Sunday, 14 April 2013

Mrs Thatcher, my family and me

I have thought long and hard about whether I should include any reference to this week's biggest news story, the death of Mrs Thatcher, in this blog. In my previous blog, The Ritchies in Uganda I had no such reservations. I wrote rapidly and easily about any social or political events or circumstances in Uganda which crossed my radar. I even, somewhat rashly, expressed the occasional personal view, though I was always quite careful about this, not wanting to bring my sponsoring organisations into disrepute. I also did not want to find myself being prematurely hustled out of the country.

Now I'm back in my own land, however, I feel far more hesitant, strangely enough. I am no longer the outsider looking in. I am part of this country. I use my vote. I am therefore partly responsible for any social inequalities or political outrages which exist. How then can I write objectively about them and, more importantly, who would be interested in my views among many others? After all, if you want well-founded political comment, go to the quality press. The day after Mrs Thatcher's death, The Independent newspaper published 32 pages covering every conceivable aspect of her premiership and demise. That excessive coverage continues. Yesterday, the topic occupied only six pages of the same newspaper, but still rather more than one might reasonably expect. The woman had, after all, been out of the public eye for some time.

And then I thought about it. Do I want this new blog, The Ritchies in Edinburgh and beyond, to become a pale reflection of a tourist bureau website? No, absolutely not! Far too bland. Every so often I will write about current events and circumstances which come to my attention, not in any campaigning or proselytising way but, as I did in The Ritchies in Uganda, as a private individual reflecting on her standpoint and what it is and why.

So, here goes. Mrs Thatcher: how did her premiership affect my life, my family and my thinking?

Firstly, let's get one or two things straight. There is currently a rather rosy myth going round Scotland, that this country has 'always' voted differently from England. Absolutely not. As in England, how people vote often depends on where they live.

When I moved north across the border, in 1971, I did not feel I was entering some utopian socialist state. On the contrary. My childhood had been spent in Barbara Castle's Lancashire constituency, where, during one election, I remember my parents helping out the Labour party by driving potential supporters to their local polling stations. My adolescence was spent in The People's Republic of South Yorkshire. Nuff said.

No, when I crossed the border I realised very soon that I was leaving all that behind. I went to live in the north-east of Scotland, in a constituency which by wont and custom always returned one of the local landowners as Tory MP. In those days, the lack of political discourse and the limited social awareness among members of the community about life beyond their own comfortable semi-rural context was striking. I liked my new acquaintances and settled down quite well; however, I felt like a Martian deposited on an alien planet. No coincidence, I am sure, that one of the poems I taught most frequently was Craig Raine's A Martian sends a postcard home.

To be fair, I had had some preparation for this sense of dislocation having spent three years at Durham University, at that time an island of social and academic pretension a million miles away from the mining villages by which it was surrounded and from which it drew its domestic staff.

'I have an out-of-work husband and three out-of-work sons!' an infuriated 'bedder' (cleaner) once spat at my friends and me, enraged that we spoilt female students lived, as she saw it, in the 'lap of luxury' in our comfortable, though hardly sumptuous, college rooms. She and her friends, of course, were responsible for cleaning up after us.

For miners had been losing their jobs long before Mrs Thatcher came on the scene and not just in the Durham area. In fact, large numbers of Scottish miners had been transferred to South Yorkshire during the 1960s, presumably after some of the Fife-shire pits closed down.

So many miners came, in fact, that the Doncaster-based chain of bakeries for which I worked in my vacations produced some peculiarly Scottish types of bread, only sold in the Yorkshire mining villages with sizeable Scottish populations: 'pan' loaf, for example. Our Presbyterian church put on buses for Scots in the mining villages to come to church in town on Sundays so that they could attend a familiar form of service.  That was the 1960s for you, still a church-going culture. I was quite bemused at first to find that so many Scottish worshippers had come from the same bizarrely-named town: Cow-and-Beef (Cowdenbeath, to the rest of you).

There were mines all around us and slag heaps wherever we looked. When we walked the dog in Sandall Beat Wood we were only a hop, skip and jump away from Armthorpe Colliery. In dead flat South Yorkshire, the only mounds above sea level were slag heaps. Now that these heaps are all covered with grass and grazed by sheep, my children think they are pleasantly pastoral and have been part of the landscape since time immemorial.

The most common musical instruments taught by the excellent Doncaster Schools Music Service ( or whatever it was then called) were brass and it organised a range of brass bands for pupils, long before this became common in other parts of the country. After all, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band came from just down the road. In 1994, after the 1984 miners' strike and subsequent pit closures had laid waste to the community, a European Union study named Grimethorpe the country's poorest and most deprived community and, indeed, one of the poorest and most deprived in the whole of Europe.

It was through my expeditions as a relief shop assistant to the nearby mining villages of Rossington, Bentley, Edenthorpe and others that I became aware of life in these tightly-knit communities. Most of the permanent staff had husbands and sons down the pit. The sense that disaster was only just round the corner was ever present. The pit-head alarm would wail every so often, marking yet another accident of one sort or another, followed by the sound that the ambulance was on its way. Fortunately nothing major happened while I was there. Miners would come into the shop sometimes, their arms, even after a bath, often still bearing the long dark lines of scars, the flesh healed over the coal dust. The cliches were there too. In one shop, the most common purchases were dripping during the week and cream cakes on Fridays. How kind people were to this ignorant little middle-class girl to whom everything in this area of what, after all, was her own country, was so strange and  new.

Being a miners' union representative during this period was to receive significant opportunities for education and betterment. Many councillors and, indeed the mayor, around the time I was growing up were, as you would expect, current or ex-miners. The daughter of one of the most prominent such councillors, later Mayor, attended my secondary school, and gave the impression (which may be very unfair) of being deeply conscious of her own social status. All the current talk about Mrs Thatcher's 'modest' home background is southern twaddle. As the daughter of Grantham's mayor Margaret Roberts would have been Queen Bee among her fellow pupils and probably within the community as well. Mayors and town councillors would have been important people in most towns across the North and Midlands, though they might have been sneered at by southern patricians.

In time, I went off to live in Scotland and became a stranger in another community, teaching the children of fishermen, farmers and, soon, oil workers. In due course, as everyone knows, Mrs Thatcher took on the miners of South Yorkshire and elsewhere, and won. On my visits to my parents during the mid-eighties, my increasingly embittered father gave expression to political opinions which had crossed the spectrum from mildly-Fabian in his youth, to, in his old age, somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan.

What had caused this political shift? Partly his disillusionment with Callaghan's Labour government which had introduced comprehensive education, which he abhorred, and had made him redundant from his post as a lecturer when colleges of education were rationalised. Discussions about education were a 'no no'. He would spit vitriol as he extolled the merits of the grammar school system (a euphemistic term for a system of education in which almost all children were educated in secondary modern schools). He hugely resented the 'humiliation' (as he called it) of having to queue up every two weeks at the Labour Exchange, a requirement even though he had received a comfortable redundancy package. I like to think that he did realise that it was humiliating for working class people as well.

Another influence on his political views was the corruption that was endemic in Doncaster Town Council, almost all Labour to a man, around the time of the Poulson affair, corruption which lasted for years.

Other influences were the miners' strike and Mrs Thatcher. My father was angry about the strike and about what he saw as its leaders' intransigence, a view which I heard expressed only the other day by Neil Kinnock. I hate to say it, but my father admired Mrs Thatcher for standing up to officials like Arthur Scargill. However, he remained sympathetic towards individual striking miners who turned up at the Citizen's Advice Bureau where he volunteered. They were usually hungry, starving in some cases, especially the young unmarried men who didn't get strike pay. He took one poor man home one day to give him something to eat, feeding him lumpy porridge as my mother was away and it was the only meal he knew how to cook.

My sons used to ask, 'Why's Grandpa so angry with Arthur Scargill?', having sat through yet another session of him shouting at the television. Ironically, with the passing years, there was less and less need to get angry. There are as good as no collieries in the Doncaster area now. Visiting the town centre is depressing in the extreme: boarded up shops, pawnshops and charity shops; people who look pallid, ill and overweight; and a frequency of pavement mobility scooters which I am sure is above the national average. That was the impact which Margaret Thatcher's policies had on communities in the north of England.

I am pretty sure my father ended up voting Tory, though it didn't make much difference in Doncaster given its solidly socialist electorate. Anyway, I no longer dared to discuss any contentious subjects with him. He couldn't bear dismissive comments about Mrs Thatcher's background. Once, when his colleagues were sneering at her second-class degree from Oxford, he had walked out of the staffroom saying, 'as someone with a second-class degree from Oxford myself, I have no place in this august company' (or something similar). Yet, on a personal level, he was kind and supportive to any person in need, not like the charity of aristocratic philanthropists but as someone who did understand something of what need and poverty really were.

My own awareness of the impact of Mrs Thatcher on mining and other communities became less direct as I was now living far away. What did become increasingly obvious to me and more worrying perhaps, was the destructive effect of Mrs Thatcher's political thinking and social attitudes on young people. Working in education, I would cringe at the complacency and condescension of many pupils from well-off families, in so many other ways so rewarding to teach, as they sneered at the welfare state and at the poor who were just beginning to become more visible on our streets, even in prosperous Aberdeen, the Scottish oil capital. As eighteen-year-olds they would vote Tory to the last man or woman, or so they claimed. Discussing their plans for the future with them was dispiriting. The discussion always ended up focusing on how much they wanted to earn. This was the 'lost' generation, now the forty-somethings who applaud the removal of benefits and blame the disadvantaged for their disadvantage. If it was like this in small-town north-east Scotland, what on earth was it like in suburban south-east England?

So that is the legacy of Margaret Thatcher: a generation of young people many of whom had little concept of 'public service' and who grew up influenced by her selfish 'I'm all right Jack' philosophy. They are the greedy people of Cameron's generation. They are the people running the country now.

However, the complacency of the social milieu in which I lived and the Thatcherite views which permeated the media and society as a whole did make me think very carefully about how I brought up my own children. Not that they would always have thanked me for this.They were the children who didn't get the latest football jerseys, who were dressed out of charity shops and what I could make on my sewing machine or with my knitting needles. Some years later, the girlfriend of one of my sons said, 'We all thought you were very poor.'

Well, we might have been considered poor by oil workers' standards, as university and school salaries have never measured up to those paid by industry. However, we weren't poor by any reasonable measure of poverty applicable in communities elsewhere in Britain. We just lived differently and I am glad we did, though I do still have the occasional twinge of guilt about the social embarrassment we might have caused our children  at school. There were pockets of poverty in north-east Scotland despite its overall prosperity, though they were not very visible, and I did not want my own children to make it difficult for those who were significantly poorer. What we did do was to discuss social issues and try to open their eyes to life outside the comfortable small town in which they lived. In these respects, my child-rearing principles were a deliberate reaction to the Thatcherite views which predominated at the time. Anyway, the children both survived their modest childhood upbringing pretty well and have developed values and principles in their own lives which make me very proud of them.

That patch of north-east Scotland no longer returns a Tory MP. The electorate's allegiances, if not its views which have probably stayed much the same, have moved towards the Scottish Nationalist Party. Again, another myth: that the SNP tends towards the left. No, it has traditionally been anti-Labour. Since the near-demise of Conservatism in Scotland, there has been no need for those who lean to the right to look beyond the SNP.

So that is the impact Thatcherism has had on my life; not direct, for I was one of the lucky ones, secure in my job and earning a reasonable living. I didn't become homeless, just watched the homeless filling up our streets. However, it is the indirect influence of Thatcher's values which has had a profound effect on Britain. Those values appalled me at the time and hearing them reiterated within adulatory tributes over the last week has not succeeded in reconciling me to them.

I will not be dancing on Mrs Thatcher's grave, nor will I be singing 'Ding, dong, the witch is dead'. However, I will be grieving for some of the social values which we lost when she was in charge.

Don't expect me to shed any tears for Margaret Thatcher, Channel 4 News - Durham miner describes the impact of Mrs Thatcher's policies on his community.

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