It was the Six O’ ClocK News that used to do it for me. The deliberately dramatic music and titles had an effect on me that was almost Pavlovian – it was time for the news. And no news is good news.
That’s certainly how it seemed to me. Against stills of Margaret Thatcher, Arthur Scargill, Ian MacGregor, Gerry Adams and Ronald Reagan – library footage of blast furnaces, colliery lifts and shipyards – there seemed to be a universe of terrors beamed into our house on a daily basis as we ate our tea. It’s common to claim that we all feared nuclear war as kids in the 80s. I didn’t – it was too abstract to relate to. But the closure of the pits north of Hartlepool and steelworks to the south? Too close for comfort. Names we heard again and again. Redcar. Swan Hunter. Rotherham. Ebbw Vale. Corby. Ravenscraig. Scunthorpe. They were all our people.
Children are sensitive to changes of emotion, especially negative ones. The apprehension, anger and frustration radiated from my parents and infected me. We lived the 1980s in fear of the Six O’Clock News and its successor, Look North, where Mike Neville would grimly relay the latest disaster to hit the area.
I studied politics at Hartlepool Sixth Form College and the University of Liverpool. I went on rallies, protests, demonstrations. I debated friends in pubs and in online forums. I learned a lot. And I learned to love conservatives, some of them at any rate. I’d rather have had One Nation Tories such as Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine in power than messianic iconoclasts like Tony Blair. Hopefully I’m not as tribal as I once was.
But instinctively, on some level, I will always distrust Tory governments. Other Conservative governments – other Labour governments – had closed pits and could have done more for impoverished communities. But none of them had made us the enemy. That’s why there are people who celebrated Margaret Thatcher’s demise and protested on the day of her funeral. We were cast aside and abandoned to our fates. When we protested we were attacked. We were smeared, derided and despised. Thatcher was apt to refer to people she liked – the Pinochets, Bothas and Murdochs of this world among others – as ‘one of us’. We weren’t ‘one of us’.
Looking at the London-centric media reports of Thatcher’s demise it’s like looking at another planet. I thank God for Glenda Jackson, Mark Steel, Caitlin Moran and Dennis Skinner. They are saying what millions and millions of people who don’t get a lot of time in our newspapers and on our television channels are thinking: we’re not sad; we don’t think she was a great Prime Minister; we remember. Moran said it best in an excellent article in The Times – when you’re poor the choices the government makes can spell total ruin for you, your family and your town. As it was, I had a comfortable upbringing and my Dad never lost his job, though he was essentially forced into voluntary redundancy before he wanted to retire. But I know of plenty who didn’t have even that option. Not for them the opportunity, the choice, personal freedom or sense of pride.
Those people felt like they had been designated the enemy by Thatcher. People in the North East thought that, against their wishes, they were at war with the government, the police force and the media. Go to the annual Miner’s Gala in Durham and you will see banners from the old pits – many commemorate the communities, the collieries themselves, the bands, the unions. But you will also see banners showing mounted police in riot gear smashing women in the face with batons. Go to a newsagent in Liverpool and you will struggle to find a copy of The Sun. The enemy. A war.
The reason the week’s glorification of Thatcher has angered me so much is that the evidence of what happened to Britain under her has been plain to see this week in the very discourse of her death. Hatred. Vicious, spiteful anger. Jibes intended to wound. Gloating. “You lost!,” crow the comfortable right-wing columnists, issued in the general direction of the shattered landscapes of the jobless regions. The meaning is obvious. We lost the war.
The funeral. A £10m military, royal pageant that seems designed to reignite old battles and reopen old wounds. To me the scale of it, the scope of it – Big Ben silenced, the Queen in attendance – seems grotesque, upsetting, deliberately divisive.
Two people watching Lady Thatcher’s funeral in Leeds city centre twitter.com/IanWhiteNews/s…
— Ian White (@IanWhiteNews) April 17, 2013
It’s as if the right-wing of the Tory party and all those print warriors in the blowhard conservative media are revelling in the opportunity to give those vanquished communities one last bloody nose in Thatcher’s name. Liverpool City Council chose not to broadcast the funeral, fearing that it would incite unrest. In Leeds two people watched the funeral procession on a big screen. That’s the alternative story that today’s news has shied away from, lest it be accused of disrespect.
I’ve found no joy this week, no catharsis. Just a developing fury over the fawning narrative that has taken root in the media and the idea that, as a nation, we’re in mourning. I am not in mourning, though I’ve felt a certain sadness and dislocation this week – an unsettled feeling that I’ve struggled to articulate; an unfocused anger that has confused me. A friend was unable to sleep on the night of Thatcher’s death until he got up and wrote a list of the things that he had hated about Thatcher; an attempt to find some closure in three decades of destructive emotions.
I wanted to talk to my parents – a teacher and a steel worker. But the time wasn’t right. I sensed that my Dad didn’t want to discuss it, though he disavowed the celebrations last Monday. I remember the day when I arrived home with the DVD of Boys From The Blackstuff, expecting that he’d love to see it again. He didn’t. It brought back too many bad memories.
This is what I want to make people understand. For every person turning their back on the funeral procession, holding up a banner, downloading a song or making their observations on social media there are thousands who will be silent. For whom the memories are too unpleasant to revisit or for whom a death or funeral is an inappropriate stage for a protest. But for me the narrative that this a country united in grief – that even opponents must pay respect or acknowledge Thatcher’s achievements – must be confronted and repudiated.
In a grim sort of way it’s fitting that Thatcher’s funeral should see the country so divided: as in life, so in death. What those who lionise Thatcher and cry bad taste at the protests and lack of cap-doffing don’t seem to understand is that for many millions of people it’s not just political, it’s personal and always will be.
30 years later and the 6 O’Clock News is still upsetting me. It’s not a funeral for us. It’s a funeral for them. And if that sounds divisive and disrespectful then it’s just the latest shot fired in a war that was not of our making.
Miner’s Gala image by tpoland82, Flickr