Saturday, 13 April 2013

THATCHERISM AND ME

It brought a smile to my face when, just last night, I received a text from a friend relating to an upcoming film release. My reply was to say, "In middle of Thatcher addiction - trying to cram in reading as many articles as possible before bed. Believe it or not I haven't been thinking about movies too much this week. Go figure!!" I soon got a text back with "Fuck off, Thatcher is all you have spoken about since Monday."

True enough, the death of The Iron Lady has resulted in me being unable to think about much else (well, okay, I had a 48 hour shoot to do in London this week for an upcoming Blu Ray release and a hellish 10 and a half hour journey back to Edinburgh with Megabus which I twittered about quite a lot). Yet, the coverage, both for and against her legacy, has been addictive - on the television and on the internet and printed page. I have commented quite a lot on Twitter with my initial post being one, not of celebration, but of a warning of things to come from the right wing media. The rewriting of history, to try and make this vile human being into a figure of worship, was inevitable - whilst contemporary creeps such as Guido Fawkes and Louise Mensch have done their best to get in on the act, promote themselves across social media and whatever mainstream outlets will ask for their detestable soundbites.


There have, obviously, been dissenting voices - with the popular press within Scotland being especially forthright - whilst those seeking a positive spin on her deeds do not have to look far. Within my own country there is always tory apologist David Torrance, author of the loathsome We in Scotland, to offer a neoconservative retcon of her destruction of entire communities across the nation. Torrance, without a hint of irony, wonders why the SNP has continued government policy of tax breaks for corporations - as if the true success of Thatcherism does not answer itself in that question. Our nation is now reduced to hopelessly competing for private sector employment and no one country can turn back time to change this.

I intend to write from a personal standpoint in this blog entry - in particular documenting what I remember about growing up in Scotland under her government and how my own gradual slide towards the left of the political spectrum took place. This, in turn, will hopefully allow me to get off my chest my own feelings about Maggie and the reasons I have to despair at what she, and her parliament, did to the country I live in.

First off, I should state that I do not remember the Winter of Discontent - I was in nappies. However, when strikes began to take place in the run-up to the 2010 election I did think "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." And how right I was. The unions, in both the 1978 and 2010 example, discredited governments which were infinitely more sympathetic to their plight than those that they assisted into power. One can but weep.



I grew up as one of Thatcher's children. She was the only Prime Minister I knew - and it was not until I reached high school when John Major took office (and showed his Thatcherite stripes by privatising the railways). Landing into a middle class house, I was luckier than many who were born in Kirkcaldy - a town in Fife, Scotland which, in the early 1980s, had large areas of unattractive council tenements and growing destitution. Kirkcaldy was built on its linoleum and coal mining industries and you can probably already guess where this is going. In 1992 the production of linoleum ground to a close whilst the seafield colliery - a coal mine whose twin towers hovered over the Firth of Forth - was shut in 1988. Nearby Ravenscraig Steelworks lasted on a little longer: giving up the ghost in 1992.

When I was just three years old my father, a Chief Engineer with Shell Oil, passed away from cancer at the age of 57. He left my mother - then just 44 - with a spacious house in a safe and scenic suburb on the outskirts of the town. However, he also left her with four children to feed and my mum, who had not worked in almost two decades (when she became a full time housewife), was instantly sent into a spin. The house was sold and, with my brother opting to follow my father's trade at Shell and entering into marriage at age 17, we upped to a smaller residence with my sole parent covering food costs by working as a school dinner lady.


I remember my mum's struggles to move up the employment ladder well (she evolved from a school dinner lady into a meals on wheels person and, eventually, a carer for the mentally and physically handicapped, a job she retired from in her early 60s). Of course Thatcher was not an influence in that and, in the initial years of her run, my mum even admitted to me that, despite being a Labour voter, she actually felt inspired by a woman in 10 Dowing Street. This is understandable. What lady at the time did not? Was Thatcher's most admirable element not in being the Green Grocer's daughter who succeeded in a male dominated sector?

However, what I most recall from these early years of Thatcher's time in power is the growing demonisation of the poor. Link's Street and Templehall in Kirkcaldy became identified as the places where most of the poverty was and derogative names were given, among my classmates in primary school, to those who lived there. The term 'mink', to describe someone of a lower social class, is the one which stays with me. In high school the poorest students were given the charming honour of having 'minky' put before their names (one gentleman we all knew as 'Minky Burrell' for instance). Likewise, pakistanis who moved into the suburb I lived were chastised and abused - Thatcher's policies on immigration were to forbid genuine asylum seekers refuge in the country and her attitude towards migrants is well documented. Racism was heard on a daily basis - slang for the corner shop, the Chinese takeaway, non-white residents. As a child with dark skin and dark eyes even I faced ridicule and discrimination. I also recall the closing of seafield colliery  and the devastation it left in Kirkcaldy. Links Street, which was an area of council houses and high rises, lived-in by lower income people, became notorious for drugs, street gangs and alcohol abuse. And I remember my mum using slang such as "keeping up with the Jones's" and "thy mind thy bloody self" to describe this strange new phenomenon of homelessness, on the one hand, and house extensions and lavish foreign getaways and property on the other. Above all else, even the Kirkcaldy closures and the havoc it wrecked, I remember watching starving miners from the North of England on television being beaten to a pulp by well fed policemen, shipped up from London to decimate strikers. And somewhere there exists footage of me embracing my uncle on the ITV news, when he returned - safely - from the Falklands War, a conflict that no one around me was sure actually needed to exist. I also have memories of the 'Tell Sid' adverts on television, in which the British people were further sold back their own industries at a price. In retrospect Maggie was not even very good at privatisation - merely flogging off industries for huge lump sums and letting the buyers take off with the earnings. Reinvestment in British jobs and services, as with her decision to sell council houses to their tenants, would be minimal.

To keep the blossoming unemployment rate that was necessary to her utterly corrupt and despicable Milton Friedman school of economics - over 3.5 million - at a level she could just about face in the popular press, without acknowleding its necessity to her low inflation rates, Maggie also expanded universities. No more would you need particular qualifications at school to gain entrance to a degree which promised you work at the end of it. Instead, polytechnics, which taught trades, now also gave out degrees. And almost anyone could sign up. Not only did this cram the market with degree-holders but it eventually led to the introduction of tuition fees, abolishment of the student grant and made a university qualification so irrelevant that now 'top up charges' are the norm to distinguish the 'best' establishments from the rest of the mob.


By the time I got to high school, and Major was in power, I had more or less become shaped by Thatcherism without even knowing it. I wanted to be rich one day, I looked to Reagan's America and its glitzy glamorous movies as a source of dreamlike idealism and I knew that achievement was based on what you had in the bank. In other words: I was a cretin, raised by that hideous woman in government whose even more hideous values had sunk into all of us (everyone in my school reached to the same thing). It was not really until university that my own politics took shape and I began to understand how infinitely disgusting the notion of equating money with success was. I never voted for Blair in 1997, the first election I was old enough to cast a cross in (unlike so many others I read his manifesto, and his pledge to introduce university fees) and I despair that no true left wing alternative exists in mainstream politics.

Upon graduation I had little idea of what to do with my life or where immediate employment would come from. I wanted to write, ideally about cinema, but the elitist nature of the media was a tough nut to crack (it pains me to say this but I have still never had a solitary commission from an outlet based in Scotland - which are typically uppity). I returned to Kirkcaldy, still recovering from the purge of its industries back in the 1980s, to live with my mum and was employed in - of all things - my local branch of the Job Centre on a temp. contract worth £11,500 per year. Nine months later I was cut loose from the job I was now fully trained to do because the top brass could not afford to give me the benefits that a full time gig would entail. I immediately went back to university and enrolled in a Masters degree. Upon graduation my former employer rang me and asked me to come back for another nine months at the Job Centre. The irony is delicious. Yet again, nine months later, I was cut loose. For the same reasons.



What followed was another temping job (Glenrothes Opportunity Centre) and a lengthy spell of unemployment from which I still have the rejection letters and emails. Asked why I was not considered for the work at hand and the general consensus was that my Masters degree indicated "I was too ambitious" - then, as six months turned into a year, it was because I had been out of the job rush for too long. Were it not for having a parent who cared for me, and saw the depression I sunk into, I would have been in deep shit. In that time I began to write freelance in an attempt to make a living which, following a six month temporary contract with Standard Life in Edinburgh (during which I travelled an hour into the city and an hour back every day by train), allowed me to just about support myself. My relationship with my girlfriend at the time, also suffering employment difficulties as a graduate, was shattered and we were soon over. Not being able to see much of one another (she lived in Glasgow), or being permitted time alone in a flat of our own, or even a social life where we could go out once in a while, doubtlessly contributed to this.

My time at Standard Life was evident of how the sector industry, which Maggie saw as the ultimate replacement for those hard grafting jobs she despised so much, has resulted in the utter alienation of the modern worker. Every Friday at Standard Life we would receive a ridiculous message from its millionaire owner as he pretended to be part of the plebeian population: "I was watching the game last night" etc etc being the norm. Meanwhile my co-workers, with nothing to look forward to save for the weekend, would get hammered on Friday and Saturday nights. Whilst no one, I admit, was probably eager to grow up and work in a coal mine, the sense of national service in such a position is inarguably more lofty than mindlessly typing in numbers to a computer for eight hours a day to benefit obnoxiously wealthy bankers.

Obviously I love what I do as a freelance critic, and I adore cinema - as my Masters degree and current PhD in the form will indicate to anyone - but my freelance career happened out of more than just passion. It was also necessity. I am proud of what I have achieved with High Rising Productions - and I believe my own adoration for horror and other genre movies has changed the way these films are presented on UK DVD and Blu Ray (remember the days of bare bones or a solitary 10 minute talking head supplement?) - but I also work on a consistently temporary contract. I cannot tell you if I will have a job in six months time. And that is scary.

Looking back would I still like to be working in the civil service? The financial security certainly makes it tempting even if the creative catharsis, which is supplied by my current work, is not comparable.

The legacy left by Thatcher is that which I had at the Job Centre and later Standard Life: a legacy of temporary contracts which benefit the employers and not the employees. A legacy of renting overpriced apartments which benefits the letting agency and the landlord and not the resident. A legacy where we judge success by X-Factor fame and celebrity wealth rather than by the hard work of those who keep our society together. A legacy where youngsters aspire to be on television rather than to be a doctor or nurse or teacher or to have a trade. When someone says "You have to work really hard to be a pop star/ film director/ actor/ footballer" etc etc nobody seems to acknowledge that someone taking out your refuge in the morning or dealing with your mail or working in a sweatshop stitching together your garments also "works hard". When we walk past a homeless person are we not all now Thatcher's children? Do we even care anymore now that this attitude is so ingrained in all of us?



I need not bang on about Maggie's other poisonous elements from being opposed to gay rights to her support for capital punishment, the Khmer Rouge and Chilean torturer and murderer Pinochet - whose dictatorship overthrew the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende. I need not also stress her vile treatment of Nelson Mandela, her squandering of North Sea Oil to fuel her monetary platform whilst entire areas of Scotland starved and, oddly, her complete disregard for any school of feminism. I could go on... But the big problem we face today is that Maggie's spawn are in government - against the will of the people of my own country. Iain Duncan Smith, George Osborne, David Cameron, Liam Fox and so forth are vile human beings. Their ideology involves cutting down our welfare state and public services under the guise of austerity - as if a country which has tax cuts for millionaires and £8 million to spend on a ceremonial funeral for the woman who got us all into this mess in the first place - needs to punish the most vulnerable in society.

As long as the conservative voter base fails to care about their fellow human beings, and fall for this nonsense of 'austerity', then Maggie truly has won and her revolution which began in 1979 allows each of us to be that little bit more selfish without questioning how we even 'achieved' this sort of personality crisis. Given that this is the sort of person now deemed worthy of an extravagent goodbye in 'Great' Britain, I think that each of us has reason to despair and to reflect.