Friday, 12 April 2013

The End of an Error



About a million years ago back in the old days when everything was better than it is now, I was a much younger man attending an art foundation course at the Mid Warwickshire College of Further Education, Leamington Spa - England, in case that wasn't obvious. To be specific, it was 1984 - the year Orwell chose to signify an oppressive state which valued ideology over people - and a local authority of some kind had elected to host a peace festival in Jephson Gardens. The peace festival, staged over a warm weekend in June, entailed stalls, food, booze, music, holding hands, people failing to have fights, and the obligatory bunch of students. I was one of those students, and along with Sarah Kennedy, Tom O'Hare, Ian Johnson, Howard Jones, and possibly a few others, we staged an art installation of sorts. We were given a tent, itself containing a small enclosure in which was mounted a painting by Ian entitled Portrait of a Minority. I'd recorded some vaguely stately sounding music which played on a loop as one stood before the painting, something to suggest mourning, the passing of some anonymous individual depicted by Ian's canvas. The catch was that members of the public had to answer a series of faintly intrusive politically loaded questions prior to being granted access to the installation, and so we all dressed like insurance salesmen in deliberate contrast to the generally woolly spirit of the event and talked visitors through the interview process. I can no longer recall what the exact point of this might have been, what we were trying to say - the commodification of art or something - but it seemed to go down fairly well, although it became difficult to remain authentically officious as the afternoon wore on and beer took its toll.

The most successful part of the event had been included as a peripheral attraction, something to keep people entertained whilst they stood around waiting to be interviewed and wondering what the hell we were playing at. Tom had spent some time churning out hundreds of screen-printed images of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on cheap paper, and these were made available on a trestle table set up in front of our tent. Kids were supplied with felt tipped pens and invited to add as many horns, Hitler moustaches, swastikas, pimples, beards and the like as they saw fit, and we pinned the funniest on the side of the tent. I may be remembering this wrong but I'm pretty sure Tom's foot thick stack of prints was all used up by the end of the first day. Margaret Thatcher had been Prime Minister for five years and so the kids, some of whom probably hadn't been born when she took office, went to town because it's fun to draw Hitler moustaches on authority figures, and here they were being actively encouraged to just go for it. It perhaps wasn't as deep and meaningful as the accompanying installation, but if anything it's probably the part that people still remember and still understand.

I'm old enough to recall watching the news with my grandmother - a conservative voter defined mainly by what she didn't like - as Margaret Thatcher ousted Ted Heath from the leadership position of the party; and then again when I was thirteen and the former grocer's daughter became Prime Minister. Sat at the dining room table, my grandmother smoked her fag and approved. I recognised that there was probably something worthwhile about a woman winning the election, and having said so, left it at that. As I grew older and began to acquire a more thorough understanding of the world in general, my opinion of Margaret Thatcher changed from favourable ignorance to a realisation that this woman represented all that was evil; and yes, it really was that simple.

Although I was not to realise this until much later, Margaret Thatcher reintroduced the cult of personality to British politics, the dynamic leader, the figurehead, the larger than life Iron Lady - an insult levelled at her by a Soviet journalist and adopted because it suited her so well. Doubtless it would be crass and offensive to discuss her political persona with reference to the F├╝hrerprinzip of the German National Socialists, but nevertheless her transformation from shrill housewife superstar to voice coached She-Warrior of Destiny set an unfortunate precedent, ushering in an age of elections won by image and monosyllabic sentiment rather than policy, with intellect as something to be regarded with suspicion, the province of liberals and those fancy types with all that damn book learnin'. As with America, the prevailing political philosophy - such as it was - seemed to hold that money and finance should take priority over people, because a free market would create conditions under which everything else would be just dandy providing you weren't some whining beardie communist wearing socks with sandals. I may have that wrong, because that sort of thing always did bore me rigid. Politicians throughout history have been paid more than enough to understand and care about the economy, so it would be nice to be able to trust them to just get on with it without doing anything too offensive.

Some hope.

Off the top of my head, those specific acts which characterised the general thrust of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet would be firstly - approving the order to attack the ARA General Belgrano during the Falklands War despite its being thirty-six miles outside of the established Maritime Exclusion Zone and thus not a legitimate military target by the agreed terms of combat. Of those aboard, 323 were killed, and there is a possibility that the vessel may have been in retreat at the time.

Then, Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, specifically a particularly unpleasant amendment stating that local authority should neither intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality, nor promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship - innocuous as any of the vague laws in Orwell's 1984 wherein no-one quite understood what was forbidden, thus fostering a climate of paranoid obeisance. Aside from the somewhat obscene idea that government should have a general say in matters of individual sexuality, or at least whether anyone is even allowed to discuss such topics, it seemed to betray an increased tendency for policies designed to appease reactionary nutcases who under other circumstances would have been told to piss off and grow up, but no - we can't have those raving lesbo-lefties forcing British kids to be gay innit blah blah blah hell in a handcart thin end of the wedge dole scroungers blah blah blah...

Then there was the poll tax; destruction of the unions; privatisation of just about anything that moved thus introducing the idea of profit margin being more important than service whilst plastering over the shortfall with endless customer satisfaction questionnaires in the hope of fostering an illusion of concern; the miners' strike which brought us the spectacle of unarmed civilians assaulted by mounted police; the refusal to respect European Community sanctions against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa whilst dubbing the opposing African National Congress a terrorist organisation; buddying up with former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and so on and so forth. Perhaps these were all complex issues which can only be fully understood and appreciated in a much wider historical context, but from where I was standing it all looked like the work of a maniac, or at the very least someone who happily facilitated maniacs, and to put my Hallmark cards on the table, I'd say as soon as you start bleating about economics, money, or the open market in terms of events that have ruined the lives of great swathes of the population, you've already lost the argument.

Whilst I would never claim my own life was ruined by Thatcher's time in office, I'm only speaking for myself here, and I'm not aware of any of the supposed benefits of Thatcherism ever trickling down so far as my own social stratum, which is unfortunate as I thought that was supposed to be the entire point - run it all for profit and everyone gets a better deal. Whilst her emphasis on self-reliance might be deemed commendable up to a point, it always struck me as slightly rich that the populace should all be expected to become thrusting self-reliant competitors overnight whilst still paying tax towards all those institutions which my father's generation fought hard to build from the ruins of the second world war - the National Health Service to name but one, and of course the Post Office - even as those same institutions were being dismantled from within in the name of economic streamlining.

I joined Royal Mail in 1988 just as it disengaged from the telephone company in the hope that healthy competition would lead to what would hopefully be a better, more efficient, profitable service. Since the 1970s, the unions had taken a bashing, and this was certainly true of the Communication Worker's Union which had been pretty much castrated by the time I joined, just in case anyone was thinking of staging a 1970s style eight week strike over unsatisfactory toilet paper because, you know - striking was always such a wizard wheeze; no pay for week after week, it was always such a hoot, honestly! We just couldn't help ourselves.

By the time I left Royal Mail in 2009, the union was in such a pathetic state that I'd considered leaving on several occasions. Management had been walking all over us for years, and the CWU representative was some guy who showed up every few months with special union deals on cheap car insurance. The problem - which is probably another much longer story - was an organisation now run according to Thatcherite ideals: competitive, businesslike, modern, moving forward and all the other low calorie adjectival landfill that has served for modern business practice since the mid-1980s, all of which amounted to a heavier workload carried by fewer people. The practicalities of doing the job had ceased to be a consideration by the late 1990s - what mattered was that we could meet arbitrary targets pulled out of the ass of some business graduate who had probably never set foot inside a sorting office, and if we couldn't then we had to find a way; and when we failed, it was because we lacked can do attitude or we weren't team players or some such motivational drivel. It was bullshit - twenty years of hard back-breaking slog and any time we squeaked out a desperate objection to supposed improvements that were actually making our jobs significantly more difficult we became the lazy, striking postmen you would read about in the newspapers.

This is the thing about hard work. I am intimately familiar with what it feels like, so I become disgruntled when enmeshed within any system which holds up hard work as a virtue in its own right like it's something I might not recognise because I'm not someone who really grafts like, you know, a bank manager or somebody who matters.

As you will perhaps have noticed by the dates given, not all of the above transpired during Margaret Thatcher's time in office. Nevertheless I attribute to her the creation of the economic and social climate in which all of this has come about. She introduced politics as broad strokes in primary colours that can be understood by those who regularly fulminate over that which doesn't affect them - the silent majority who don't know too much about such and such, but know that it isn't right and that somebody should do something; politics for people who regard intellectual as a term of abuse, the mark of a failure, someone who doesn't have what it takes to survive. Margaret Thatcher made Tony Blair, effectively destroying the opposition by obliging it to play the game by her rules. Whether directly or otherwise, Margaret Thatcher made England into a cold, callous and carnivorous country from which I am very happy to have emigrated.

Over the past few days, following her death at the age of eighty-seven, it has been suggested that I might refrain from taking delight in her passing, for such would amount to the sort of dehumanisation which has proven such an effective currency for both her and her supporters over the years. I can understand and appreciate the argument, although I'm less sympathetic towards the suggestions  telling me I should be ashamed to make unkind comments at the death of an old lady, mother, and grandmother - these suggestions coming from people who regularly fume over dole scroungers, gay marriage and asylum seekers, bitter morons who need someone to blame for matters that don't actually affect them, and because it makes them feel like something other than the useless pie-scoffing work units they've chosen to be.

I could rise above it all, but simply, I don't feel I should have to. Margaret Thatcher dehumanised herself when she took on the persona of the Iron Lady as a consolidation of her political power and by her own choice became a symbol. Sometimes it isn't simply a matter of different strokes for different folks, and there are people who constitute genuine evil - assuming we all agree that evil falls roughly somewhere between an inability to empathise and a conviction of knowing what is absolutely right for someone you've never met. As a rule I tend not to experience joy when hearing someone has died, but on this occasion I just can't help myself. It's not a conscious choice. She made it personal, like an anthropomorphic embodiment of the forces of sheer carnivorous will insinuating tendrils of misery into every avenue of human existence, and doing it over and over and over simply because that was what she did. The world can be a cold, unforgiving place full of truly vile people who see you as a means to an end at best, at worst as something to be ploughed into the soil in order to yield that precious 0.00001% increase on the profit of their cash crop of choice, and yes, it is that simple, and yes, I am really, really glad that a symbol of just about everything that is wrong with human society is pushing up the daisies; and if you can't appreciate that, I feel truly sorry for you.

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