The literary world in its customarily sluggish fashion was slow to respond to the impact of Margaret Thatcher on the social fabric of this country. When, in 2002, I published my second novel, written from a Wapping printer’s point of view and set in the 1980s, I could only find a couple of pre-existing attempts to encapsulate the era - Martin Amis’s brilliant, scathing Money and David Peaces’s UK1984, which was more specifically concerned with the miners’ strike.
Since then Philip Hensher’s The Mulberry Empire and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty have been added to the list, but on the whole, it is somewhat under- and mis-represented as a decade. I suppose many novelists, being left-leaning, tend to not want to glorify it, or, more likely, they want to satirise it. With Rumours of a Hurricane I had a rather different perspective.
I grew up in exactly the environment that Margaret Thatcher had invented herself to appeal to - the striving, rather cultureless working class, living in the south-eastern suburbs, tired of the strictures of a paternalistic socialism that stretched back at least to the 1940s and uneasy with the thrust of the “identity politics” of the New Left. Our family read the Daily Express, profoundly distrusted the unions, and believed in self-sufficiency. On the other hand, we all voted Labour, while viewing them with suspicion over their growing weirdness and social obsessions.
The Labour party, particularly under Michael Foot, had become narrow, obsessed with issues of race, gender and sexuality, South Africa and CND, rather than getting to grips with liberalising the corporatist economic substructure of the country. They didn’t seem to have a coherent story to tell, economically.
This softened our support for Labour, and for many of our background – the C2s as they were known by marketing men – it proved irresistible to desert the Labour party, tainted as it was by the Trotskyism of the Militant Tendency and the SWP, as well as the militantism of the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill not to mention the intransigent printers of Wapping (of which, being a journalist, I had personal experience).
I always hated Thatcher, with a vengeance, but more for her personal narrowness of vision than her economic outlook. She was such apoujadiste, so desperately Little England, so suburban, dull and preachy and, well, conservative. But I secretly admired her taking on the over-mighty unions and fully supported her policy of the sale of council houses. I couldn’t make up my mind about the Falklands and still can’t. She was probably right about Europe.
I also thought then, and think now, that a female prime minister was as feminist as it got. Just because she wasn’t wearing sandals and forming a circle around Greenham Common didn’t make her beyond the pale in my view. Hers was a formidable achievement of intellect and will.
These rather heretical views often got me into trouble as an otherwise lefty student at the London School of Economics in 1986, a very politically divided place full of upper middle class radicals. I remember being disgusted by the adoration poured on to a rabble-rousing Ken Livingstone, who informed us to great cheers after the riots in Tottenham had resulted in some poor policeman’s head being hacked off that “Thatcher was the real hooligan”. And I interviewed Bernie Grant, the left-leaning leader of Haringey Council, who I found unctuous, insincere, not particularly bright and depressingly rigid in his ideology (it was Bernie who said at the Brixton riots, “We gave the police a damn good hiding”).
With this bunch lining up against them, it was no wonder that Thatcher was winning election after election. I recall being called upon by a group of my leftish mates to go and march for the printers at Wapping. I had gone to university as a mature student, after having set up my own magazine company, which I would never been able to do if Thatcher had not done a lot of work to break the closed shop. I responded to their urging me to join the march with a plaintive, “Have you ever met a printer?”, pointing out that most of them were lazy, stupid, arrogant, over-paid racists. I was met with perplexity and hostility. Needless to say I didn’t waste my afternoon marching for the printers.
At the same time I was keeping in touch with my cousin, Tony, a working-class boy from gypsy stock and a long-time Labour activist in Durham. He had decided to leave the Party, because “all they talked about was blacks and lesbians”. Tony was not that socially liberal, but up until then he was part of the mainstay of Labour and he was being marginalised by middle-class incomers.
When I got round to writing Rumours of a Hurricane 15 years later, I took this more nuanced view of Thatcher than most commentators in my depiction of Charlie Buck, a printer living in a council house in Fulham and working at Wapping who is eventually made redundant by Rupert Murdoch. His wife, Maureen, is a unaspiring housewife who cooks dinners and dresses up for Dallas every week, while Charlie toddles off to work every day assuming that things will never change – an illusion shared by much of mainstream Britain in the pre-Thatcher days.
I then tried to address the question of how larger forces – at the apex of which was Margaret Thatcher – ripped apart and reconstructed individual lives, for better or worse. Charlie used his redundancy money and the money raised by the sale of his council flat to start a new life with Maureen in a new town, Milton Keynes. But Maureen, inspired by Thatcher, is no longer interested in playing the housewife and learns to drive, falling in love with her driving instructor. She leaves Charlie and she and the instructor start a driving school. She discovers that she has far more talent as a businesswoman than she dreamed or Charlie ever allowed her to assume. But Charlie is puzzled and lost.
Free to fail
Charlie nevertheless is inspired to try the new free-enterprise economy, and urged on by his thuggish, semi-criminal brother - who is riding high on a wave of easy credit - starts a model railway shop which very quickly fails leaving Charlie penniless, homeless and wifeless. He ends up as one of the casualties of the 1980s, back wandering the streets of Fulham with a bottle in his hand, while Maureen prospers and grows under the auspices of the Iron Lady’s approving regime.
This to me was a Thatcher’s Britain that was all shades of grey, which had many victims, but many success stories as well. This assured that, although it got excellent reviews on the whole, left-wing reviewers found it difficult to warm to. I was clearly not supporting my team with sufficient vigour.
It is easy to forget now that Thatcher was responsible for the rise of new commercial TV – including the then-radical Channel 4 – and indirectly the existence of this very newspaper through her deregulation of the printing industry. Personally, as I have already remarked, I found her obnoxious, but a government under the loveable but hilariously hapless Michael Foot seemed unthinkable. Kinnock was an improvement – I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever seen my community so shocked and depressed after he lost to Thatcher’s successor, John Major, in 1992 – but it is true that Tony Blair was Margaret Thatcher’s creation, and that’s why so many people voted for him.
Many good people I know loathe and hate Thatcher as if she was personally responsible for the decay of British industry, as if the unions were innocent victims of her casual spite, as if council house sales were imposed on an unwilling public, as if Thatcher set back women’s rights a generation. None of this is remotely true, and that needs be acknowledged.
However, Thatcherism left an ugly legacy of collective selfishness and a bitter taste in the mouth – in Charlie’s case, the taste of meths, which anaesthetised him as he finally cast himself under a speeding truck. The winds of change had left him naked and broken – but others they elevated to new heights and undreamed-of destinies.
‘Rumours of a Hurricane’ is published by Penguin.