Monthly Archives: April 2013

The passing of a life

In the strange short week since the announcement of Margaret Thatcher’s death, we still haven’t heard or seen anything like enough words about her or her works to fill the emptiness created by the many now-disused, Thatcher-closed coal mines scattered across England, Wales and Scotland.

Nor have we heard enough that will bring true life back to the many communities where hope lies cold, like dead ashes on the remains of once lively fires.

We have, of course, learned beyond all doubt that Mrs Thatcher remains in death as divisive a figure as she was in life.

For myself, I have one abiding memory of her impact on my own life and times.

In 1984, when the effects of Mrs Thatcher’s policies were at their rampant worst for people like me, I was working in an advertising agency just a few yards from Fleet Street.

On the day the striking miners’ protest march reached London, I was moved by a not-to-be-denied sense of sympathy for their cause and left my office to stand on the pavement as they passed down the street, which in those days was still lined with newspaper offices.

What I remember now is the quiet dignity of the men and women I saw pass by.

Not for them the contentiously raucous cries of “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, OUT, OUT, OUT” that I’d heard so many times before.

The almost silent nature of their moving protest gave it – and them – more power than any hand-held tannoy system could muster.

Quiet defiance

To see them – to be almost amongst them – was to experience something of the half-hidden desperation of their cause. Exhausted after days of marching, they were like warriors in a battle they long-since knew they could never win, no matter what their leaders may say.

Yet, defeated though they seemed, they were still quietly defiant.

Later that day, as I cycled home from work, I passed through Hyde Park, where many of the miners and their families had gathered to listen to music before dispersing to their communities, almost all of them threatened by the life-bleeding effects of pit closures and the heartbreak of mass unemployment.

Many years earlier, as a boy only lately out of short pants and attending an Eisteddfod , I had been thrilled by the sound of a Welsh brass band. And I had experienced that hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling as I stood surrounded by the rising, falling, echoing voices of a male voice choir.

But this was different.

This day the sound I heard seemed to be that of an entire people mourning the passing of a way of life; men, women and children united in one voice, chorusing their sadness as if its very singing would somehow soothe it out of existence.

Never had a trombone cried so piteously or summoned such emotion in me.

I had, after all, been down a coal mine as a boy. I had seen in the eyes of miners the blazing pride as they toiled like animals in their underground work, seemingly hewing their very lives from the coal-face far beneath their valley homes.Coal 4

I had, too, been to a valley steel works where leather-clad men, their eyes narrowed against the glaring heat, had puddled molten steel as it roiled in the roaring ovens.

And, as a teenager in the merchant navy, my ears had been rattled by the jack-hammer rat-a-tat-tat of riveting machines in a Jarrow shipyard on the Tyne.

I believed I had seen the places where men made the real, hard-earned wealth of the nation.

Now I was witnessing the squandering of that power and energy by a government led by a woman whose market forces mantra allowed no room for the sentimental preservation of industries that had been the bedrock of Britain’s standing in the world.

A hopeless cause

Only a few years earlier, we had been described as the sick man of Europe.

The Thatcher remedy seemed to be to cut out the perceived cause of the illness, in the hope that the wounded body would recover.

Tragically, in doing so, she cut the heart out of countless communities, leaving them directionless, workless and – for a generation and more – hopeless.

There are, of course, many who say that what had to be done had to be done.

That you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

But who’s to say that Britain even needed an omelette just then?

It’s true things had to change; that the country needed fresh ideas about how to sustain its place and make – and pay – its way in the world.

Perhaps a different diet would’ve achieved the same ends. Something more digestible might’ve served the patient better.

Certainly, a more ameliorative approach might’ve cured our ills without leaving us with the scars inflicted by a woman whose heavy handed methods spoke more of butchery than surgery.

As it is, we struggle on, still trying to shake off the worst effects of the disease that became known as Thatcherism.

May the self-appointed doctor rest in peace. And may we never see her like again.

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