Monday 15 April 2013

Maggie and Me

Everybody else is at it, and that's my excuse for sharing memories of how Margaret Thatcher briefly intruded on my life on a couple of odd occasions.

Cneifiwr's family was a pretty unremarkable mix of farmers, miners, bakers and engineers, with a teetotal Baptist minister thrown in for good measure. The bakery hit the buffers in the 1950s, partly because Uncle Will drank himself to an early grave, and partly because factory produced steamed bread became immensely popular and people no longer wanted the old-fashioned stuff.

The teetotal Baptist minister and his wife ended up in a small village in Herefordshire, and I am lucky to have a copy of "Granny's Memories", a short book of about 30 pages which tells her life story, including an account of a battle with the local Anglican vicar. The vicar scandalised the Baptists with his heavy drinking, and he would fight dogs in the public house for money, with his fists wrapped in old towels. Eventually he was removed from his parish. Cue Baptist schadenfreude.

On my mother's side, the family was for the most part employed in the pits, and my great grandfather died in 1916 in a mining accident at the age of 30. He left four young children and a widow. Anne, my great grandmother, was by all accounts a very sweet old lady who spent her last few years in what was effectively a workhouse where the old, confused and mentally infirm were dumped. She died in one of the last smallpox outbreaks in South Wales not long before I was born because the local authorities dumped smallpox cases on the "hospital", and the disease spread to the other inmates.

As far as I know, I was the first in my family to go to university. When the time came, my UCCA form was a bizarre selection of different degree courses, and the final incongruous choice was either London or Lampeter. I chose London because it seemed more exciting.

A year after Thatcher came to power I graduated. It was not a good time to graduate because she had engineered a recession; the civil service had a freeze on recruitment, and jobs were like gold dust. After a couple of precarious years scraping a living as a part-time research assistant, I got my first job with a small news and information company which initially received a lot of funding from the EU.

The Chairman was an old-fashioned queen who liked young men and seemed to have an allergy to women. Every couple of months a small job ad would be placed in the Daily Telegraph, and we would receive sackfuls of mail in response. Several of the boys would be seconded for a day or two opening up all of the application letters and binning anything which appeared to come from a woman. Occasionally there were mishaps and someone called Lesley would turn up for an interview wearing a frock.

The Chairman would have a fit of the vapours.

It was about this time that I found digs in Finchley, which happened to be Maggie's constituency. Finchley, which for those of you not familiar with it is in the north of London, was a strange mix of leafy suburbs and tough working class areas. My two local pubs would not have been out of place in the tougher parts of Glasgow, but the Old King of Prussia was generally reckoned to be a safe place to drink because it was the favourite haunt of some old lags, including Big Tony, who didn't want any trouble on their patch.

One day during the miners strike I must have had a half day, because I got back to Finchley Central tube station in the early afternoon to find a small group of miners outside waving placards.

We didn't see many miners in Finchley, and I was observing the scene when suddenly the doors of a nearby van burst open and about a dozen police emerged. They knocked the miners to the ground and beat the living daylights out of them.

This being London, most people walked on as though nothing was happening. It was all over in a couple of minutes, and the miners were carted off. As far as I could see, they had not been doing anything wrong, and had just been hoping to bring their cause to the attention of Thatcher's constituents.

The incident was not reported anywhere as far as I can remember, and this was in the days before mobile phone cameras. It was as though nothing had happened.

I moved from my first digs to a house in a road close by which happened to be where Maggie's constituency agent also lived.

We never saw anything of the Iron Lady, as she had become, but she would visit her agent after every election to thank him, and our road was sealed off by police and security heavies. 

Time went by, and I moved away from Finchley and Maggie left Downing Street. Some years later, I went for a drink with my Dad in a village pub.

Dad would talk to anyone, and when I returned from the bar with a couple of pints, he was deep in conversation with an old boy who was down visiting his son. It turned out that he came from Grantham and could remember the young Margaret Roberts. They were not fond memories.

The Roberts apparently thought they were a cut above everybody else, and he recalled how the young Margaret would sit at the window above the family grocery shop spitting on people down below.

And that was the last time that Margaret Hilda intruded on my life, until her death reminded us all how she had polarised the society she claimed never existed.


Emlyn Uwch Cych said...

Only clapped eyes on the old lady once:

in 1991 the Commons were debating entering the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait when the 10 o' clock division came. Two things struck me: (1) John Major crossing the floor and climbing up into the Labour benches to greet Eric Heffer, wheeled in from his deathbed to vote and (2) Margaret resplendent in a magnificent black and gold evening gown, wheeled in to vote.

Her time is past, I just don't know what is there to replace Thatcherism/Blairism. We surely can't go back to the 70s, even if we wanted to.

Jac o' the North, said...

Thatcher serves as a convenient bogeywoman for the Left which then ignores the fact that New Labour was as much her creation as it was Blair's and Mandelson's.

And as another blogger has pointed out Welsh GDP rose under Thatcher and has fallen since 1999, when Labour has run the Assembly.

Let's stop playing the Left's silly game of trying to blame her for everything. The economic mess the UK is in is due to New Labour falling in love with the City. Wales' problems are due to Welsh Labour playing gesture politics and throwing out the occasional gimmick rather than tackling the real problems in Wales.

Richard Powell said...

The story of young Margaret Hilda expectorating on the plebs below is hard to believe, for several reasons.

First, it could not be done from a seated position, as a glance at any picture of the Grantham shop will show. She would have had to raise the sash and lean out, so making a public spectacle of herself.

Second, it doesn't accord with what we know of the young Miss Roberts' character - spitting was the sort of thing that nasty rough boys did, not nice little girls who would do anything to gain the approval of their elders.

Third, it would have been bad for business. Alderman Roberts would have been down on her like a ton of bricks.

You can't believe everything a man tells you in a pub, you know.

Anonymous said...

" Queue Baptist....." Shome mishtake shurley (Ed)...Cue?

Cneifiwr said...

Sound of blogger shooting himself. Thanks for spotting that.

Anonymous said...

No way that story about Thatcher was true.

Talk about a tenuous justification for writing about the Iron Lady!

Mrs Angry said...

Just think,Cneifiwr, we may have passed each other in the street: was that the old King of Bohemia, or the horrible replacement?

As to spitting out of a window: well, I speak as someone who once spat a victory v sweet out of a classroom window,(at a Finchley school, of course) which unfortunately landed on the head of Sister Philomena, and got me into terrible trouble. I did this from a standing position, it is true. Frankly I don't know if one can imagine Alderman Roberts' daughter doing something similar, but I would like to believe it, wouldn't you?

Anyway, I have a much more disgraceful story about her, albeit slightly censored, on my blog. I hope that is true, too.

Anonymous said...

Wel Cneifiwr your relationship with Maggie is as tenuous as Catherine Jenkins' who seemed to be one of the mourners!?