Margaret Thatcher, 1925-2013

I was sat having lunch with 2 of my work colleagues when I heard the news about Margaret Thatcher.  One of our other colleagues had bombarded us with missed calls and we, naturally, thought something at work had gone tits up.  But no.  When I checked my phone I noticed texts from 2 friends and my Mum.  I saw in the subject the words, “Thatcher’s dead!”.  It was a surreal moment.  For years she has been ill and in and out of hospital, but you always think people like Maggie will live forever.  It’s the same way I feel about the Queen.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she outlived me. 

My personal reaction to her death is mixed.  I spent years at college and university criticising every single word and policy that came out of her and her government, and my anger then was spurred on by the many left-wingers I was surrounded by.  My politics teacher at sixth-form was a left-wing Catholic Scouser with an Irish father, so you can just imagine what she thought of Mags.  I hung on my teacher’s every word.  That anger was young and naive.  I have no love for Thatcher or her policies, but my anger and my critique is, I hope, more mature now.

It was interesting to see the reactions of my friends on Facebook and Twitter.  So many were sad, and an equal number were either indifferent, angry or happy at her passing.  For me, I felt odd.  There will be no tears shed for Maggie in my family.  We are staunchly anti-Conservative and my own father became a victim of Thatcher’s destruction of Britain’s manufacturing industry in the 1980s when he lost his job and briefly went on the dole.  Having said that, it’s not in my nature to be happy to see someone die.  I never wished ill or death on Maggie, and I won’t be attending any parties to celebrate her demise.    This is not to say that I think those who are happy are despicable humans or unfeeling robots; merely that for me personally, I can’t live with that kind of hate inside of me and I don’t see how dancing on her grave will change so much of what has already been done by Thatcherism.

However, the media reaction has infuriated me and I’m not sure why I am so surprised.  Thatcher is held up as the hero of the right by most of our major papers, including the Telegraph and the Daily Mail.  But to watch the BBC yesterday and this morning, I was left feeling that so much of her history as a politician and leader of our country is being glossed over.  Perhaps this is a premature assessment; the reactions to her death are still new and raw, and perhaps many media outlets are biding their time before they unleash their critiques of her time in power so as not to seem tasteless.  I will wait and see.  Yet Bill Turnbull still wound me up this morning on BBC Breakfast during an interview with left-wing Mirror journalist Kevin Maguire and some other right-leaning hack.  He repeatedly lambasted Maguire and those who have expressed relief and/or gladness at Thatcher’s death, without really addressing the root causes of why some people in this country will not be sad she’s gone.  The complexities of Thatcherism and the effects of those policies are too nuanced to paint this situation as black and white.  If Turnbull can’t understand why not everyone is shedding tears and leaving flowers at Downing Street, then I wonder where he has been for the last 35 years.

Reactions on social media outlets were equally curious.  Most of my friends had a similar reaction to me, one that expressed a respect for an old, sick woman who had died, but also a hope that her policies would die with her.  Others launched into tirades against her and her government.  Some praised her.  It was the usual mix you would expect upon the death of such a divisive figure, an image that Maggie herself revelled in.  But the constant posturing over her position as the “first female Prime Minister” left a bad taste in my mouth.  It is truly remarkable that we elected our first woman Prime Minister in 1979 and I won’t take away from that fact.  It is interesting that we have never elected another since.  But to hold Thatcher up as a feminist icon is to insult her, her principles, and true feminism.  Thatcher described feminism as a “poison” and she attributed none of her success as a politician and leader to her gender.  It is telling that over the course of her 11 years in power, she only had one female member of Cabinet, Baroness Young.  In 2011 I wrote of Maggie’s approach to politics and concluded that her appeal was due in large part to the traditionally male/masculine attitudes she displayed (that blog post can be found here: https://brightlightsandthebigcity.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/nostalgia-for-thatcher/).  It is great that this country elected a woman to the highest office, and we should be proud of that.  But let’s not pretend that she cared for this fact beyond any superficial meaning.

I am a huge Meryl Streep fan and I found her statement was one of the most honest of the day, perhaps because she is an American, perhaps because she played her and tried to understand her from all angles, perhaps because I am biased.  Alas it is important to remember how such biases colour our perceptions.  Would I care so much for Maggie’s death if I hadn’t seen her played by my favourite actress in an Oscar-winning performance less than 2 years ago?  Would my reaction have been different if ‘The Iron Lady’ had not been made?  These questions are difficult to answer.  Ultimately this film was made, I did enjoy it, and I have been affected by it.  She was portrayed as strong and ambitious and a woman who faced multiple struggles to be elected as an MP, leader and Prime Minister.  She was also seen in her later years as suffering from possible dementia.  She looked frail and old and a shadow of her former self.  And even though I knew it was Meryl underneath all those layers of makeup, it still struck a chord.  How much truth is in those movie interpretations, only few will know. 

I also witnessed a few of my Meryl and non-Meryl friends engaged in heated debates on Facebook over what should be the appropriate response to Thatcher’s death.  A comment that popped up a few times was “you weren’t there, so you don’t know”, a condescending statement put forth by some people who had lived the Thatcher years and were obviously dismayed to see young people expressing any notion of sympathy for Maggie.  It’s a comment that throws up a lot of thoughts and I see it from both sides.  If you study a particular part of history for any length of time, you have an evidence-based advantage over those who have not.  History lessons at school, college, university etc, taking the time to research and learn about Thatcher – you have the right to an opinion whether you were there or not.  Whether this opinion is informed or not is open to further debate, but you have the right to feel something, to react to an event, to hold a view. 

Having said that, can we ever truly understand what the Thatcher years were like if we weren’t alive back then?  Can we ever understand what it felt like to live through those strikes, the Falklands, the IRA bombings, the poll tax, the demise of hundreds of northern communities as a direct consequence of her decisions?  I don’t think we can.  We can have an idea.  We can read about it, learn about it, and form a view.  But I wasn’t there.  I don’t hold a definitive opinion.  I was born in 1987 and by definition I am a child of the Thatcher years, but I will never know what it was like to live in those times.  Furthermore, whilst I sit here and lavish praise on the honest assessment provided by Meryl, she too couldn’t ever fully appreciate the Thatcher years for Britain.  Of course, she was alive then but she lived in the States.  She did not live here, in our streets, whilst miners went on strike, as the wealth gap widened, as poor families struggled and felt punished.  Our views can’t be separated from our emotions and our personal and political biases.  And the storm of opinion and thought will rage on for months, perhaps years. 

Thatcher is a hero and icon on the right.  She is held up on a pedestal for what she did.  Few politicians exist in this day and age – in fact I’m not sure I can think of one – with the kind of conviction Maggie had.  Her impact on Britain and the wider world is something few achieve.  She knew her mind and she stuck to it.  To us on the left, she is a villain.  She destroyed lives and snatched away jobs.  She cared not for the poor or the working class.  She encouraged greed and the ‘I’m-alright-Jack’ attitude that we still see in society today (the society that doesn’t exist).  But if I put aside my biases for just one moment, I can see she was also just a human.  Hero, villain, pariah, devil-incarnate… but human all the same.  A daughter, a mother, a wife, a Prime Minister.  She lived, she worked, she suffered illness, and she died on April 8th 2013.  The criticisms and tributes will continue to roll in, but she is gone.  Whatever happens in the future, we cannot change what she did.  To celebrate her death as some kind of victory is, in the long-term, futile.  Look around you – even now, Thatcherism lives on. 

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5/365 – ‘Terry’s Song’, Bruce Springsteen (2007) – 365 Days of Music

A slight cheat today –  I didn’t shuffle my iPod for this song, but today is an important day for me.  Bruce wrote this for Terry Magovern, who was his bodyguard and assistant for 23 years.  He passed around the time Bruce was writing the ‘Magic’ album.  This beautiful, elegiac song sums up a lot of my feelings about death and grief.

Today is Tuesday 5th March 2013.  My Dad passed away suddenly on Tuesday 5th March 1996, aged just 46.  I was only 8-years-old and my brother was just 12.  Today marks the 17th anniversary since his passing.  It’s a difficult day of mixed emotions.  Sadness, emptiness, a lingering inability to understand why he was taken from us.  But also happiness that we had him even for just 8 years.  So many kids grow up in broken homes with absent fathers and unhappy fathers who won’t or can’t give them the love and care they need and yearn for.  I am thankful that I had 8 years of love, fun and memories to cherish.

I miss you, Dad, always.

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They say you can’t take it with you, but I think that they’re wrong
‘Cause all I know is I woke up this morning, and something big was gone
Gone into that dark ether where you’re still young and hard and cold
Just like when they built you, brother, they broke the mold

Of love and loss

I have to write this and I have needed to write it for a long time now. Mum is on holiday at the moment and I’m missing her voice, her presence (even though I live in London now), so I thought there was no better time than the present to write this. I’m doing this for me, for her, and also because sometimes I feel very isolated with my depression – I think the story of my Dad, if people knew, would make others understand a little better how things in your early years have repercussions far beyond the immediate.

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I was eight years old when the heart and soul of my family was ripped right out. My path in life altered in an instant. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. When you’re eight, you don’t imagine the future in the same way you do when you’re a bit older. You think about school, about play, about toys, about your mates, about tea. There were many things I didn’t know back then that I know now. For a start, my dad wasn’t the only heart or soul in my family. When he passed, I thought him irreplaceable. Yet over time, many people have filled that gap in small, big, medium sized chunks. This is a blog post about one of them. 

I can’t quite believe it’s been sixteen years since he was taken. I say “taken”, as if someone slipped into our home out of sight and just led him away. It didn’t quite happen like that. It was one moment; his heart just gave out. He was there in the morning, and gone come the afternoon. In a matter of hours, my life was divided: pre-Dad and post-Dad. I sit here writing this and if I’m quiet and still, I can hear the thud of my own heartbeat; a beat which is half his. Most people take it for granted that that little muscle will just keep pumping away until they’re seventy, eighty years old… for most of us, seventy and eighty are ‘good innings’. Dad got to forty-six. People talk of eighteen as young. To me, forty-six is young. For all my moaning about turning twenty-five next month, I am really just as much an infant as I was the day I was born. 

I’m not sure if we did something wrong in a past life. I believe in God – and people tell me God works in mysterious ways. At times this can be a comfort. At other times, I want to bludgeon these people to death with their own Bibles. I don’t know why he had to die – if he did have to die. Much less, I don’t know why it had to be our family. Why any family really? At forty-six, you should be looking forward to the future. Seeing your two kids grow up. Working hard, knowing you’re over the halfway point to a glorious retirement. We always think there is more to come, but for my Dad there wasn’t. 

To many of you, March 5th is just any other day. For my family, not so much. I imagine my Mum screaming in white hospital corridors. I can see her body sinking down the wall. I can see her crying on my elderly neighbour in the dining room as I open the door. I can see my Aunt pull me away and sit me on the stairs. I can still hear myself ask her where my Dad is, because I’d seen him come home from work that morning, complaining he didn’t feel well. I can see my brother throw his bedclothes across the room. I can see my Aunt standing at the bedroom door to stop us bolting out to God-knows-where. I can still feel the silence and the stillness as my whole world stopped turning. 

We buried him the following Wednesday, March 13th. I remember kissing his cold forehead on that Wednesday morning and crying my eyes out in the funeral home. I knew in my little girl’s heart that this was the last time I’d see my Daddy. Even in death, I’d got used to visiting his body every night. It was comforting to me, to be able to see him and talk to him, even though I know his soul and his essence had already gone. My brother never did see him properly in the funeral home – I wonder if he regrets it. My memories of that day are as happy as they are sad. Happy because there were times of laughter that day and it felt like hearing laughter for the first time. Sad because nothing would – could – ever be the same. Mum, my brother and me faced a very uncertain future, one without the one man who we could rely on for safety and security. The provider, the protector, our adored and beloved David. And now I’m crying. I did almost five paragraphs before a tear fell, which I consider good going. It’s still so raw – if you consider forty-six young, then sixteen years is nothing at all. 

I don’t think I’ve ever said goodbye to my Dad. I feel I should have done by now. Then again, I don’t believe we ever truly say goodbye. He is half of me, and as long as I am alive, part of him lives. But I am seeking closure; I am now in my mid-20s and the inability to make sense of what happened sixteen years ago is still holding me back. I find it hard to trust men. I find it hard to maintain friendships without an element of paranoia and fear of loss. Jealousy inevitably creeps in as I cling to those I love. It’s not easy, but I am taking direction from my best friend, my Mum. If there can be a hero in this sad story, it is her. 

My Mum is tough as old boots. She lost her own father in October, 1995. Dad died the following March. Her mother-in-law died of a broken heart just 2 years later, and mum’s mum passed a year after that. She has also recently lost her niece and god-daughter, also my cousin (2004). Her eldest brother lost his battle with cancer in September 2010. She has suffered from Crohn’s disease, an incurable bowel disorder, for the most part of her life. She has had depression. She has had blood pressure problems. She defeated pneumonia just last year. Mum is not a quitter; she does not give up; every challenge she has faced in her life she has met with great strength and heart. She raised two kids through the single toughest time of her life. Mum could’ve hit rock bottom and stayed there. But for me, for my brother, for herself – she bounced back. 

And that’s why this blog post isn’t really about me or my Dad. It’s therapy for me, but really it’s a open letter to Mum. It hasn’t always been plain sailing. Ten years ago, I probably wouldn’t have written this at all. At fourteen, I was a total cow, which had as much to do with my Dad’s absence as it did with hormones. I resented her in many ways; resented her for pushing me to do well at school, resented her for trying to help me (I didn’t need no help, thanks!), resented her for being so stunningly pretty (my own insecurity), resented her advice on clothes and make up, resented her for not being my Dad. I have said terrible things to her. Screamed in her face. Trashed my room. Thrown things at the wall. Ran out the house, leaving her to wonder if I was coming back. I regret it all, and I have said sorry multiple times. The guilt will stick with me for the rest of my life I suspect. But that was an angrier time, and thankfully those times are history, thanks in no small part to Mum herself. She never gave up on me either.

Most parents would have kicked me to the kerb, but she only held me closer and loved me harder. She was no softy – she gave tough love and told me the home truths, and she still does to this day. The greatest thing she ever did other than never give up on me was to help me confront the feelings I had towards my Dad and his death. She recognises that my grief has been holding me back for many years. But not just grief – anger too. Anger not towards her anymore, but anger towards my Dad for leaving me and my family. Anger for not fighting harder in that hospital. Anger for not being here when we were all falling apart. Anger for not being present at some of the most important moments of my life. Anger that he won’t be there when I get married and have children. And I am confronting it now as I type these words.

Mum – you may never read this. I have decided to publish this to my friends, but you’re not on the internet and you probably never will be, knowing the technophobe you are. Maybe I will let you read it, I don’t know. Right now you’re sunning yourself in Italy and I hope you have a glass of wine in your hand and are enjoying every moment of your very-deserved holiday. This is my mum’s first holiday abroad since 2009. After the ups and downs of the last 3 years, no one is owed a holiday more than her.

 I’ll finish this here with this final message to Mum. I have not been an easy daughter to raise, but never doubt for one second that you haven’t done a stellar job with your kids. You did the best you could do with the shit hand you were dealt. I promise to you that I will always make you proud – I will overcome my demons (2 weeks, no cigarettes!). I will appreciate every good thing, big or small, that happens in my life. I will give thanks every day that you are in my life and that I had the most loving, caring family any girl could ask for. I will give thanks that I had my Dad even just for eight years – it was worth every moment. And I want you to know that more than anything, I am proud of you. Most people would not get through what you have got through. The word “hero” is used too frequently these days. People like my Mum never get any recognition – they have no statues in their honour, they haven’t fought wars in distant countries, they haven’t won gold medals. But Mum, you are my hero. And I will continue to make you proud of me, starting right here in London, right now. I’ll fail and falter sometimes, like I already have in this past year, but I know you will always have my back, and I’ll always have yours. I love you.

 

Catherine

Saturday 1st September, 2012

 

Widows’ benefits

I read with disgust this morning an article in the Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/8952062/Lord-Freud-plans-shake-up-of-benefits-for-widows.html) on Lord Freud’s plan to “shake up” benefits given to widows.

This blog post may not be one of my most rational, as for me this issue is very personal.  My father passed away suddenly in March 1996, aged just 46-years-old, and left my mum, then 43-years-old, to raise my brother, 12, and me, 8, by herself.  When we lost my dad, he was the breadwinner in my family.  He had worked previously as an upholsterer, and was currently working at an engineering plant at the time of his unexpected death.

My mum has for many years lambasted the lack of support given to widows, some of whom are incredibly vulnerable.  They did not ask or choose to be in this position; they did not ask for their husbands (or wives) to be taken from them, but such is the cruelty of fate.  My mum was working as a cook in a school kitchen at the time, but thanks to the specific hours this kind of work entails, was able to look after me and my brother and see us to and from school.  But when my dad passed, we did not just lose a loved one.  We did not just lose a parent and husband.  We also lost income, security and stability.

Thankfully, my dad had two pensions, one from a former employer and one from his current employer at the time of his death.  Combined with my mum’s meagre widow’s pension, we were able to get by, and we never wanted for anything during our childhood and adolescent years.

But the fact remains that widows are victims.  And they are ignored.  Whilst some, such as military widows, get a little more attention than others, which is understandable, many struggle on in the background.  My mum is one.  Her widow’s pension has never increased by much in the almost 16 years since my dad died – I have no problem with this, as of course my brother and myself are now in our twenties and work, pay taxes etc.  But this is happening to other widows too – widows with dependent children, children with special needs, and a whole other variety of circumstances that we can’t even comprehend.  It is a silent struggle.  My mum was often too proud to ask for help.  I imagine many others – widows and widowers alike – feel the same.

And the phrase that really turned my stomach concerned the idea that benefits must be changed in order to encourage widows to go back to work sooner.  Has Lord Freud no humanity?  There is no timeline or deadline on grief.  You do not just wake up one morning, say “I’m over it” and get on with life.  It is a daily battle to face the days, but you do it in your own time.  Mourning is a long process, depending on several different factors.  My mum did go back to work eventually, but in doing so exacerbated a previous medical condition, which she has now had since 1997.  I still believe her going back to work so soon after my father’s passing added to her grief and stress.  Does Lord Freud think that widows enjoy sitting at home, trying to make sense of what has happened in their lives?  Does he not think that they’d rather be doing anything other than grieving the loss of their spouse?

At a time when many other services are being cut, I find it abhorrent that this government should now turn its eye to widows’ benefits to see where else we can make some savings.  Thank goodness that me and my brother have now grown up, and my mum can use her pension – and state pension in years to come – for her own individual purposes.  But what if this wasn’t the case?  What if this was happening to my family NOW?  Or next year?  We would be faced with the fact that my mum may lose a portion of a benefit she doesn’t even want to have to take, but must because fate has dealt her the worst hand.  The truth is, if these proposals are followed through, this will happen.

I find myself aghast at how this government can only think in terms of money, yet again.  They really do know the price of everything and the value of nothing.