Democracy, Franco Moretti once declared, is not interested in the production of good novels (1987: 192). It is not self-evident that parliamentary politics should inspire art. Ideally conceived, the management and steering of society might be inimical to drama. The more smoothly the political runs, the more it should be able to tell the artist ‘Nothing to see here’. Yet we readily think of Margaret Thatcher as a figure fit for fiction. Why?
First, Thatcher’s approach to politics was non-consensual. Her open contempt for consensus accompanied a readiness for contest, which lends itself to narrative in a way that price commissions and legislative scrutiny do not. To dramatize Thatcher allows a writer to dramatize ideas. Second, in extension of this, Thatcher was deeply disliked. She provoked open loathing. Such emotions can fuel art. If the very need for political art is a sign that something has gone wrong with the political, many would identify Thatcherism as such an aberration. Such anger drove, for instance, Jonathan Coe’s satirical novel What A Carve Up! (1994), even if the book makes little mention of Thatcher herself.
Third, Thatcher was vivid. Her sex alone made her stand out amid her colleagues, but she was visually and aurally striking in her own right. Many of the best known representations of Thatcher have been cartoons, puppets or parodies, to the point where it is hard to distinguish her memory from these grotesques. They drew on her own penchant for self-dramatization; her set-piece performances of her own indomitability. She thus endures in cultural memory as a figure already aestheticized: not subtly, but in terms of satire, Gothic, Grand Guignol. In fiction, Iain Sinclair’s conjuration of Thatcher as ‘the Widow’ in Downriver (1991) belonged to this tradition of exaggeration.
A figure fit for fiction: dramatizing Margaret Thatcher allows for the exploration of political ideas and exaggeration of a public character
[Image by R Barraez D’Lucca under a CC BY license]
Fourth, Thatcher became closely associated with a substantial stretch of time – indeed with a decade, which is now a prime means for measuring and filing culture. She is accordingly likely to turn up by default in representations of that time. For the artist seeking to summarize the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher is part of the scenery. To omit her would be wilful; to include her allows an additional level of reflection and connotation.
What perceptions of Thatcher were available in the twenty-first century, by the time of her death in 2013? I suggest five: Retro, Admiration, Hatred, Pity, History.
First, Thatcher can take her place in a generalized retrospect. This is the Thatcher seen on posters for 1980s discos, or glimpsed in archive footage at the start of films that have nothing to do with her. She is vaguely equated with the other paraphernalia of the decade, from Rubik Cubes to Acid House smiles. In this respect, Thatcher has just about met the one fate that never seemed plausible: depoliticization. She endures as a memorable image, but one that is sometimes deployed as complacently as old pictures of James Dean or Che Guevara.
May Day Disco: Thatcher evokes a generalised atmosphere of the 1980s
[Image by Greenwich Mural Workshop; used under fair dealings provisions]
Second, many continue to admire Thatcher. The scores of senescent statesmen, former lieutenants and current politicians who attended her funeral would be joined in this by many who sent the United Kingdom Independence Party to renewed political success in the same season, and by most regular Conservative voters. But a premier divisive in power remained so in death. Thatcher could still provoke expressions of anger and hatred on a scale probably unique in British politics. The binary division that she had fostered played itself out again upon her death. Every official announcement of piety or grief was matched by an unofficial one – if only a social media post – denying this received line and positing an alternative nation of people ready to dance on her grave. The immense bombast of her funeral gathered protesters to turn their backs on the procession, as though going to great lengths to proclaim their indifference.
Culturally, hatred of Thatcher has been at least quantitatively productive. In particular, the tendency to desire her demise generated a plain-speaking, minimalist website answering the question ‘Is Thatcher dead yet?’; a 2009 play, Maggie’s End, which places her death in 2010 but shows some prescience about the funeral arrangements; and a whole mini-genre of popular songs. The early landmarks in this tradition are Morrissey’s ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ (1988; the title had also been the original working title of The Smiths’ canonical LP The Queen Is Dead) and Elvis Costello’s ‘Tramp The Dirt Down’ (1989, revived on tour after Thatcher’s funeral). The relatively obscure band Hefner released ‘The Day That Thatcher Dies’ in 2000, cannily encouraging their constituency to think ahead to this eventuality; the song’s tinny coda anticipated the chart revival of the showtune ‘Ding Dong, the Witch Is dead’ in April 2013. Some anti-Thatcher sentiment in 2013 looks cheap and ersatz, unfuelled by the visceral feeling of the 1980s. It is more convincing when expressed by those who fared poorly at the hands of Thatcher’s policies: in particular survivors from working-class industrial communities which were sent into decline on her watch.
Hatred of Thatcher has spawned a mini-genre of popular songs and albums
[Images used under fair dealings provisions]
The fourth fate would once have seemed as unlikely as depoliticization: pity. Margaret Thatcher ceased speaking in public in 2002, to some wry celebration from her long-term detractors. In 2003 her husband Denis died. The film The Iron Lady (2011) produced one of the last prominent images of Thatcher during her lifetime. It depicts her political career, but is also distinctive in showing an elderly Thatcher coping with Alzheimer’s and mourning her late husband. Gordon Burn’s novel Born Yesterday (2008) also broke with the tradition of Thatcher imagery in showing her, aged 81, walking in the park. By 2013, it could be argued that the frail old woman had little to do with her momentous political past.
Fifth, overlapping with some of the above, is a historical perspective that would seek to transcend transient polemic. The rare intensity of feeling provoked by Thatcher is diffused into a more detached assessment of her in the longue durée and international perspective. Hindsight might reframe Thatcher. Her successors took the processes of privatization she initiated further than she ever dared: there is a sense in which Thatcher’s Britain was less Thatcherite than what followed it. More profoundly, the Iron Lady theory of history needs to be tempered with a contextual sense that she was only one avatar of what now seems the long march of neo-liberalism. She was a very important figurehead in this global shift. But we may ask how much of the Thatcher Revolution would still have happened, under another name, in her absence.
Thatcher was culturally prominent in the 1980s themselves. But by 2002 Andy Beckett could still reckon that ‘Novels about Britain under Margaret Thatcher have been much rarer, then and since, than anyone who lived through the social upheaval and melodrama might have expected’. The subject matter, Beckett mused, might still be too novel and challenging. In fact, a small wave of neo-1980s fiction was breaking in the twenty-first century. Nicola Barker’s Five Miles From Outer Hope (2000) is a teen drama set in 1981, which opens by listing cultural events from the time in the manner of a retro television documentary. It thus has some resemblance to David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (2006), a boyhood year-in-the-life crammed with childish perceptions of 1982; and to Helen Cross’s coming-of-age fiction My Summer of Love, set in Yorkshire in 1984 (2001, filmed in 2004). The book Beckett was reviewing, Tim Lott’s Rumours of a Hurricane (2002), ambitiously relays the social changes of the 1980s through the trajectory of one historically typical character, a printer who lives through emblematic experiences of the time: the Wapping dispute, a move to Milton Keynes, fear of AIDS, eventual recession. Beckett justly complained of the blatant character of Lott’s links between personal and political, a tendency to clunking representativeness. But Lott was at least novel in trying to paint a less Manichean panorama of the period, one which would account for Thatcherism’s appeals as well as suggesting its social damage.
The “Iron Lady theory of history” needs to be tempered with a contextual sense that she was only one avatar of what now appears as the long march of neo-liberalism
[Image by Loz Pycock under a CC BY-SA license]
Perhaps the two greatest works of neo-1980s fiction to date were published within two months of each other in spring 2004. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty and David Peace’s GB84 are a yin and yang of literary retrospect: masterpieces that bear no resemblance to each other and are thus uncannily able to carve up Thatcherism between them.
The Line of Beauty is a book of the South of England, centring on the expensive West London house of the Conservative MP Gerald Fedden and his family, where the protagonist Nick Guest lodges. Numerically, the novel’s cast is dominated by Thatcher supporters: from the patrician aristocracy to the boorish political thug, via a host of public schoolboys and Oxford graduates. Its marginal figures are Nick himself, a self-styled aesthete, ascended from his provincial background and detached from political questions; Catherine Fedden, the family’s disturbed daughter who seeks rebellion by mixing with alternative milieux; and Leo Charles, Nick’s first gay lover and a black council worker who evidently belongs to a constituency sceptical of Thatcher. These figures’ perceptions are central enough to the book for it not to count as a celebration of Thatcherism. But what critique it makes comes from inside, rather than out. Via its Jamesian subtlety of perception, the book stealthily accumulates an immense catalogue of details about the world of old money and New Right. That mass of information may eventually become the basis of a political judgement, but the fastidious author is not so vulgar as to force the issue with polemic: rather Thatcherism’s gilded inner circle is allowed gradually to expose itself.
David Peace’s novel GB84 centres upon a working-class world of trade union meetings, picket lines, and marriages broken by poverty and repossession
[Image by nicksarebi under a CC BY license]
GB84 is a novel centred on the North, set especially around the National Union of Mineworkers’ headquarters in Sheffield, though it also takes in the many destinations of the miners’ mobile antagonists during the strike of 1984-5. To Hollinghurst’s moneyed milieu it counterposes a working-class world of trade union meetings, picket lines, and marriages broken by poverty and repossession. This is most vividly and painfully the case in the monologues of individual strikers which punctuate the book in tiny type. Noting the financial cost of the strike to the state, one miner reflects: ‘Ten million quid a day for a hundred days. Fucking hell, she must really hate us. Really fucking hate us’ (158): Thatcher is a ‘she’ who need not be named. Elsewhere the pronoun stays the same as a battered miner’s thoughts turn from his wife – ‘I lie here and I listen to rain on our windows. To her tears’ – to what must be the Prime Minister: ‘She’s not finished with us. Not finished with any of us’ (110). It is in one of those monologues that hatred of Thatcher, alongside all the other foes, most explicitly rises to the surface, from a miner who has lost his wife and has his gas and electricity supply cut off:
I lie down on floor. I pull some clothes over us. I close my eyes and I pray. Pray I wake up one day and they’re all dead – Banks. Electricity Board. DHSS. Coppers. MacGregor. King. Heseltine. Lawson. Ridley. Havers. Walker. Brittan. Tebbit. Thatcher – Dead, fucking lot of them. Them or me. Dead (272).
Thatcher herself is glimpsed through a window at Chequers: ‘She is eating frozen shepherd’s pie. She is drinking cheap white wine’. The mundane runs immediately into the monstrous as Peace flicks into his characteristic Gothic: ‘The corpses in the trees. The heads upon the posts’ (413). In its rendition of political desperation, and of politics as crime, GB84 stands as one of literature’s major contributions to the tradition of mortally bitter anti-Thatcher feeling.
Thatcher’s potential appearance in The Line of Beauty is reverentially discussed for hundreds of pages before she arrives at Gerald Fedden’s party. Hollinghurst sketches her impact in swift strokes of perception. She walks with ‘clumsiness translated into power’, takes her courtiers’ acclaim ‘cheerfully and practically, like modern royalty’ (376). Hollinghurst conveys Thatcher here less as a monster, or even an enemy, than as a celebrity: a fabled figure suddenly encountered in the fascinating flesh. The reader watches the writer rise to the self-imposed challenge of rendering this immensely powerful, storied figure as a novelistic presence: not a consciousness in her own right to which we have access, but a character of singular, sharp outline. The effect is not powerfully anti-Thatcherite. If anything the scene humanizes her and diminishes the space for polemic. But the novel as a whole, over 500 pages, does its more painstaking job of putting in question the period she dominated.
Interest in the Thatcher years endures. Popular history books on the period now proliferate. Few fictional retrospects of the 1980s will match Peace’s intensity or Hollinghurst’s finesse. In the tradition of Gordon Burn’s topicality, we can surely expect soon to see a novel set on the day of Thatcher’s funeral. Faced with such a public event, Iain Sinclair characteristically responded with a ritual belonging to his private mythology. Heading away from London’s funeral, he returned to the riverine scene that inspired Downriver. His report of the day is determined to emphasize Thatcher’s absence, the lack of officially sanctioned mourning, as everyday life goes on. Yet his own text is obsessed with her, and more significantly he must acknowledge that the world through which he passes is a post-Thatcher world: ‘Margaret Thatcher’s traces were visible in every new shed, in every mushroom estate under a pergola of pylons, but she was forgotten’.
Thatcher’s death unsurprisingly unleashed much retrospective talk. Much of it felt second-hand, a set of scripts already heavily rehearsed, as though the whole affair was a Baudrillardian event that had been anticipated for so long it had almost already happened. Perhaps, now that isthatcherdeadyet.co.uk perpetually says ‘Yes’, our form of attention will shift. Fixation on Margaret Thatcher’s persona or image is not likely to yield much more political insight. But her legacy will not yet allow us to forget it. For now, perhaps any fiction of contemporary Britain cannot avoid depicting her consequences.
(“Thatcher’s Legacies” Special Issue)http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v2.4.03.Alluvium
Joseph Brooker is Reader in Modern Literature and Director of the Centre for Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. His most recent book is Literature of the 1980s (2010).
Barker, Nicola. Five Miles From Outer Hope (London: Faber, 2000).
Beckett, Andy. ‘Thatcherism for Beginners.’ Guardian, 2 February 2002 [accessed 17 June 2013]: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/feb/02/fiction.whitbreadbookawards2002.
Burn, Gordon. Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel (London: Faber, 2008).
Coe, Jonathan. What A Carve Up! (London: Viking, 1994).
Cross, Helen. My Summer of Love (London: Bloomsbury, 2001).
Hollinghurst, Alan. The Line of Beauty (London: Picador, 2004).
Lott, Tim. Rumours of a Hurricane (London: Viking, 2002).
Mitchell, David. Black Swan Green (London: Random House, 2006).
Moretti, Franco. The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture (London: Verso, 1987).
Peace, David. GB84 (London: Faber, 1984).
Sinclair, Iain. Downriver, or, The vessels of wrath (London: Paladin, 1991).
— ‘Diary’, London Review of Books 35:9 (9 May 2013), pp.38-9.
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