I’ve asked my mum to see if she can dig an old photograph out of the suitcase she and my dad keep under the spare bed. Back from the days of prints and scattered negatives, of 24 exposures and using up the end of the roll. It’s a shot of my sister—then about nine or so—on a day trip to London.
It was a very rare short break, just me, my mum and sister as my dad couldn’t afford the day off work and we did ‘all the sights’, or at least the Tower of London and the bridge. The picture was taken in Madame Tassauds, and shows a young blonde girl in a denim dress planting a knuckle sandwich on to the image of our then Prime Minister. I recall us thinking that it would be a great photo to show Dad, that he’d be proud. He laughed, some months later when we eventually got the prints back from the chemist’s.
I don’t recall any security at all, at any point as we went round. We certainly weren’t accosted for disrespect, trespass or criminal damage. It was a more open age, where you could get closer to things. But I really don’t think it was unexpected, or maybe something the staff were quite tolerant of. As an ex-employee of the museum tweeted last week, it turns out that in the late eighties, spitting on the waxwork wasn’t uncommon: instead of a playful little snapshot, our kid might have caught something disgusting.
This is just one reason why I’m not buying the accusations that the country has changed, become nastier in the years since Thatcher left office. It’s just one reason that I’m sure that outpourings of dislike and distaste, of memory and desire, aren’t manufactured or memetic. There aren’t people going with the flow, this is anger.
I was just about four when Margaret Thatcher took office, and my sister hadn’t yet been born, so by the time we were desecrating her effigy we’d known no-one else in power and knew that the blame for most of what made people we loved unhappy was laid at her door.
I remember changing schools when I was about five, and no longer getting those warm bottles of milk at break time. They were replaced with the option to pay 5p a week to have a plastic beaker of squash before going out onto the scrubby, crumbling, concrete to kick stones in lieu of balls. I knew this was the fault of the ‘milk snatcher’ and took this with the easy resignation that young kids do; I had no clue whether this was a real person or a slightly more evil version of the fabled Humphrey that was responsible for the disappearance of milk on TV.
I knew that she made Dad angry when she came on the news, and I knew that after his redundancy the anger was worse, and the amount of time he had to watch the news was increased. In fact I can’t remember a time when the feelings engendered by the government or the establishment in general weren’t distrust or anger.
I sat on plastic chairs in a decaying sixties building as my dad waited to sign on, with no hope of anything but a few quid to keep us going for another fortnight. I remember him going through to the other side of the frosted glass and us waiting amongst the—mostly—men who were a combination of angry and sad I haven’t seen for some time. I’ll admit I’m starting to see that again, in the eyes and social media statuses of people. It’s a lack of control and a divorcement from power of any kind.
Because what the Tories took away from the poor in the eighties was hope. Now translated by the Blairite heirs to her legacy as ‘aspiration’, it’s what you have none of when you can’t do anything about the situation you’re in. Working harder or longer isn’t an option when there are no jobs. No matter how much work there might have been, monetarism and Thatcher ensured there were no jobs. And we were supposed to ‘get on our bikes’ and fight others in the same situation for the scraps that there were.
When our car, a green Ford Escort Mark I, was stolen from outside our house one Saturday evening (leaving my mum to accuse my dad of hiding it so we didn’t have to go out on a day trip the next day) we couldn’t ever hope to replace it. We didn’t get another car until I was about fifteen, we walked or got the bus everywhere for eight years. On the day Prince Andrew got married we walked five miles into the centre of Birmingham, to a place Dad knew we could get a cheap part for our broken washing machine, and then walked back. If there were street parties, we didn’t pass any.
My primary school was a small C of E near Handsworth Park in Birmingham. The day after the main night of rioting in 1985, we were let out of school early. The air was full of excitement. We weren’t scared: this wasn’t violence against the people that lived there but against a system that offered no hope.
It was the legacy of no after-school sports, or football teams, because the teachers were on permanent work-to-rule after their profession had been demonised and the system was cut to ribbons. If the British got worse at football in the years following the Thatcher reign, how much of that was for a lack of organised games for kids and the selling off of every available facility in the years that followed? No hope, there was nothing to do.
I was just really starting to understand politics in 1992, enough to despair when Labour again failed. No-one you knew had voted for them—and in Perry Barr, one of the largest Labour majorities in the country that really was the case, rather than people voting Tory and being too ashamed to admit it—but they still ruled you. There was no hope, there was nothing we could do.
Every TV programme, every pop singer, every comedian was with you in a grim solidarity. How could people watch Spitting Image and still vote the bastards in—we knew they’d done nothing but feather their own nests. To understand, and especially to begin to understand, politics at that time was to instil an impotent rage inside you. The fuckers always won.
So, when the symbol of all that anger was deposed in 1990, we were happy. But it wasn’t our victory and still nothing changed. Jobs were still perilous, control was still lost.
And when the party that caused all the damage went, there were still those of us that were wary of what ‘our’ party was becoming. “They’re promising nothing.” and in the end, what they delivered was almost more of the same.
So, last week was, and tomorrow is, an opportunity for closure. There’s a release of all of that impotent rage. The rage is for the most part directed against the effigy, the caricature. Thatcher was frozen in time when she left office, her form crystallised as the figurehead of every bit of control the working class had had stripped away from them over the last thirty years.
Once taken by force and violence, those same dignities are now peeled away like onion skins by chubby-faced pernicious plutocrats. And that they’ve told us how to feel, tried to deny us this rage, has made it every bit more violent. They are the real targets, and the powerful image of Thatcher in full pomp is the cypher for that rage. Not the elderly woman she became, nor the mother, daughter or wife—but the harsh, uncaring symbol she happily personified to a whole generation.
After Wednesday, I hope the rage hits its targets more accurately: the system and people that bring us ATOS, workfare, bedroom taxes, vile hate and division, turning class against itself in aid of nothing but the pockets of their coterie of school chums. And I hope that hope can return. If so, she will finally have been able to do something to ‘save Britain’.