Friday, 3 May 2013

Messing with Thatcher's Equipment

(I intended to post this on the day of the funeral, but was hampered by technical difficulties.  However, as Radio 4 has Charles Moore's biography of Thatcher as its book of the week, accidentally hearing it each day has reminded me of this abandoned post, so I thought I would post it anyway.)

I try to keep my life relatively anonymous here. I don't want an online presence in case, say, I ever take a job as a Youth Police Commissioner. Although writing about things I have encountered in my working life might be more interesting, it would be unprofessional.  But Margaret Thatcher's funeral turned my mind first to my original trip to London as I 'researched' a report on her for a US high school class, and then to a time years later when she was on my radar through my job at the time, when I messed with her equipment. Purely accidentally, of course, and that's no euphemism. Since I'm no longer doing that job, I thought I might on this one occasion refer to it in vague terms (although it's not too challenging to decipher) and share a story that I recounted in the speech I made at my main leaving party when I was made redundant decades later (owing to substantial government cuts. But no, I was not a civil servant.)

My first thoughts about Thatcher took me back to my very first trip to the UK when I was 15. I had always been a bit of an Anglophile, and since MTV had arrived in the States a few months before in 1981, my mind was focused on the exciting, new mysterious world of New Wave music and the incredible looking and sounding artists largely coming out of the UK when the US seemed stuck on disco.

Within hours of settling into the Kensington Close Hotel, I walked into the tiny Our Price Records on Kensington High Street and, in true teen spirit, blew most of my budget for the whole trip on these artists who were unheard of in the States, other than on the then obscure video channel that I watched religiously: Split Enz (my favourites-Kiwis, but London had albums that were unavailable at home), Human League (Don't You Want Me had been number one in the UK a few months before and I adored the video and, inexplicably now, envied the haircuts of the women in it), Haircut 100 ('aren't they all cute in their sweaters!'), Madness, the Specials and many others, all when they were fresh and apparently innovative. 

I remember how we American students queued patiently to pay and then suspected we were nearly the victims of some Limey scam when we realised that the album sleeves were empty, then figured out we traded them for the real thing at the counter. I handed over most of my money to Our Price and Miss Selfridge, where I bought trendy London make-up and clothes (nearly including brightly coloured and patterned stockings that would have been useless had a dear saleswoman not rightly assumed that I had thought they were tights. It didn't occur to Americans that anyone would still stock stockings. That meant that, other than the thankfully pre-paid but dreary boiled-meat dinners at our hotels, I was forced to survive for the duration of the trip on the Crunchie Bars that I had promised to take back to a school friend who never got them and never forgave me.

I had come over with a friend's school but was expected to deliver on my return a progress report on then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to my European Studies class, which was full of gorgeous high school seniors on the soccer team, so I couldn't bomb. Most of my time in the UK was taken up visiting all the tourist haunts, and certainly London was too lively to see me heading for the British Library to do research. Plus we were at the theatre every night, seeing Evita! with the late Stephanie Lawrence, Little Foxes with Elizabeth Taylor (sitting so close to that screen legend, I could see her stunning violet eyes), something at the Royal Court that baffled us as we didn't know what an MP was, particularly when said in an accent that, at the time, was indecipherable to us (horribly, customs stole all the theatre programmes that I had posted home so I can't re-evaluate the play with hindsight) and other joys.

So my research for my Thatcher report comprised a slight nod to the giant banner on the old GLC building (County Hall) referring to two million unemployed, occasionally listening with fascination to the rowdy and confrontational Parliament sessions on the radio news, and buying newspapers with Thatcher on the front page, planning to read them later. I befriended a marvellous old ex-policeman who worked at reception at the hotel, who one day sat with me and explained that I was reading all the wrong papers and steered me toward something more suitable. I wouldn't have bought a tabloid so I think I was buying the Daily Torygraph and he pointed me in the direction of more balanced, respectable papers. Thirty-one years on, I remember the joy of chats with that delightful man who took the time to try to educate me, more than I remember the content of his lessons. But I took his advice and got an excellent grade on my paper and presentation. I vaguely recall that it was a glowing report of how Thatcher was doing (things were not quite so angry yet). Some of the cute senior jocks praised me for going all the way to England to research my project, which at the time was pretty up-to-the-minute given that most pre-internet research relied on old microfiched periodicals and dated encyclopaedias.

Perhaps that distant experience made me predisposed to be, at most, apathetic towards Thatcher. Plus I had to admire a strong woman in a top post in what appeared to me to be a country completely untouched by the women's liberation movement that had hit the States with gusto a decade earlier.  But honestly, that was probably the last time I gave her a thought.

When I next saw her, I barely looked at her, although she gave a lengthy speech.  I ended up in a job back in London seven years later, aged 22 and fresh off the plane from America.  I had spent more time in the UK in between but I found the business language more of a barrier than I had experienced as a visitor, as I couldn't even recognise the weird English hole punches when people asked me to hand them one. I entered a strongly ceremonial world that was baffling, learned the important things quickly, yet still bumbled about a bit in my naivety, in a heady cloud.

It was an amazing new world to a foreigner, and early on, I worked on an event that involved giving the Freedom of that city to then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.  My main job on the day was to seat on the dais most of the Cabinet, and because the seating plan unhelpfully gave titles eg 'Home Secretary' instead of names, I had to learn who was in what post. There were no Wikipedia iPhone apps then so I had studied Whitaker's Almanac on the way into work, and then went up to people like Nigel Lawson and Michael Heseltine and asked their names, although others, like Douglas Hurd, I recognised from their Spitting Image puppets. That show proved to be a useful resource to me in those early days. I was also charged at that event with seating the Archbishop of Canterbury if the Prime Minister didn't take care of that. I kept an eye out for him and I did see Margaret Thatcher coming towards me with a sweet little old man beside her, but I paid him no notice because I had to keep my eyes peeled for a man in a tall pointy purple hat. But it turns out they don't always dress like that!

This event in particular always makes me feel a bit guilty. Gorbachev made a speech in Russian, which we all heard in English as an interpretation was fed through headphones we were all wearing, Sony Walkman-like gadgets that had been placed on everyone's seats. The Prime Minister then replied, but her response bore little relation to anything that Gorby had said, almost as though she had been paying little attention to his speech.

....Here's the thing.  I had to put programmes on all the seats before the event, placing them under this then high tech audio equipment, and when I did the Prime Minister's chair, her audio kit went clattering to the stony floor of that ancient hall. But there was no one around to tell, and I was a shy, scared temp, and it looked like it survived the fall okay. But I've always worried that the reason Thatcher's speech, which followed Gorbachev's, didn't address any of the issues that he had raised was because maybe she didn't hear a word of it because of me, and maybe, for all I know, Margaret Thatcher had Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon piped in through her headphones instead. I just felt it was time now to apologise for what I might have done.

Since her death, I have been watching the tributes and condemnations of Margaret Thatcher with bemusement. Had I not been working, I might have watched part of the funeral with interest as the music and sense of occasion would have no doubt impressed me, and I often hope for soothing words from the clergy at funerals in case they finally provide the key to comforting me about my own losses. But I have been a bit baffled by the passion of the long-standing hatred people still hurl in Thatcher's direction, particularly as she no longer had any direction, and a quarter of a century has passed.

I don't begrudge people who felt they suffered in her reign this hatred. I do have trouble grasping the fortified, filthy living bitterness in people decades after she became a non-entity. Perhaps because my father taught me that bitterness is giving someone free rent inside your head, I don't value the concept. I'm particularly baffled when so many of the vitriol-fuelled protesters seem to be too young to have experienced Thatcher in any way, other than through some Legend of Sleepy Hollow story passed down to them by their parents or teachers. As a young child, I gladly wore the Impeach Nixon button that had been pinned to me before I knew much about anything, yet I felt no inclination to go out of my way years later to attend his funeral and shout insults at a corpse who couldn't hear me in front of the devastated newly orphaned children of the politician.

I might have tapped my foot to Elvis Costello's Tramp the Dirt Down in '89 with the same glee I had applied to spitting Pink Floyd's words 'Hey, teacher! Leave those kids alone' despite being a teacher's pet and loving school. It is trendy when you're young to lash out at the establishment, and part of the joy of education is choosing to rebel.  Every generation challenges what has gone before and thinks they were the first to think of it.  It's fun to be angry young men and women, but most of us grow out of it.  You can still hate the politics, but why hate the person to such an extent that you dream of spitting on the corpse and singing silly songs from century old musicals to torment the ones who grieve? Those who make the effort to deny the mourners some peace remind me of eight-year-olds giggling as they practice newly learned curse words in front of the elderly, hoping to impress their peers with the clever shock value. I just think it's a bit pathetic to hurt people who are hurting. Gleefully celebrating someone's death by taking to the streets to shout 'Maggie Maggie Maggie Dead-dead- dead!' when her family is in pain is surely uncalled for unless you're living in some sci-fi scenario where an entire planet is suppressed by an evil big brother figure who has finally been conquered, thus freeing the world, or if you're a victim of Hitler. Perhaps I am a soppy lone voice on this, but is a bit of humanity and decorum so difficult to find in one's soul?

I never imagine anyone reads this blog but no one need leave comments explaining the horrors of Thatcher. I do understand, and I'm no superfan. My 1989 class assignment was the most positive comment I ever made about her, and these days, I'm apathetic as I long ago moved on from any feelings I had during her administration.  There have been several useless prime ministers since then and only one that affects my life in any way now, so I'll save any annoyance for the here and now.  It's still not productive but has a better chance of achieving something than aiming it at a person whose senses sadly left her some time ago, whose power left her decades ago, and whose life has left her now. I would also have to be intensely keen on something to brave the event crowds in Central London, and I can't imagine camping out for hours in the cold for a prime spot even for something fantastic, never mind just to turn my back when the moment everyone else is waiting for comes.  You have to be pretty committed to looking away to waste your time and energy so colossally. That lifeless body, a harmless old lady in the end, would be unaware of your gesture, so it could only hurt innocent people who, for instance, cared for their mum who was always in their world before.

I acknowledge that not everyone agrees, and I am glad that most people had the sense to bark before and not bite at the funeral itself. But as someone who suffered the shock of losing a parent (and more recently a grandmother to a sudden devastating stroke) and immediately felt like an astronaut whose line had been cut whilst doing a spacewalk, I can't watch anyone suffer without empathising. I know the full horror of sitting near a coffin in a church as it dawns on you that all that is left of this crucial lively towering giant who brought you life and led you carefully through it lies inside that wooden box like breadcrumbs in a breeze. I know how it feels to leave the church and know that is The End. I can't imagine wanting to bring even more pain to someone in that position at that moment. Presumably those people who hate Thatcher for being unfeeling can imagine her being thoroughly proud of how they behaved around her funeral.

My madly meandering reminiscences turned into an accidental rant. And I certainly didn't intend to attack people, many of whose views I might once have shared. There's just so much pain to be borne in life, I can't stand to see people needlessly pour more over people teetering on the edge of a newfound sudden void at a time when they are probably struggling just to stand upright and remember to eat. But my sole point of writing this was to reminiscence about my first exciting trip to London and to apologise into the ether once again for possibly damaging the then Mrs Thatcher's equipment and maybe making her hear Pink Floyd instead of Gorbachev.  I hate it when that happens.

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