – has long become sepia-tinted reto-smaltz. Thatcher’s father was an ambitious but demented, controlling British shopkeeper (funny a politician brought up by a nation of shop keepers, who goes on to destroy local business at every level through demented policies of privatization!). Daddy was "tall, with piercing blue eyes and wiry blond hair". As a young girl, writes Harris, Thatcher had "a sweet smile, beautiful hair, flashing blue eyes". Here, as in much of the rightwing writing about her since her death, Thatcher seems to be becoming a sort of Tory Evita. God help us! And done cry for me, either!

But then revelation? Harris abruptly remarks, Thatcher "would never be very interested in people's personalities … only in their actions – and specifically those of their actions that directly concerned her." Further ‘tart’ assertions about her personality and habits quickly follow. When she ate, food would be "hoovered up as quickly as possible". Now I’m laughing. He reveals the uselessness of her husband, Denis – who was more likely to head for a club than cook himself a meal!

Also when she worked on official papers as prime minister, she often sat "in her [Downing Street] study in a high-backed chair … Over the years her feet wore a hole in the carpet. She refused to have a new one and had a patch inserted." This was meant to point out her heritage of thriftiness, learnt from dear old dad. Instead it hints at the meanness, yet still to come!

In political conversation, "She had no real sense of place … adopting even in private discussion the same aggressive and self-justificatory stance as she would in a hostile television interview." As a thinker, although she carried a collection of excerpts from Winston Churchill's speeches and broadcasts in her handbag, Harris writes, she "did not have much historical sense, merely some rather romantic and fanciful historical notions".

After all the eulogies, it is refreshing to read about an odd, driven, believable person – rather than some abstract national savior or demon. In his confident generalizations about Thatcher, Harris is like a long-faithful courtier freed by a monarch's death to speak the truth about them. He is not that interested in piling up evidence for his assertions. Like an article in the Spectator, the writing can be lordly rather than logical, and the word "probably" appears more often than in most biographies. I wonder if this is a way of revealing, but still holding back. Much of the book is closer to his memoir – so you need to take it on trust.

The recounting of Thatcher's dark-horse dash through the Conservative party pack and tumultuous premiership is efficient rather than revelatory. But there are also slow stretches where Harris summarizes and justifies her policies, one by one; and equally relentless but more quotable attacks on Thatcher's many Tory enemies and allies-turned-nemeses, such as her chancellors Nigel Lawson ("too clever by half") and Geoffrey Howe ("raddled with bitterness"). Yawn!

Moore by comparison is more measured. His dense, intricate volume, the first of an intended two, follows Thatcher only up to the autumn of 1982, less than a third of the way into her premiership. For now at least, this cut-off date robs his version of her story of the always-compelling element of rise and fall – the latter vividly and emotionally depicted by Harris – and instead makes Moore's Thatcher narrative like one of the economic graphs in Thatcherism's boom years: jagged but generally upward.

There are some surprises, though. Thatcher's sister Muriel, barely mentioned by other biographers, is revealed as the recipient of frank letters from the teenage Margaret. Of an Oxford university boyfriend, pre-Denis, also previously undetected by biographers, she writes: "Tony hired a car and we drove out to Abingdon to the country inn 'Crown and Thistle'. I managed to borrow a glorious royal blue velvet cloak … I felt absolutely on top of the world as I walked through the lounge … and everyone looked up." That Thatcher had a bit of a life before parliamentary politics claimed her in the early 50s is a less sensational discovery than some of the publicity around this book has trumpeted; but Moore, with typical care and perceptiveness, produces a clever coda to his account of the Tony relationship. In 1974, long after it was over, Tony, now a stockbroker with a professional interest in the housing market, produced a scheme for council tenants to buy their homes. As the shadow minister responsible for housing, Thatcher invited him to the Commons. "She made only the most glancing acknowledgement of their old acquaintance and got straight down to the policy, towards which she was very receptive."

This is Moore's first book (Harris has written or ghostwritten half a dozen), and its prose is understated and less partisan than his journalism. Occasionally, the long, controlled paragraphs curl almost imperceptibly into dry wit. In the mid-60s, he writes, "At the highest levels of the [Tory] party … suspicions were aroused that the rise of Margaret Thatcher might represent some sort of threat to male peace and tranquility." Nor is Moore a total prisoner of his many sources. Their testimony is weighed, and sometimes contradicted. Even Muriel, who granted a rare interview, is corrected when she claims that Margaret was too busy to go to their father's funeral, with reference to Margaret's "two engagement diaries of the period" and a report in the Grantham Journal.

There is a downside to all this neat dovetailing of material and elegantly murmuring, High Tory style. Thatcherism was in many ways an unsubtle, unstable political project, exhilarating or brutal depending on where you stood; yet only the exhilaration feels fully present in Moore's narrative, for all his conscientious detailing of Thatcherism's 70s and 80s ups and downs. Part of the problem may be the slightly sketchy way he deals with the world beyond. There is not quite enough sense of the social texture of Britain, and how that changed, as Thatcher rose, and how that change helped her. Similarly, events outside Westminster that proved pivotal for her – the 1978-9 winter of discontent that probably won her the 1979 election; the 1981 urban riots that so undermined her early premiership – are recorded too briefly and cursorily. Meanwhile, Moore's politics surface unhelpfully when he caricatures postwar Britain as in "steep decline", the economy under Labour in the 60s as a "car crash", and the IMF that eagerly helped do away with British social democracy in the 70s as "impartial".

As much of the debate since her death has shown, there are still plenty of takers for this doomy, simplistic view of pre-Thatcherite Britain. But present-day historians are becoming steadily less keen on it, and the struggles of our Thatcherised economy since 2007 don't augur too well for the long-term reputation of books that present her rule as having solved all our problems. Moore is more nuanced than that; unlike Harris, he offers a few quiet but stinging criticisms of her policies, for example on council house sales, which led to "the gradual build-up of a housing shortage which, in 1979, had not existed, and the stoking, for the future, of a housing bubble".

The other long-term value of this book is likely to be its sheer quantity of new or rarely deployed material. Alfred Sherman, the fiercest of Thatcher's many thinkers, told Moore before he died: "She was a woman of beliefs, and beliefs are better than ideas." As the Falklands taskforce set off, the then French president François Mitterrand, in theory Thatcher's ideological opposite, mused aloud, according to the diary of one of his advisors, "Do I admire her … or envy her?" Journalists and academics will be combing these pages for quotes and details for years, as they did the previous big Thatcher biographies, John Campbell's two volumes from 2000 and 2003 and Hugo Young's early version from 1989. Compared with Young's compelling mix of admiration and castigation, and Campbell's panoramic, even-handed treatment, Moore's effort lacks originality sometimes, but he has more facts. They do not profoundly change the picture of Thatcher we already have, but facts about mythologised figures are valuable.

Few parts of her life are as hazy as her final years. In the best section of his book, Harris gives an extended, intimate account of the empty, sad quarter of a century that unfurled for her after the abrupt termination of her premiership and Tory leadership in 1990. The House of Lords "she found soporific" and "ponderous". The continuing hold of her ideas over the Conservative and Labour governments that followed hers did not compensate for the loss of office and the cross-party rejection of her governing style as too feverish and shrill. She looked for causes, not always wisely. When the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 for crimes against humanity, Thatcher campaigned for his release. Harris was one of the campaign's organisers, and reprises here his and Thatcher's rather chilling justifications for Pinochet's "beneficial" rule. Yet Harris also claims – in novelistic, unsparing detail – that when Thatcher visited Pinochet during his British confinement, he had recently suffered "a series of small strokes – as, indeed, had she, though she did not yet know it".

Another scene describes her working around this time in her office in wealthy, sterile Belgravia, in a "high-backed chair" as in Downing Street, "looking at papers with the help of a huge magnifying glass … underlining, marking marginalia, gathering odds and ends together in files, and then forgetting where she had put them". It will be interesting to see what Moore's second volume makes of her decline. It had fewer witnesses than her rise. Like the little-reported thinness of her funeral crowds once you got a few hundred yards away from St Paul's Cathedral, some sides of the Thatcher story are melancholy rather than inspiring, even for right-wingers. Now she's gone, perhaps biographers can be more honest about her limits.

On the whole, this is a fine book. If you are a fan of the Woma. Me, I was not! I hated her, from afar, through the Muldoon and Reagan years, through the refrlect pig-shit that splattered across every part of the pink tinted British empire. So to read Harris’ book with eyes open and views firmly in my locked box of optimism and fair play was a real struggle. But, on balance I have to admire two things: If you didn’t know the woman (because you were, say living on mars for the last 30 years) then this is a good place to start. And two, if you want the opposing more liberal interpretation of her and her life then look up videos of the Spitting Image, Johnny’s Rotten’s memoirs and anything by Roddy Doyle and Will Self. The cold gray, oppression of the Thatcher years is concreted all over their pages.