[2 June 2013]
“On December 22 1986, finding I was body positive, I set myself a target: I would disclose my secret and survive Margaret Thatcher. I did.”
—Derek Jarman, 1991
One facet in the tragedy of Derek Jarman was that he did not outlive Thatcher—not really. Jarman, perhaps the most revolutionary and heartfelt British filmmaker of his generation, lived just long enough to see the Iron Lady who wore the butcher’s apron fall from power in as tawdry a manner as she achieved it. And yet the nation she left behind was still hers, scarred in her image in almost every way that mattered.
Derek Jarman (photographer unknown)
Nevertheless, as Jarman considered what was truly important in a life soon to be ended by AIDS, he decided that hating the old woman was worth the time and effort. It was not an indulgence, nor a vice; it was, for him and so many others, the only option left. The only reaction that made sense, on any human level, when faced with a figure who seemed to glory in the inhuman. She made hate necessary, and was hated for it. That alone should put the events of the past two months into sorely needed perspective.
Her passing (of a stroke, at the age of 87) was, to put it mildly, not unexpected. For the vast majority of British news outlets, the first order of business was simply to dig out dusty obituaries which had long since been put on file in anticipation of the inevitable. Still, the death of the former Prime Minister—arguably the UK’s most divisive, and the last occupant of that post to fully inhabit the curious, cobwebbed mindset of British imperialism—created an ugly enough upset to jostle the regular mask of British public life, allowing the rest of the world a brief, contradictory glimpse of what lay beneath. For some, what they saw wasn’t very pretty.
April 2013 was a month that saw the phrase ‘death parties’ enter the common parlance. Within hours of the news, spontaneous celebrations broke out on the streets of several British cities (though the popular press was quick to exaggerate their size and foment their notoriety), living up to the promise of the Liverpool football chant: “We’re going to have a party when Margaret Thatcher dies.” Cheering erupted among delegates at the National Union of Students conference, while Yorkshire pit villages that never recovered from Thatcher’s war on the miners made no apologies for happy hours and grim satisfaction. The Wizard of Oz number ‘Ding Dong (The Witch is Dead)’, which some people had been patiently waiting to sing for decades, suddenly rocketed up the charts, and for every public expression of sympathy for Thatcher’s family, there was another for her countless victims. In an age of attention deficit, we were reminded of just what long memories some people have.
Of course, such feelings were not universal. In fact, it could be Maggie’s final dark joke on us all: in dying, she has revived arguments over the ‘relevancy’ of her political style and philosophy, and revealed just how many of her ideological offspring still exist, both in and outside the halls of power. The dinosaurs are not yet extinct.
Unsurprisingly, the British political class largely refused to enter into the ‘Ding Dong’ spirit, which is a shame, since if any group could be said to resemble Munchkins, it’s the inhabitants of Parliament. It was hastily decided that Thatcher would be given the dubious benefit of a state funeral—an honour that British elected officials typically do not (and should not) enjoy—whilst all those who still profit from her legacies of greed and prejudice ceased to deny her otherwise-unfashionable influence, and made harrumphing hagiography the order of the day.
The British conservative media, which is to say, pretty much all of it, sustains its own sense of self-importance by propping up the worst prejudices of the British (or, failing that, the English) people, and then by smugly congratulating itself for keeping its finger on the national pulse. And so, on polarising occasions such as Thatcher’s demise, the gutter-press becomes baffled and enraged when its own prejudices are not catered to, and the public at large seems to go suddenly off-message.
Our government and our fourth estate solemnly informed us that this was a time of national mourning… and we responded with jokes. Bad ones mainly, but that didn’t stop a great many of us from laughing. The Scottish comedian and professional controversialist Frankie Boyle offered as good an example as any: “Finally” he tweeted. “I get to wear my black suit and tap shoes together.”
In case I’ve been unclear, I speak as a participant, not an observer. I have no use for journalistic objectivity in this particular case, and I couldn’t make any claim to it even if I did. I made those gruesome jokes. I smiled, because I once promised myself that I would. I am from Scotland, and under other circumstances, that would be all there was to it. Thatcher’s name carries a similar dread resonance in my country as the name of Sherman in the state of Georgia (or, if you’re feeling mischievous, Pinochet in Chile). Put it another way: no one apologised for spitting on Mussolini’s corpse.
And yes, I am aware of what this entails. I took unashamed joy in the death of another human being. I require no psychologist to know where that kind of thinking leads. And yet I did it anyway, which is perhaps even more disturbing.
I also know you cannot have it both ways. You cannot glory in the death of your enemies and still maintain good taste. But politeness is not universal. Empathy can only extend so far. And respect only goes to those who have earned it. So, some of us came to the conclusion that good taste was a sacrifice worth making. In Thatcher’s case, it was unnecessary. We could certainly never expect it from her. And honestly, many of us were simply incapable of feeling any other way.
Margaret Thatcher’s dead. I’m not sorry. What more is there to say?
“...It was difficult for us Americans to understand what it was really like here in the darkest parts of the eighties. We had a doddery old president who talked about the end of the world a little too often and was being run by the wrong people. But they had a prime minister who was genuinely mad… England was a scary place. No wonder it produced a scary culture.”
—Warren Ellis, Planetary.
Actually, quite a lot remains to be said. Even if I hadn’t trumpeted my heritage in the preceding paragraphs, the ugly invective it was couched in would have been more than enough to demonstrate which side of the Atlantic I sprang from. Readers in the States will have to forgive an outlander’s perspective, but I don’t think this kind of thing comes naturally to most Americans. Other than the exceptional case of Osama Bin Laden, I can think of no demise in living memory that has been actively celebrated in the United States—not in the true, dancing-in-the-streets sense that Thatcher’s death made impossible to ignore. On the whole, I admire them for that. But some things do get lost in translation.
For the most part, the US media worked from the same polite but disinterested script—first female Prime Minister, last of the Cold Warriors, etc.—while respectfully generic tributes were made from across the spectrum of American politics. What more could you expect? They still had good taste, after all.
However, in trying to make sense of the mixed reactions from within the UK itself, the bafflement from across the water was palpable. There was a general sense that taking pleasure in such morbidity was, well, gross. Though few tramped down the dirt more enthusiastically than me, I don’t entirely disagree with that assessment, which is why, now the dust has settled, I feel the need to explain… But not apologise.
There’s much to be said about what the reaction to Thatcher’s death can tell us about contemporary British politics, but that has been said elsewhere, and at great length. Such analysis has not, as yet, settled the issue in the UK, or clarified it for those beyond its shores. But no matter how much her latter-day followers or detractors may wish it otherwise, a loathing for ‘Maggie Milk-Snatcher’ (a nickname she never quite managed to shake, following an early policy decision to remove free milk from schools) does not necessarily denote an ideology. The reasoning behind the joyous revulsion so many felt the need to exhibit throughout April was cultural as much as it was political.
Despite what her obituaries may proclaim, Thatcher’s transformative effect on British politics was always given too much credit; monetarism and social policies that would be considered reactionary by the standards of the 18th century were very much in vogue at the time of Thatcher’s rise. She merely gave them a face, and allowed herself to be their most visible symptom. British culture, on the other hand, was infected by Thatcher as if her very persona was a raging virus. It is an infection we have yet to rid ourselves of.
To say that the artistic opposition to Thatcher was more effective than its political equivalent would be the smug judgement of a Millenial born in the year of Chernobyl. Neither I, nor any of my peers, have the right to question how hard Thatcher’s enemies fought, or how painfully they fell. And yet, for whatever reason, it is the artistic opposition that has endured.
As Britain prepared for the Ruritarian farce of Thatcher’s burial and the ‘Ding Dong’ punchline grew wearisome with repetition, other old songs began to poke through the firmament, rediscovered by the generation now being victimised by Thatcher’s heirs: ‘Shipbuilding’ by Robert Wyatt, ‘Stand Down Margaret’ by the Beat, ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ by Morrissey and, most famously, ‘Tramp Down by the Dirt’ by Elvis Costello.
“I never thought for a moment life could be so cheap,” Costello sang prophetically in 1989, “‘Cos when they finally put you in the ground / They’ll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down.” I wonder if, 24 years later, Costello feels satisfied to be proven right.
Others might disagree, but there are worse places than pop music to learn about politics. I had heard most of these songs before, at one time or another—I don’t live in the past, but I do vacation there—but hearing them together, in a context that now featured an actual corpse, gave some indication of the atmosphere that must have produced them. It’s an atmosphere that shares more in common with the one we now inhabit that you might think.
Protest songs can be found in any era of course, for almost any cause, but the Thatcher regime was more than one prominent Establishment target among many, ripe for mockery from the usual suspects. Several of the interweaving strands which composed British music in the ‘80s—the chaotic aftermath of punk, the joyous emergence of ska, and the first tentative articulations of New Wave—emerged from cultural and societal currents that Thatcher and her government, to all intents and purposes, declared war upon.
This included the UK’s flourishing Afro-Caribbean communities, its burgeoning but oppressed gay subculture, ever-increasing swathes of the unemployed and any post-‘60s holdout of bohemian liberalism that remained unmolested. None fit with Thatcher’s conception of what Britain was, or what it should be; to disenfranchise such people and their arenas was her simple patriotic duty, as well as the perpetuation of good business. Intentionally or not, Thatcher’s government looked to where the music was coming from, and sought to wipe it out, or at least render it submissive.
The Clash, to their credit, anticipated such a campaign of cultural pacification; their 1980 film Rude Boy—a rockumentary which goes to great lengths to record the endemic racism, police brutality and ascendant far-Right which characterised Britain at the time—acted as a chilling glimpse of what the coming decade held in store. But such assaults did not overly trouble Thatcher; she did not care for pop music, or those sections of society which might produce or enjoy it. She was neither the first nor last politician to regard denunciation by rock stars as proof of a job well done.
Other aspects of the UK’s cultural life could not escape her gaze, unfortunately. When the then-director the National Theatre complained about underfunding in the arts, Thatcher issued the terrifying instruction to “look at Andrew Lloyd Webber.” The British film industry received similar marching orders: if it didn’t make money or bolster the national image, Thatcher was neither interested nor sympathetic.
True, Thatcher did not declare war on art, as such—not the way she did to the miners, Argentina, socialists, trade unions, the unemployed, unfriendly journalists or so many others. She betrayed her philistine nature by failing to consider the arts an enemy of true significance. Her scope was broader, and more terrifying; she aimed to excise from society the kind of people who, throughout history, have been motivated to devote their lives to the making of art. In too many cases, she succeeded.
Because of her studied indifference to cultural matters, Thatcher largely delegated the job of corralling them to sympathetic fanatics to whom they were a bugbear. The most notorious of these was Mary Whitehouse, a demented, puritanical busybody who for several decades saw it as her personal, holy duty to keep British culture as conservative, stagnant and unambitious as possible. Though never on close personal terms with the Thatcher government (Whitehouse, to put it lightly, was less than personable), she still gave voice to Thatcherism’s brutal emphasis upon its own brand of moral purity, and demonstrated that the arts would not be immune.
Comedians have often pointed out that the very worst politicians provide the very best material for satire; Thatcher may be the ultimate proof of this. The bitter surreality of British ‘alternative comedy’ emerged almost entirely in reaction to her, launching the careers of figures like Alexi Sayle and Ben Elton. Rik Mayall, in particular, spent most of his early career personifying the comic grotesques left in Thatcherism’s wake, such as The New Statesman‘s Alan B’Stard, a degenerate parody of the corrupt, icy political operators who rode Thatcher’s coattails to power.
“Remember the Falklands, guv?” a one-legged veteran asks B’Stard while begging for change. “I certainly do—I made a fortune,” B’Stard replies, and kicks away the veteran’s crutches. Unsubtle for sure, but not poetically inaccurate.
Spitting Image Thatcher & Reagan puppets
Perhaps Thatcher’s most memorable and blisteringly effective caricature came at the rubber hands of satirical puppet show Spitting Image, whose portrayal of Thatcher as a dead-eyed tyrant who ruled her cabinet by intimidation and violence arguably endures in the British popular imagination as much as the woman herself (it certainly does in mine: one Spitting Image sketch involved Thatcher removing Ronald Reagan’s brain and replacing it with a remote control, an image which sent me into the kind of screaming, hide-behind-the-couch, nightmares-for-weeks kind of terror that only children are really capable of. To be honest, I’m not sure if I’ve ever really shaken it off).
These are some of the obvious examples—works that were created specifically in reaction to Thatcher’s rule, with specific political points to articulate and underline. Yet the cultural reaction was more than that. To create art at all, to devote yourself to its craft and the mindset that went with it, to focus on anything more than money and the Union Jack, was to reject Thatcherism in principle. By that criteria, I can think of no better example than Derek Jarman, who spent the Thatcher years creating some of the most powerful cinema of the ‘80s, in open defiance of the times in which he lived.
There may be better known anti-Thatcherite figures in the arts, ones who were more prolific in their explicitly political outpourings, but Jarman remains with me, the first one I think of when I imagine an artistic vanguard that stood against the tide which rose in 1979—mainly, because he got it so perfectly right. Not just ideologically, but in his conduct as an artist: he realised that the greatest opposition to Thatcher he could offer was art that acted as an antithesis to everything she represented.
Where Thatcher was parochial, bigoted and unfeeling, Jarman was universal, a defender of human equality and full of humour. Where Jarman merely made use of what stunted moralists like Whitehouse presumed to be obscenities, Thatcher and her government truly were obscene. As both an artist and a gay man, there was no common ground between Jarman and a government which made clear its regard for him as a degenerate societal mistake. It was a gulf that many felt, and still do.
The Thatcher years made it clear that, to survive and prosper as an artist, there could be no compromise, no accommodation, no shared perspective with the powers-that-be. Each side lived in different realities, and what little they could understand of each others’ worlds, they instinctively feared and actively loathed. Art was not wanted here. A new place, somewhere, would need to be built where it was.
“Well, one of the main things I’ve got against Vertigo… the thing I find a bit of problem is that their atmosphere, their ethos or whatever, seems to be based on the bad mood that I was in about 18 years ago. It’s not even their bad mood.”
— Alan Moore, the Idler, “In Conversation with Alan Moore”, July 2005.
When the writer Alan Moore gave this characteristically ungracious (but not inaccurate) assessment, he was referring to how the comics imprint Vertigo had retained the grim, gothic tone of the groundbreaking ‘80s work he wrote for them, while jettisoning the incandescent anti-Thatcherite fury which informed it. In Moore’s view, the ‘ethos’ he inadvertently created for Vertigo was made necessary by the political convictions it reflected; without those principles, the continuation of the ethos was pointless, not to mention unoriginal.
Considering the nature of April’s death parties, as well as the nostalgic revival of anti-Thatcherite cultural detritus in general, it’s easy to see Moore’s point. In the days following Thatcher’s passing, the British media took note of the fact that many of the celebrants popping corks and dancing in the streets had barely been born when Thatcher was in power. Some sniffed at what they saw as a kind of grisly bandwagon-jumping; what do 20somethings know about the dark days of Thatcherism?
In response, more than a few people pointed out that, as they are currently suffering from the policies of Thatcher’s ideological offspring more than anyone, the Millenial generation has more right than most to revel in her demise. Others have, perfectly correctly, argued that celebration is pointless for the very same reason—the woman may be gone, but her poisonous philosophy still endures, still stalks the land, and still inflicts suffering on great and growing numbers or its people. Thatcher’s party remains in power (albeit in a wobbly coalition), feverishly dismantling the UK’s welfare state and stripping arts funding to the bone in a way that Thatcher only dreamt of.
So why then, given the political equivalencies, has the British arts scene not mounted the kind of monumental opposition which Thatcher seemed to merit? True, the cultural sector in the UK is not on friendly terms with David Cameron’s government—lots of strongly worded letters and so on—but expressions of artistic protest have been minimal, to say the least. What has changed between then and now?
The unfortunate conclusion may be that Moore was right; no matter how much of Thatcher’s imprint remains burned into the national culture, preserving her as an eternal boogie-man and punchline, that cultural resonance will eventually be rendered meaningless without the political will to understand and articulate it.
As effective as protest art can be, the arts cannot be expected to pick up all the slack for a moribund political culture. I said earlier that the artistic reactions to Thatcher were more enduring than the political ones, but they were nevertheless acts of political art, and emerged from a thriving, active and endlessly angry background of political engagement and discussion. It’s an arena that no longer exists in 2010s, nor can it be easily replicated. The online activism of the anti-austerity movement has taken tentative steps towards a replacement model, but much work remains to be done.
In the meantime, we suffer no shortage of art, both ‘high’ and ‘low’ if you credit the distinction, to remind us what Thatcher was and what she wrought. Now the mourning period is over and the overexuberant celebrations have come to an end, I would not blame anyone who wished to forget her. Then again, you know what they say happens to those who forget history…
But while Margaret Thatcher does remain in the cultural consciousness, where so much hatred still resides, we should try to remember exactly why she was so hated instead of glossing over such details, as Phyllida Lloyd preferred to do in her cowardly 2011 whitewash The Iron Lady, the perfect example of a cultural reaction to Thatcher which is not only politically uninformed, but tries to make a bizarre virtue out of it.
We should remember the woman who declared war on an entire class of people as the ‘Enemy Within’; who befriended General Pinochet and labelled Nelson Mandela a terrorist; who triggered a colonial war in order to win an election; who put millions out of work and thousands out of their homes; who wrecked industry, revived Victorian morality, and upon claiming that there was no such thing as society, set out to prove it with a horrifying finality.
We should remember all of it. Because, although I’ve tramped the dirt down as hard as I can, there is still far too much of Thatcher that remains to be buried.
“I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”
Sean Bell is a Scots-Irish-Armenian writer based in Edinburgh. His journalism has been published in the Glasgow Herald, the Sunday Herald, the Evening Times, the Scottish Review of Books and Death Ray magazine. He can be followed at www.twitter.com/SeanCMBell