April 9, 2013
5 writers on Margaret Thatcher (and 5 songs she inspired)
by Alex Shephard
Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister, died yesterday at the age of 87. Over the course of her 11 year reign, Thatcher sold every government asset that wasn’t bolted down, crippled Britain’s once powerful trade unions, and even snatched the milk out of the hands of unsuspecting schoolchildren (also: exploited an unnecessary war to win reelection; supported apartheid, Pinochet, and the Khmer Rouge; discriminated against homosexuals; inspired Sarah Palin). Or, to put it in the emptier language of obituspeak, she was a transformational, controversial figure whose legacy is still felt today.
Unmaking society, it turns out, also inspires creativity. Below are 10 responses to the Iron Lady—5 quotes from writers, including Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter, and 5 songs from artists such as Elvis Costello and Heaven 17.
“Of all the elements combined in the complex of signs labelled Margaret Thatcher, it is her voice that sums up the ambiguity of the entire construct. She coos like a dove, hisses like a serpent, bays like a hound [in a contrived upper-class accent] reminiscent not of real toffs but of Wodehouse aunts.”—Angela Carter in The New Statesman in 1983.
“Mrs. Thatcher is the only interesting thing about British power politics; and the only interesting thing about Mrs. Thatcher is that she isn’t a man. Tricked out with the same achievements, the same style and ‘vision,’ a Marvyn or a Marmaduke Thatcher would be as dull as rain, as dull as London traffic, as dull as the phosphorescent prosperity, the boutique squalor of Thatcher’s England (or its southeastern quadrant.)….British politics has long ceased to be sexy. But for the time being, at least, it does have plenty of gender.”—Martin Amis, “A PM, A President, and a First Lady,” published in Elle in 1989.
“The essential fact is that quite recently we in this country, unlike you in the United States, have had some socialism along with its inevitable adjuncts, bureaucracy and inefficiency. The British people have seen the future, found it doesn’t work, and want to go somewhere else.”—Kingsley Amis on Thatcher’s rise to power in The New York Review of Books in 1979.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done anything more shameful. It was idiotic; infantile on my part.”–Harold Pinter on voting for Thatcher in The New Statesman in 1999.
“I’m talking about you-know-who,” Valance explained helpfully. “Torture. Maggie the Bitch.” Oh. “She’s radical all right. What she wants—what she actually thinks she can fucking achieve—is literally to invent a whole goddamn new middle class in this country. Get rid of the woolly incompetent buggers from fucking Surrey and Hampshire, and bring in the new. People without background, without history. Hungry people. People who really want, and who know that with her, they bloody well get. Nobody’s ever tried to replace a whole fucking class befirem and the amazing thing is she might just do it if they don’t get her first….And it’s not just businessmen,” Valance said slurry. “The intellectuals, too. Out with the whole faggoty crew. In with the hungry guys with the wrong education. New professors, new painters, the lot. It’s a bloody revolution. Newness coming into this country that’s stuffed full of fucking old corpses. It’s going to be something to see. It already is.”—Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
As Melville House Art Director Christopher King put it yesterday, “On the bright side, Morrissey just experienced happiness for the first time.”
To my mind, the most complex song inspired by Thatcher, “Shipbuilding,” gets at a basic paradox of working class life: wars result in increased manufacturing and thus an increase in working class jobs, but wars are also largely fought by the poor. Soft Machine founder Robert Wyatt also does an incredible version of this song, which was inspired by the Falklands War. Rightfully considered to be among Costello’s finest lyrics, “Shipbuilding” also features Chet Baker on trumpet.
In “Stand Down Margaret,” The Beat (The English Beat) calls for the new PM to resign just a year after she took office in what is arguably the first great anti-Thatcher song.
“Hitler proves that funky stuff/ Is not for you and me girl/ Europe’s an unhappy land/ They’ve had their fascist groove thang”
Inspired by the UK miners’ strike of 1984-5 (which Thatcher crushed after describing said miners as “the enemy within”), “Between the Wars” is as moving as “A New England” and as strident as “Which Side Are You on?” The song’s third verse, in particular, stands out; I think it’s one of the best pieces of post-1960s protest songwriting: “I kept the faith and I kept voting/ Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand/ For theirs is a land with a wall around it/ And mine is a faith in my fellow man/ Theirs is a land of hope and glory/ Mine is the green field and the factory floor/ Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers/ And mine is the peace we know/ Between the wars”
Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.