Life as it is experienced, and life as it’s written about later by historians, are somewhat different things. When I wrote a book about the 1950s, people who’d been young then would tell me, “Well, it didn’t feel like that at the time.” The early Eighties, though: they’re a special case. Even as we sat safely at home eating our Findus Crispy Pancakes, we knew things were bad. When The Specials had a hit with “Ghost Town” in 1981, it wasn’t pop so much as documentary. At school discos, the ska boys would pogo around to it and I would laugh along with everyone else. But inside, I felt sad and anxious. What lay ahead for them? What lay ahead for me? Even if you were middle class and basically all right, it was impossible to ignore. Sheffield was disintegrating, like a cardboard box left too long out in the rain.
Watching the BBC’s five part series, Thatcher: A Very British Revolution (27 May, 9pm), two things strike me. The first is that the news footage, and almost everything the talking heads have to say about it, match up perfectly with my own memories. It’s like slipping on an old donkey jacket. The second – and here’s the paradox – is that my attitude to the woman at its heart, for so long hated by me, keeps shifting alarmingly. Even after the second film, in which, having scuttled into No 10, she set about her devastating spending cuts, I couldn’t quite forget how the first one had made me feel. And how was that? Well, let’s see.
The early Mrs Thatcher appears before us now as prodigiously weird: the voice, the clothes, the beady yet faraway eyes, as if even she is dazzled by the extent of her convictions. But I also recognise her – she reminds me a little of my proud, hard-working grandmothers – and because of this, I sometimes feel furiously indignant on her behalf. Those patronising, sexist, snobbish Tory bastards. If you believe men have it in them to drive women halfway round the bend in the right circumstances, this lot – up to and including our new rebel hero, Michael Heseltine – have a lot to answer for.
Crikey, though, these are genius documentaries. If they’re still alive, they’re in it, merrily dripping poison – her political colleagues, I mean. Some, you remember (Hezza, Lawson, Tebbit). Others, such as David Howell and John Nott, you’ve half-forgotten. Both are good value. Thatcher’s first cabinet was dominated, Nott noted, by Etonians (plus ça change), whose “supercilious disdain” she would endure until she sacked most of them in the purge of September 1981 (he was then the defence secretary).
But for revealing close-ups of a more private Thatcher, other personnel are also in attendance. John Coles, her private secretary for foreign affairs, spoke of how she would rush round Downing Street, fiddling with the flower arrangements. Wendy Baron, director of the Government Art Collection, remembered her mania for dusting. There were chinks, said someone; he’d seen her weeping. Her police protection officer – thrill to the sight of this fellow batting away flying eggs with the palm of his hand! – recalled seeing her asleep in her car. He thought her vulnerable and alone.
By the end of the second film, the tentacles of her monstrousness had begun to appear through the helmet of sugar-spun hair: the lack of empathy, the absolute failure to understand that some people will always need the help and protection of the state. There was something unnervingly strange about the moment when she demanded the names of those members of the public who’d told an Australian TV reporter they thought her pig-headed. What was she going to do? Track them down and force them to read Milton Friedman until they had him by heart? But there was something else, too.
“One notices in life that women have more courage than men,” said Nott. Though courage may not be the word, people forget how much even her own party loathed her in 1981. Yet she kept going. What did she see as she sat at her dressing table, attaching a brooch to that day’s lapel? Or were her eyes always fixed on some point far in the distance, a halcyon realm of shops and self-starters where she had long since been proved right? Next week: the Falklands.
Thatcher: A Very British Revolution
This article appears in the 29 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy