The news of Margaret Thatcher’s death has been surprisingly sobering to me. It brought on a quiet mood from me. I hadn’t ever answered the questions I’d been asking myself about her. And now she’s gone. What do I feel about that?
I think of where I grew up in the 80’s – in a mining community in West Lothian, where the miner’s strike ravaged my classmates lives, and I would go home and listen to adults talk about what was happening. My dad was the village doctor. Many of the little ones in my class had a father who worked in the coal pits. Some had mums who worked in the school kitchen as dinner ladies. Many had mums and dads who were unemployed. Nearly everyone at school had meal tickets. There was milk at breaks when I was really little – but then that stopped, for me when I was…still really little.
In the 1980’s, it wasn’t an easy childhood for any of us. Falla Hill Primary in Fauldhouse was not far from Whitburn and the largest coal pit in the region, Polkemmet. The rural mining community was devastated by the 1984-1985 miners strike. I remember all of it so vaguely and yet so clearly: I remember sadness clearly – sadness amongst my friends, kids whose family lives were unraveling. I remember anger clearly too – anger from parents, who seemed to me to have nothing and to be lost, and who would often vent their frustration in front of their children. But really I think my 10-year-old brain only vaguely understood what exactly was happening.
My classmates would go on to either Whitburn or Bathgage Academy (secondary school) in one of those two towns – although whether they’d stay until 1990 to take their prerequisites for a college education was really never quite certain to me. I remember a lot of the older brothers and sisters of my classmates talking about something called the YTS, which meant they could go straight to work, earning a wage, learning new skills.
As well as this culture of economic deprivation and undervaluing education, there was a culture of sectarian prejudice that was ingrained into all youngsters: Falla Hill was a protestant school, and St. John’s was a Catholic school and there would be regular (who arranged these?) fights between the two. I think back on it now with shock. Children – we were all children. And yet every few weeks (or so it seemed to me) there would be a coordinated rendezvous attended by 8-year-olds upwards to kick the s*** out of each other in the name of God? Or perhaps it was in the name of Jesus? I never knew or saw directly because I would never ever go. I couldn’t stand to think of it, and my Indian-ness saved any expectation that I should ever even observe such a meeting.
But not going to the scheduled fights didn’t make me immune to violence from strangers. I remember walking home from school, and a small boy, the same age as me (8-10) with red hair. I forget his name but we knew one another. He was not from my school. He was from the Catholic St. John’s. He would see me and his face would contort bitterly. I quickly learned it wasn’t because I was Protestant by association of my place of education. It was because my skin was brown.
He would take his bag – that I remember being something of a satchel – and swing it in the air above his head, like a heavy thick weighted lasso. He’d come towards me and he’d swing it at me. It would hit my head on my temples, and I’d fall to the ground. He would say ‘You wee Paki’ and sometimes spit. ‘Paki’ was the racist equivalent in the 80’s of the “n word” – applied to those of us who might have roots in India or Pakistan or Sri Lanka. I remember being dazed. Completely dazed. And too shocked to speak. I remember sometimes I’d try to scream but no sound would come out of my mouth: I’d be lying there with my mouth trying to make noises that wouldn’t come out.
Yes, people did see it happen. But they didn’t bother much. Racism was part of my 1980’s childhood in that mining community. It was hard to go to the shop without being called a wog, or a paki or without some things that you thought were cat calls but would actually be calls from local boys for the National Front to send you ‘home’.
Maybe for these reasons my parents had decided that I wouldn’t complete my education in the mining village. Instead I went off to an all girls school in Edinburgh where I clearly remember being 16-years-old and our teachers interrupting English class to watch the live footage of Mrs. Thatcher resigning. She was crying as she sat in the limo, looking out at her life as she knew it ending. So unceremoniously. So indignantly. Not toppled by Labour or the Unions, but by her own party. She looked vulnerable in that moment. The first time I think anyone had ever seen that in her. But she would not receive any support or sympathy: not from her opponents in the other parties, and especially not from her enemies from within her own party. Wow – I remember thinking. God, they look like hyenas. And, really, you did this. You created a monster.
A year or so later I went to Somerville College, at the University of Oxford to read English Language and Literature. This, I knew, was where Margaret Thatcher had also been an undergraduate. I used to think about that a lot when I would sit in the college library for hours, long nights – sometimes until dawn (although you weren’t meant t0 be there that late back then), trying to write, but actually preferring to read, or sleep, or just be silent in amongst the books.
I would look around me, soaking in the beautiful silence of this library and look out over the Oxford skies, and in summer see the greeness of the quad; and I’d think – how can this place have formed a leader who created a national culture of division and the experience of poverty and visceral hate? When did she decide it would be perfectly okay to be so hard-hearted? How did this happen?
In my own short childhood, lived out in the environment that she created for me, I had witnessed deprivation, sadness, and anger; and had directly experienced violence and hate targeted specifically at me. I carried on wondering about Margaret Thatcher when I was at university. I was there 48 years after she left, and one year after she’d been deposed from her party; but actually she was there the whole time. With typical narcissism I took the 80’s personally. Did she mean to hurt me like that? She really didn’t care that it had been so divisive and degrading and hurtful? Or could it be, as some historians were beginning to say, that she was a woman who was brave enough to give our country a bad, bad medicine that it desperately needed to be saved from its 70’s disease? That we will never thank her for it, but generations to come will?
Of course I never really worked it out. I could never answer the questions. I could never feel good with how it felt. It’s true that the UK was in a mess. And it’s true that she was an incredibly intelligent woman. Beyond that – what? What else can we know. She thought she was helping us, of that I’m sure. It hurt dreadfully. Of that I am certain.
The nice thing, as the years have gone on, though, is that I have forgotten about her mostly. Those days are over. The 80’s for me now are represented only by the collection of pop that I would drown my ten year old self in as I roller-skated around my garden (too scared to go outside the grounds), safe in not being able to hear anything they might call me: Fiction Factory, Giorgio Moroder, Cyndi Lauper, Julian Cope and Paul Young and Wham!
So news of her death Monday morning unearthed in me some deeply sobering memories. Visceral memories of childhood confusion, suffering, loss, conflict, divisiveness and violence. Wow, I forgot about all that.
But as those sobering memories surfaced, so too did news of something else that I found somehow equally viscerally sad. Street parties to celebrate her death. Jeering songs without any kindness. It made me feel sick and my stomach knotted the way it did when those boys would call out National Front slogans and tell my 10-year-old self to ‘go home’.
Dancing on someone else’s grave is as far away from social justice as it gets to me. It’s not the way for a living, breathing, connected society based on compassion, civility and justice. To me it’s the way of a people who are still wounded and made crazy with pain. If this is healthy then tell me, when will we stop dancing? What about when Blair dies? Bush (senior)? Bush (junior)? Should we just keep dancing at the news of these deaths? Yes – this is what Margaret Thatcher’s legacy taught us: divisiveness, cruelty, heartlessness. She gave us the experience of being humiliated and dehumanized and now, wherever there are people dancing, it seems to me they are reinforcing every negative experience I had to grow up with in the 80’s: humiliation, dehumanization, and refusal to acknowledge another human being’s innate right to be deeply respected and valued regardless of their politics, race, or class.
As long as we’re able to forget and respect the precious value of each and every human life, we’re dancing in the dark. Margaret Thatcher, the leader who hurt us, is not dead. She lives on in anyone who is moved to publicly celebrate a woman’s death when her family is mourning. As if they truly are Thatcher’s children, they doing what she taught them best – confusing callousness for power and wearing their heartlessness on their sleeve.
The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.