Enough has been said over the last week or so about Margaret Thatcher, and here is not the place for more opining on the subject of her legacy, not least as I’m just about bored with it and her now, and ready to move on. I’m still laying things to rest, I realise: the recognition of her achievements yet also the remembrance of her divisiveness. Perhaps only something like a fine novel can really make sense of the complexities this life and death presents, and perhaps that cannot be written quite yet (though with The Line of Beauty Alan Hollinghurst wrote a very fine one set during the prime years of Thatcher’s rule).
Much that was said and done this last week was hagiographic (the party political broadcast that was the funeral), or puerile (the ‘Ding, Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ campaign), or censoring (the BBC not playing that damned song in full during the chart rundown), and much else was simply stupid and pointless and rooted in attachments to old hatreds and battles of the ego (those street parties). But a few things were of particular interest to me for the way in which they seemed less reactive and more thoughtful, and a couple of pieces actually made me think more deeply about the things we choose to write about and how we choose our words.
Grace Dent and Tracey Thorn both talked about the misogyny of many things said about Thatcher, while Sir Ian McKellen addressed the fact that sympathetic obituaries were incomplete without mention of Section 28, which he says ‘was designed to slander homosexuality’.
Then Frank Cottrell Boyce talked about the lively antiestablishmentarianism (love that word) provoked in the arts in Britain during Thatcher’s rule, but paused to wonder why the many ‘searing indictments of Thatcher’s Britain’ failed really to undermine her; she was, after all, brought down by her own people. So what should an artist do, he asked?
A few years ago I was interviewing a young woman who had been a victim of ethnic cleansing. Abducted as a child, she’d been raised inside a cold, regulated, racially defined institution. But she’d grown up to be an articulate, engaging advocate for refugees. At the end of our meeting, I asked her how she had known – growing up in such an unloving environment – that life could be more. “I read a book,” she said. What book? A searing indictment of Thatcher’s Britain? “Heidi.”
There is nothing more subversive than a definition of happiness, a vision of how things could be better.
We can’t always be writing utopias. Sometimes only a dystopia will spur change, and we have to let rage have its way in our writing, and we must create violent or critical portraits and even say things that are scathing or wounding or angry. Like Morrissey did this week, for example. I guess it depends on how much you, as a writer, want your work to be defined by rage and indignation. (I’m currently reserving mine for the explanation of how Mark Thatcher became a Sir.) (If I were a knight, I’d be annoyed how my honour had been devalued.) (If I were a knight, I might have to challenge Sir Mark to a joust. Though I’d get someone from Game of Thrones to fight on my behalf. Arya. She’d win.*)
Right speech, explained in negative terms, means avoiding four types of harmful speech: lies (words spoken with the intent of misrepresenting the truth); divisive speech (spoken with the intent of creating rifts between people); harsh speech (spoken with the intent of hurting another person’s feelings); and idle chatter (spoken with no purposeful intent at all).
Some of these aims might be quite challenging for those among us who like a bit of gossip or idle chatter (but of course gossip has purposeful intent!) …
But hey, even if voicing rages is what comes most naturally to us in our writing, there’s enough divisiveness in the world, and bombs and explosions and sadness, maybe from time to time we need to stop dwelling in fear and be utopian and spread the love a bit and invest in some of our own Heidis. Or at least try to.
There were other news stories on 17 April, and not all of them were looking backwards. Many were looking forward to ways of creating newness in the world, visions of ways things could be better, utopian even. Yesterday, for example, this was my Heidi.
I’m leaving the final words to my nan, who would’ve said of Maggie what she always said when someone died. Well, her arse is cold now, isn’t it?
And lo, the sun is shining again, between the rain showers, and maybe the long winter’s over.
* PS Just reread this in March 2020 – Arya, eh?! How prophetic was THAT?!