Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Thanks Maggie, for teaching us hedonistic teens to think

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher

I was 16 when Margaret Thatcher came to power. We didn't know what had hit us.

No one warned us, you see. Her 1979 election-winning manifesto had none of the policies which would divide the nation. It contained the sort of stuff Ed Miliband would probably sign up to.

In spite of being a "milk snatcher", Mrs Thatcher had also created more comprehensive schools than any previous education minister.

I was born and brought up in Kent. Not the county of oasthouses and country inns, but the industrial northern part, the Garden of England's compost heap.

My dad worked at Tilbury Docks.

It was said a chimpanzee in a suit wearing a red rosette would get the votes in our household and that was probably true.

What happened over the next few years, against a backdrop of dodgy haircuts, terrible clothes and occasionally brilliant music, forced all of us, the hitherto feckless youth, to be political in a way that has never happened since, at least not in England.

You were either for her, in which case you mostly kept quiet and began to accumulate wealth, or against her, in which case you put on your Jam records and occasionally joined in the college sit-in against the cuts. The latter was by far the best way to pick up girls.

Times were grim; it was a monochrome world where the middle parting held sway.

But what Thatcher did when we were young was jolt us out of our hedonist youthful endeavours from time to time and force us to think.

It was ideology. A word that has since been eradicated from all parts of the UK, except perhaps for pockets of this one.

I remember many long, earnest conversations about civil rights. We railed against the police stopping two busloads of Kent miners in the Dartford Tunnel heading for Yorkshire picket lines.

The miners all claimed they were going to see their aunts in Selby, but that didn't wash. And you had to be up on your game.

Come university time, many of the radicals were beautiful women. There would be no chance of sharing a lentil curry and a bottle of Blue Nun with them if you didn't know your Rosa Luxemburgs from your Radio Luxembourgs.

And, paradoxically for a woman notoriously without a semblance of cultural affiliations, Thatcher, who confessed to occasionally skipping through a Frederick Forysth, did spawn an explosion of art, which we revelled in.

Painting, novels, music, films and television all thrived against the backdrop of those game-changing times, good art needing something to push against, I suppose.

The "loadsamoney" stuff that quickly followed, as manufacturing came to a shuddering halt and financial services reared its ugly, foam-flecked face, came as a shock to us.

One old friend, who decided to don the coloured blazers and shout across a trading floor for a living, stunned us all when he returned to town one day flashing an unbelievable amount of cash.

I remember we went to the Indian with him and watched him snaffle up something called a King Prawn Bhuna, while we shared a vegetable biryani.

Reading all the tributes and assessments in the papers yesterday was to marvel both at past, now alien, times and that we ever managed to get jobs in the recession-hit, high-unemployment days of the early-80s. At least the haircuts are better now.

There was also a slight pang that we don't feel that passionately about what those who rule us do to us anymore.

I was going to say I almost miss her. But that would be going too far.

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