So what did Mrs Thatcher ever do for us?
Gather round, you readers too young to remember, and let me tell you what it was like in those far, dark days before her Coming. Of rubbish gathering uncollected in the streets I sing, of the dead rotting where they fell, of inflation running at such a rate that the only people with money were those who had none, and of the rich taxed so punitively that they would have left the country in droves had there been any reliable means of transport for them to leave by. So why did no one tweet a revolution? Ah, how far away it must all seem. No Twitter, no Facebook, no mobile phones, no iPads. So how did we communicate? Reader, we didn’t.
I was teaching at a polytechnic when She became prime minister. Think of it – a polytechnic! If there is one word that sums up the depressed spirit of the 1970s – provincial, grim, strike-bound, maimed, undernourished, unpoetical – it’s “polytechnic”. You can smell the engine oil in the word, as you could smell the engine oil in the country, only none of the engines were running.
I taught – that’s when we managed to recruit students – in a bus station adjoining the poly, and I was considered fortunate to be teaching there. ‘Fares, please!’ other lecturers would twit me, but I took it in my stride. It was better than being punched in the face, which, before 1979, was the prevailing mode of academic discourse in a tertiary institution.
Some of our courses were taught on a traffic island in the middle of the ring road. Given the rubbish, the rats, the piles of unwanted coal and the dead lying in the corridors of the polytechnic, a traffic island wasn’t all bad. True, there were no teaching facilities. Not even a blackboard, unless you carried your own. But then we’d sold all the chalk to flying pickets to make ends meet, and few of the students could read anyway. Occasionally a car with no brakes – no cars had brakes before Mrs Thatcher – careered into the class, which would have put pressure on the local hospital had there been one. But so long as no one was seriously injured, accidents were regarded by staff and students alike as a welcome break from the rigours of Humanities 1: The Wit of Arthur Scargill, or Humanities 2: The Wisdom of Arthur Scargill.
When I’d finished teaching I’d go home to a cold-water flat, buying a cabbage for supper on the way. If there were no cabbages I boiled The Guardian. Soup’s soup. I shared a lavatory with a dozen others, most of them out of work, so it fell to me to replace the bath towel every six months. A rota ensured that no more than three people of the same sex (otherwise no more than two) used the toilet at the same time, and I suppose if I miss anything from those years it’s the camaraderie that built up in the course of urinating together.
I had been engaged for about 17 years but I didn’t have the money for a ring. It was our intention to marry before we were 70 but we held out no hope of ever living together. A council flat of our own was a dream it would never have occurred to us to entertain. Few people dreamed before Mrs Thatcher came to power. And no one entertained. Words like “hospitality”, “lobster bisque”, “lasagne”, “sparkling mineral water”, “cabernet sauvignon” and, of course, “champagne” were unheard of in the early 1970s. My fiancée, Penny – she couldn’t afford a second name – would have been pretty had she had teeth. Or hair. But dentists and wigmakers were beyond our means, as was a physiotherapist, a personal trainer, a life coach, a Lakanian psychoanalyst and a cleaner. Then lo! – in a shaft of light – She descended, and Penny was illuminated. New teeth, hair that cascaded down her back when she jogged, she no longer walked into buildings now that she had bought her own spectacles instead of waiting to get them on the National Health, and she told me she was leaving me. “It isn’t you,” she explained. “It’s me. I want more for myself.” This, too, we owed to Margaret Thatcher – this “It isn’t you it’s me”, this “I want more for myself”.
It’s said of Mrs Thatcher that she atomised society, but the truth is she brought us together. If we appeared nicer before, it was only the niceness of deprivation. She showed us how to be companioned in avidity. This was classlessness in action – the rich man at the helm of privatised industry and the poor man with shares in it.
She privatised envy, too, giving everyone a stake. Hitherto, envy had been the closed shop of the poor. Ah, how we envied! What we didn’t have we wanted. What others had we wanted. What we didn’t have and others didn’t have either we wanted even more. This didn’t change but it made us feel better to see that envy didn’t stop higher up; suddenly those who had everything began to experience covetousness, though they couldn’t have said what exactly they coveted. Finally, Thatcherite economics gave it a name. A bigger bonus.
Until Mrs Thatcher unchained the City, industrial blackmail was the prerogative of the unions. In order to get the pay and conditions their members demanded they held the country to ransom. Hence the dead rotting in the streets. Today it’s the banker to whom we must capitulate, on pain of his taking his talents somewhere else. Scargill, by this token, would have made an excellent banker.
So, whatever Mrs Thatcher said about society, a big happy society is what we are, joined in universal heartlessness. “Rejoice!” she famously told us, and that’s what the children succoured in her creed are now doing – over her death.