The Iron Lady II: the Agar Years

A word of explanation: for nine years until 2012 I wrote a regular column for the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management’s magazine In Practice, based on the exploits of Basil O’Saurus, self-styled Professor of Tauro-Scatology.  As this is a quarterly publication, some of the seams that I mined for inspiration had lost topicality by the time I had to submit my copy, and a few articles have sat on my laptop unpublished.   One of these unpublished pieces was written when the film The Iron Lady was released.  The recent death of Margaret Thatcher gives me a chance to resurrect this piece so we catch up with Basil O’Saurus as he heads to a meeting in Soho, in London’s media heartland. 

Where are you heading today, Prof?

I’m pitching my latest film idea to a production company.  The film industry loves to cash in on a successful film, so I’m proposing a prequel to one of the biggest box office successes of the past year.   You’ve heard of “The Iron Lady”?

Of course, Famed for Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning depiction of Margaret Thatcher

So now prepare yourself for: “The Iron Lady: The Agar Years”.  Ninety minutes of tense drama based on the true story of Margaret Thatcher’s time in a laboratory using algal by-products to improve the quality of ice cream.  Just think how different history might have been had she stayed.  Just think how different ice cream might have been if her talents had not been distracted by politics?

But surely you cannot base an entire movie on her one year in an industrial chemistry laboratory?

Of course not: The Iron Lady: the Agar Years will be searching for the dramatic untold stories in Margaret Thatcher’s early life and linking these to later events.

By “dramatic untold stories” do you mean “complete and utter fiction”?

Maybe, but a whole feature film devoted to algal by-products might tax even Meryl Streep’s acting so we need to dig deep.   And, just like in the original film, we’ll be telling the story through flashbacks.

Give us an example.

Picture the scene: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is planning the Falklands campaign, senior advisors are describing the terrible risks of sending a task force so far, Alexander Haig, the US Secretary of State is trying to broker a compromise and ….

Cut to a flash back?

Exactly.  Imagine the scene: the young, idealistic Margaret Thatcher poring over obscure phycological texts late into the evening, trying to find seaweeds that will yield newer and better polysaccharides … she finds a paper by H.J. Humon on agar resources of the South Atlantic published in Science in 1944 … it leads her to dig yet deeper into the subject ..

Cut back to 1982: Alexander Haig’s voice can be heard trying to persuade her that an unelected but pro-US right wing military junta has every right to invade an archipelago which, let’s face it, few British people had even heard about back in 1982 …

And, back to 1955 … she is reading the reports of the Discovery expedition from the early years of the twentieth century, as it investigates the marine resources in the southern Ocean …

1982, again, and her face has a steely resolve: to Alexander Haig these may be just a pile of rocks in the South Atlantic barely worth squabbling over, but they are British rocks and that is British seaweed fringing the littoral …

Maybe someone reminded her that the Falkland Islanders known as “kelpies”?   That must have meant something to her?

So The Iron Lady: The Agar Years is going to put a phycological spin on Margaret Thatcher’s entire premiership?   Surely you can’t explain her confrontation with the miners using algae?

Oh yes I can: coal industry waste was dumped into the sea at several points along the County Durham coast with devastating effects on marine life ….

So Margaret Thatcher engineers a confrontation with the miners ….

…. the entire social fabric of parts of north-east England come close to unravelling ….the mines close, the coal dumping ceases and, scrolling forwards thirty years, the coastline now has a healthy seaweed covered littoral.

And all because of Margaret Thatcher’s brief professional interest in ice cream?   Nice theory, but will it pass peer review?   Thanks for your insights, Prof.


Note #1: Fact or fiction?  Margaret Thatcher certainly worked for a time as a food research chemist for J. Lyons & co in London.  The precise nature of her work there is not clear; stories that she was involved in the invention of soft ice cream are anecdotal.  But it is too good a story to ignore completely.   A good account of her scientific career is by Jon Agar (I kid not): Thatcher: Scientist in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society 65: 215-232 (2011).

Note #2: Basil O’Saurus derives his name from the Basilosaurus, an extinct whale-like mammal that lived about 40 million years ago.

Note #3: Tauro-Scatology? Go away and think about it.