Here is the fifteenth poem (or more of a prose piece, this one!) in my 52-poem sequence (one a week) for 2013, followed by some illumination and reflection:
Yes, I remember the day Thatcher resigned. I had just woken up to a murderous hangover and found two unidentified drunks in my flat. I was half-way through a suicidal fried breakfast. Someone put the TV on and suddenly there it was: everyone was talking about HER past-tense, preparing political obituaries, puzzling over possible successors. Reporters were hanging around outside Number Ten, like a party of excited school children.
And then something happened. I took a mouthful of orange juice and my whole body stiffened. Was it the fried food or the incredible information my brain was receiving? In any case, all my senses rebelled. After a short three-metre sprint I found myself on my knees in the toilet clutching the lavatory seat like some lifebelt in a raging sea. At the risk of offending both Christian and Conservative, I must say that what followed next I still regard as a semi-religious experience.
Behind me the television blared out its astonishing revelation, while my stomach muscles knotted into painful convulsions. “AN ISOLATED FIGURE WHO ALWAYS SEEMED TO LACK COMPASSION”. That did it: up came the mushrooms and tomatoes and beans on toast. “HER ANTI-EUROPEAN STANCE HAD INCREASINGLY BEGUN TO BE SEEN AS AN ALBATROSS AROUND HER PARTY’S NECK”. Now it was diced carrots and scotch broth. “THE RECENT POLL-TAX RIOTS IN LONDON AND WIDESPREAD PUBLIC REACTION AGAINST AN UNFAIR TAXING SYSTEM…” Yes, I was in full flight now, giving it Technicolor yawn from a roaring lion.
It seemed to me at that moment that I was rejecting her and everything she stood for. As my stomach heaved and the TV commentary raged on, my mind was reeling with pain and confusion: but step by aching step I was bringing up each of the eleven years of my life which that damned woman had poisoned. As I prayed so devoutly, head bowed before the porcelain altar, I felt healthier every minute, spiritually cleansed: hoping for a brighter, more honest, and decent future. Three terms of evil were re-wound and erased, hospitals un-closed, jobs un-lost, Argentinians un-murdered.
As I talked to God on the big white telephone, I laughed and wept and thanked him for our deliverance: mine and that of the British people; confessing that greed had been the cause of both of our afflictions.
Not strictly speaking a poem of course, and a bit of an oddity in the sequence, but one that I think belongs there for light relief and political perspective. Also, it helps bind the whole sequence to a particular time and place, the purgative moment when Margaret Thatcher suddenly resigned, after three miserable terms in office.
I realise that people outside Britain saw and still see Mrs Thatcher in a different light, perhaps as the first woman Prime Minister for instance and as a strong leader. I’ll concede the first point, but on the second point so was Hitler. A good leader is someone who listens to those around them and to the populace who put them there, and on these criteria she failed spectacularly. It is generally accepted that she was about to be voted out at the end of her first term, when the Argentinians invaded the Falklands and gave her an excuse to appear bold and resolute and her popularity ratings rose hugely as a consequence. This told us something very sordid about human nature, but more specifically about something dangerous and wretched buried in the English/British national psyche: a residual hurt regarding the loss of the British Empire and a longing to “see Britain great again”. These are childish and despicable urges, and like the materialist greed that ‘Thatcherism’ became synonymous with, they represent the lowest of human emotions that any government should seek to cash in on.
As a Scot of course, I have a peculiar and problematic view of all things British. I know that Scots played a key role in making the British Empire ‘great” but I also know that the Act of Union (1707) between the two countries did not have a democratic mandate at the time and that the centuries since have seen the ancient nation of Scotland side-tracked and submerged to serve the ravenous appetites of London and the South-East. I am with Einstein when he says that “Nationalism is the measles of mankind. It is an infantile disease”, and I am with James Joyce when he says “British Beatitudes! Beer, beef, business, bibles, bulldogs, battleships, buggery and bishops.” At the same time however, I love visiting the international city that is London today and my many friends who live there.
Very few people voted for Thatcher north of the border, and yet we were stuck with her for three political terms of office, imposing extreme right-wing policy upon a predominately left-wing populace. Nobody who lived through that is likely to forget or forgive it, which is why, sooner or later, a serious re-negotiation of the Act Of Union is on the cards within our lifetimes. The straw that will break the camel’s back I believe, is nuclear weapons (and their smoke-screen, nuclear reactors) and the vast sums of money that the London government want to spend on these in order to threaten people all around the planet and play at still being a world power despite the long-gone British Empire. In that respect, we are just as laughable as the North Koreans. Threatening other nations does not make our world safer, only trade and negotiation does that. Vast arsenals of nuclear weapons are completely useless in today’s world, because they can be answered by one man with a rucksack. Time to move on and live in a new reality. Until England lets go of its dying dream of empire, it is a doomed nation, heading for serious social disorder as the racists and isolationists jump into the breach left by cuts in public spending. Scotland’s considerable oil resources have paid for that flight from reality for the last several decades, making it the only nation on earth to ever strike oil and get poorer. The term “Resource Curse” was invented for third-world nations, but we seem to have made it our own.
Then again, we should acknowledge that Scottish Nationalism, should such a movement ever end up with a bona fide independent state behind it again, will also fall under Einstein’s definition of infantilism, and that perhaps history did us all a favour by making us a stateless nation and our émigrés the first true internationalists, rivalled only perhaps on that count by the Jews, who seem to have punched similarly above their weight in every nation in which they found themselves. Every commonwealth country I have visited, I seem to find that an ingenious Scot got there 150 years earlier and invented the tram system, an engine or a social movement. Our country’s loss was the world’s gain.
What Thatcher did for feminism is a difficult question. She certainly prove that women in power can be every bit as intelligent, hardworking, cruel, stupid, egotistical and domineering as any man, that in fact in matters as weighty as politics, any difference between the outlooks of the sexes pales into insignificance compared to the basic traits of character, man or woman. But the Queens of England and countless other countries probably prove that centuries ago, if not millennia. Old Boudica after all, had the breasts of women who had collaborated with Rome, severed and nailed to posts and sewn over their mouths, hardly a feminist.
So on the subject of nationalism and internationalism, perhaps we should leave our last pearl of wisdom to Warren Beatty: “Everyone should f**k everyone until we’re all the same colour”. Or as Robert Burns put it slightly more politely:
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man*, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
(*The Anglo-Saxon roots of the word “Man” do not signify maleness, but rather all sentient human beings, including women. Learn your own language, people).
For an illustration for this post, I felt drawn to the political cartoons of Gerald Scarfe, and his great predecessor Francisco Goya, from whom he seems to have taken inspiration on this one, casting Thatcher as Saturn consuming his own children.
[Stop Press: by complete coincidence, Margaret Thatcher died about 18 hours after this post went up. Our lives were intertwined until the last it seems.]