I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
I despaired this morning when I heard the news that Margaret Thatcher was dead at 87. Not because her passing upsets me. I’d already celebrated that in late 1990, when her party finally realized the old bat was potty, the wheels had long fallen off the Iron Lady, and she was growing even more unpopular than her historically record-breaking low approval ratings might have anticipated, and she needed to be removed from office for their own good before she took them down with her.
I recall walking round the streets of Greenock that day, in something of a daze, overhearing a couple of old guys on a street corner in conversation: “She’s gone, then.” “Aye.” It had been a long, difficult era from her election in 1979, when as a politically inexperienced 19-year-old I barely realized what she was about to usher in, through the horrible early 1980s, protesting against the Falklands War and the UK and US’s saber-rattling in the face of the “Soviet threat,” then the Middle East adventures that were a pale prologue to those of the 2000s, and being subjected to none too subtle state surveillance for my troubles, to standing on my doorstep one morning faced with a court official who was threatening to send the bailiffs round to confiscate what little property I had.
That last event happened because Ms YAFB and I had had the audacity to do as we’d been encouraged by the government and set up a small business in the teeth of a recession, our industry—publishing—was being more than decimated, work had dried up, we’d submitted accounts the local council needed to decide whether we were eligible for some benefit to help pay our Council Tax (a.k.a. Poll Tax), and they’d somehow lost the papers we’d sent in (not for the first time). No court date for a hearing. A sheriff somewhere had heard our case among a slew of others some time earlier. We were never offered the opportunity to attend and put forward our side of the case. The first we knew was a lunatic demand in the post for immediate payment of an absurd amount of money we had no prospect of finding. And so I stood there as this besuited, rather shifty guy threatened me with sending round the heavies.
That was Thatcher’s Britain. Or a small series of snapshots of it. And we got off lightly compared to many. We survived. Survived to see Thatcher leave office in tears.
Of course, her legacy—the massive capital flight immediately after she took office, the wilful ruination of our already ailing manufacturing industry, among others; the hateful, divisive rhetoric championing austerity (for a select some) that maintained “There is no alternative,” that victimized and Othered those who’d been trampled underfoot as bankers became the ultimate favored class and the rest of us were measured solely in terms of how much we could swell their coffers, and subjected to humiliation and treated like enemies of the state, abject scroungers, if we didn’t deliver; the idiotic middle-class pretend-housewifely insistence that a country’s financial affairs could be run like those of a home; the military adventurism that stirred and shamelessly exploited deeply unpleasant aspects of British jingoism; the spectacle of a woman disproving the inexplicable myth that a woman leader would be less warlike, more compassionate, more attuned to listening than male ones, spouting an anti-feminist insistence that because she’d climbed the greasy pole, there wasn’t any grease, enacting policies that did nothing for the women in society who most needed assistance, and presiding over a cabinet where women were even more underrepresented than in Parliament as a whole; the wholehearted befriending of tyrants and opposition to basic human rights; the whole mindset that obsessed about the cost of everything and valued nothing except the bottom line—that legacy endured, and we may never recover from it as a nation.
So no, I despaired this morning when I heard the news that Margaret Thatcher was dead at 87 because even in death, she is the most divisive political figure of my lifetime, and I’m going to be grinding my teeth to the gums as I try to dodge yet another self-serving tribute in the media to her memory and how she “reshaped” politics and the country, “did what had to be done,” or be forced to revisit just how much her too long reign overshadowed the early part of my life. I’d tried to get all that out of my system in 1990.
I think I’m going to raise a glass or a few. Not in celebration. Not in tribute. I just want to get hammered. I survived her. There were many times I didn’t think I would.
While I’m waiting for the alcohol to kick in, I may keep a bleary eye on the Talk page at her Wikipedia entry. I could do with a laugh. I’ll also be looking back through my old Steve Bell cartoon collection. As you can see, he was a great historiographer of her life and times.
Update: From the Department of Unintended Consequences
Rubina Madan Fillion
Confused Cher fans panicked after seeing #nowthatchersdead hashtag. My @WSJ roundup of the best tweets: http://on.wsj.com/16Ip8xv
More: Steve Bell’s tribute today: