I write this on a day when I have had to turn the radio off. Thankfully we do not have a television, so we have been spared from a good deal of the media frenzy surrounding the death of Margaret Thatcher this week. Having got through BBC Radio 4’s morning news program, just about, the prospect of a day full of obituaries, analysis of her life and work, frankly fills me with rage. It is a rage that seems to bubble up from almost nowhere and which, whilst to put it mildly I never lost any love for the woman, surprises me at its ferocity.
Growing up as I did, a child of Thatcher, born in 1979 the very year the Conservative party won the election and she became prime minister; for the first 10 years of my life, my understanding of politics was entirely shaped by the climate of Thatcher’s Britain. Not only that, but living in a green-liberal household my father standing as liberal candidate for local government, Mrs Thatcher became the closest thing to evil that my small mind could imagine. I was quite genuinely very frightened of her. When I remember the news stories of the time, I can recall the brutal and violent clashes of the miners strikes, the forced removal of the traveller folk, police with batons and riot shields, the soaring interest rates as my parents struggled to pay the mortgage and feed us, CFCs, holes in the ozone layer, famine in Ethiopia, apartheid in South Africa, war in the Falklands, the nuclear fears of the cold war. I didn’t know a child in my class who had not read Lawrence’s Children of the Dust or Swindell’s Brother in the Land . If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend them for the insight they offer into a child’s mind and fears of the time. They paint vivid pictures of a world post nuclear apocalypse. I think I genuinely believed at that time in the inevitability of it all. To a child in 1980’s Britain, the world was a grey and frightening place to be and Margaret Thatcher with her blue suits and strange monotone voice seemed (rightly or wrongly) to be the orchestrator of these things and will in my mind be forever connected.
As an Animist, understanding that we are constantly changing beings, made up of the stories that we gather along the way, it is no surprise that these particular stories have had a hand in creating who I am. If I dig hard enough I can in part trace my deep green environmentalism back to childhood fears of disaster and apocalypse, I am no longer so afraid of nuclear war as I am of climate change. Perhaps I have in some small measure to thank Maggie for my deep, wakeful paganism; determined as I am not to use, abuse and destroy the world in the ways that I witnessed in my childhood.
But, perhaps one of the things that has bothered me the most about the reactions to the death of this woman amongst all the obituaries and political comment, is the reaction to the celebrations. Whilst street parties are perhaps a little on the tasteless side, there has been a very natural outpouring of what I can only really describe as relief, followed by a resultant backlash of those demanding that we show some respect. Yet there is a deep and abiding sense, for those who felt so bitterly the injustices of her time in office, how wonderful it is that she is no longer with us, and it cannot be contained. I spoke to my father the day she died and he told me that he had been grinning for hours. He is not celebrating, not throwing a street party just as I am not, but he feels the relief as palpably as I do, it has shaken us and I was touched by his very human and honest reaction.
I am disturbed by the calls for respect in the hour of her death, because I find deeply uncomfortable the idea that we should never speak ill of the dead for a number of reasons. Firstly, as an ever questioning Druid, I have to ask the question “why not?” What is it about her as a dead person that means that I should suddenly start paying her respect or that I should not laugh at a cartoon strip or poem when I most certainly would have whilst she was alive? Is it that at the moment of death we are magically transformed into something blameless and untouchable? That is certainly not my understanding of the ancestors, within a tradition that acknowledges them as fundamentally human, we understand that there were bastards and rapists and kiddy fiddlers just as there is sweet old granny and granddad. We can’t conveniently forget the less than lovely bits of human nature, sanitising and idealising the past however much we would like to, for it is who we are too. Or, is it that she leaves behind a grieving family whose feelings we should respect? By far the most common complaint is that “she was someone’s daughter, was a mother, a wife… have some respect”. Yet I struggle to understand the significance of this. Surely by virtue of being human she is these things, they are not unique or in themselves particularly noteworthy and her family have certainly handled the vitriol up to this point, the press and public have always lambasted her; I would ague that it goes with the job. If by virtue of having a family we must afford respect to the deceased then let those calling for that respect pay the same dues to Pinochet, Sadam Hussein and Ossama Bin Laden, finding in themselves a deeper sense of compassion for all humanity rather than selected heroes, because after all we will never agree on those and they were all sons, husbands and fathers too. It is entirely appropriate for those who call these controversial figures their beloved dead to mourn them, but I would suggest that is their job not mine.
There is a danger too in this call for silence as Glen Greenwald thoughtfully points out in his article;
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with loathing Margaret Thatcher or any other person with political influence and power based upon perceived bad acts, and that doesn’t change simply because they die. If anything, it becomes more compelling to commemorate those bad acts upon death as the only antidote against a society erecting a false and jingoistically self-serving history.”
I would suggest that at a time when we are in danger of romanticising Margaret Thatcher’s life beyond all sense of recognition, those who have a different story to tell have the obligation to tell it, to speak out against the mawkish calls for respect and sympathy and remind the nation just why she was so loathed and with such bitterness by so many. Despite loathing her myself, I do not feel any sense of celebration, after all by the end she was just a little old women who had mostly lost her marbles, largely estranged from her daughter, and that is always sad, but I can understand that celebration as a natural reaction and conclusion to an era that left deep scars on so many.