Back to the Future. Part 1:1979, Margaret Thatcher, and the end of Civilization

In which The Owl breaks the Law, but feels Morally Justified

I am 62 years old. The general election called for December 12th is, by a long way, the most important of my lifetime. There have been other significant elections, elections that I thought were critically important. The first Blair victory in 1997 springs to mind. After the crushing disappointment of 1992, when John Major snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, partly because of the inability of Neill Kinnock to speak simple, clear English, it felt as if that election was our last hope. But even that pales into insignificance when compared to what is at stake now. The only thing that comes close is the election of 1979, and given the recent media obsession with a return to the seventies that both parties spending plans are supposed to represent (more of that later), it seems appropriate to take a little trip down memory lane and recount the events leading up to my flagrant breaking of electoral law over forty years ago.

Thatcher v Callaghan 1979

1979. It is very difficult to accurately paint a picture of the 1970s for people who did not experience that decade as adults. So much has been obscured, wilfully, by the rewriting of the history of that time, that one can almost forgive youngsters for thinking that the seventies was a time of unbridled union power, of reckless public spending, of rampant nationalisation sending the British economy into near terminal decline, rescued only by the intervention of the IMF and the Blessed Margaret. This is the established version of our history. And, having lived through it, one is left wondering how much more of our history is similarly falsified. Indeed, “History is written by the victors” as Winston Churchill famously didn’t say. The only thing that representations of the decade have got right is that it was, indeed, a very brown and orange period, in terms of clothing and home décor.

Up until 1979, there had existed what came to be known as “The Post-War Consensus”. That is, both the major parties accepted that a modern economy and society ran most effectively on a judicious mix of Private and Public sector endeavour. The mixed economy balanced freedoms, rights and responsibilities and a strong state sector was essential, not just for social justice and equity, but for economic efficiency as well. It was accepted by both sides that spending about 40-42% of GDP on the state was necessary to ensure a smooth running, fair society. One effect of this consensus was that a period of Government by one’s opponents wasn’t too disastrous. The Tories had a slightly meaner approach to public spending, but that was about the only difference.

But then came Thatcher and the monetarist experiment. In opposition, when The Labour Party began to be known as the natural party of government, or as more efficient managers of capitalism, the Tories began to think. The pragmatists dabbled with ideology with catastrophic long term results. The ideology they espoused was embraced with the fervour of converting catholics and they developed a toxic combination of ideological certainty, limited intellect, and the common touch, aided and abetted by a command of rhetoric. It was the first signs of populism and it ran riot through the Labour party’s complacency.

At the time of the election, I was living in York, extending my student years after graduation via a series of crummy jobs and even crummier accommodation, until I could settle on what to do with the rest of my life. I’m still working on that last one by the way, but at the time, it felt like I would come up with an answer in the following year or so. One crummy job finished (was it the Great York and Surroundings Bus Census, a job that involved me and my partner in crime keeping ourselves warm as the snow fell, abandoned at some remote village green, by setting fire to our leaflets in the litter bin? Or perhaps it was the job at York bus garage where I was tasked with cleaning the garage floor with some watery detergent and a very small brush? There is probably some hapless youth still cleaning the same floor, with the same tools today, with the same chances of success) and I took a trip to the job centre to find another Crummy Job.

I picked a card from the display boards and took it to the lady at the desk. She peered at the card and read aloud, “Ah, yes, a stock clerk at Raylor’s Plant Hire, Thomas street, York.” She smiled and looked over the top of her horn-rimmed glasses at me. Her smile scurried away, back under its customary stone. She stared appraisingly at me. “Hmm. Are you sure this is the job for you?” It was a question that in later years as an English teacher I would recognise as one that expected the answer “No”. After a further hesitation she made up her mind and I was duly despatched to their offices just outside the city walls, starting at 9am the next day.

After my previous jobs, the prospect of sitting at a desk in a warm office ten minutes away from my flat was appealing. I scrubbed up and wore a respectable jacket and tie to look the part of the keen white-collar worker. This was a job I needed to keep hold of. The first clue that that might be a little more difficult than I had anticipated came when I walked into the huge, open plan office on that first morning. The boss was a dapper little chap called Derek. For devotees of seventies sitcoms, think John Inman in “Are you being served?” Tight suit and waistcoat combo with fetching floral kipper tie, he was the epitome of camp, at a time when no-one really knew what camp was. His desk, a stately mahogany monstrosity with the surface area of an aircraft carrier, dominated the far end of the office. From this vantage point he could surveill the whole team and keep them under his baleful eye. The clue was in the middle of his desk and on the wall behind him. Two enormous full colour pictures: one of Her Majesty, Queen Liz, the other of The Blessed Margaret Thatcher. In the middle of his desk, two plastic union jacks hung as limply as the unwatered Swiss Cheese plant in the corner. My heart sank. My boss was mad Thatcherite. And a monarchist to boot. And this was ’79, the time of The Pistols and Punk. I was shown to my desk, virtually two planks of wood tucked away in the corner furthest away from the mighty Derek. I slunk back there and vowed to myself to keep my head down and my mouth shut.

It was a fine plan, or as fine a plan as twenty-two year old wasters’ plans tended to be. Predictably, it did not survive for long. At 9.15, when the full complement of Derek’s crack team had assembled, each person to their own desk, a strange ritual began that was repeated every morning of the general election campaign.

Derek tapped on a glass on his desk with a spoon, like the best man at a wedding.

“Good morning campers. All ready for another day of free enterprise and wealth creation? Before we begin, let’s just do our daily roll call, shall we?”

His voice was a strange combination of flat Yorkshire vowels and a working man’s club version of a female impersonator. He turned to the woman sitting at the desk on the far end of the front row. “Good morning Joyce. And have you been following the events in the general election campaign?”

“Yes, Derek, I have.”

“And will you be voting Conservative on Thursday May 3rd, Joyce.”

“Yes, Derek, I certainly will.”

“Good girl Joyce.”

Derek moved on to the occupant of the next desk. The same interrogation took place, word for word, with the same responses. There were about 12 -14 people in the office, and each one in turn played their part. Sitting at the back, I watched the whole bizarre spectacle unfold, my heart sinking ever further towards my boots as the focus shifted inexorably towards me. Finally, the moment of truth arrived. The occupants of the other desks turned in their seats towards me. Derek beamed in my direction. “Ah, of course, we have a new member of our happy team. Christopher, isn’t it?” (Please note: all names have been changed to protect the innocent. And the guilty.)

“Yes, that’s right,” I managed to mumble, relieved that he had started with an easy question.

“Well, Good morning Christopher. Have you been following the events of the general election campaign?”

“Yes. Yes, I have actually Derek.”

“And will you be voting Conservative on Thursday May 3rd?”

There was a pause. I swallowed and licked my lips nervously. The silence grew in the room. The fixed, casual smile on Derek’s face began to flicker.

“Well, actually, Derek,“ I began and paused again.

“Yes?” he enquired, disturbed at this unprecedented break with routine.

“Well, I’ll be voting for The Labour Party Derek, actually.”

Everyone froze. The smile fled from Derek’s face and his brow furrowed. His eyes ranged around the massed ranks of his acolytes, as if to spread his disbelief amongst them. Satisfied, he stopped, raised an eyebrow and proclaimed, “We’ve got a bloody …. Socialist in the office. What the hell happened to my arrangement with the lass at the job centre to weed out the lefty students?” The word “socialist” was intoned in a voice dripping with contempt and a lip so curled that it was almost touching his nose.

I somehow survived the rest of that first day. I returned the next day to find my desk relocated to the corridor outside the office. Once a day I was called in for the ritual humiliation of Derek singing the praises of the forthcoming Thatcherite Free Market Utopia, followed by his withering condemnation of the failures and moral bankruptcy of Socialism. Dangerously, I challenged him and argued back. Part of the reason I survived was that Derek enjoyed the argument and he was unused to someone disagreeing with him. But mainly it was an exercise in power relationships. He enjoyed this daily affirmation of his own power and the rightness of his cause. It was like a Lion playing with a bruised and bloodied Wildebeest. And a really small and skinny wildebeest at that. And when the fun stopped, I was summarily banished to the corridor for the rest of the day.

Finally, Thursday May 3rd arrived. The polls had made gloomy reading for Labour supporters, and Derek’s steadily increasing sense certain victory made work ever more unbearable. That evening, my chums and I settled down in front of the telly in my tiny flat, with a few drinks prepared for the worst. I lived in two rooms of a huge Victorian three storey terrace just outside the city walls. Once grand, the house was then positively Dickensian in its squalor, and provided accommodation only marginally more comfortable than rough sleeping. The Landlord was a benevolent Christian from Hull who tolerated the casual and perpetual non-payment of the tiny rent that he charged and turned a blind eye to the recycling of the sole fifty pence piece through the gas meter to heat the fire. He would arrive at the house about once every two months, making pathetic, hand-wringing  attempts to get his tenants to pay at least some of their arrears and would depart some time later having lent most of his debtors a fiver each.

Various ex-university ne’er-do-wells and chancers had passed through this crumbling pile over the years and the net result was, by the time of election night, a stack of neatly arranged polling cards, about fifty in total, was placed just inside the front door. Their rightful owners were scattered to the four corners of the globe by this stage. I was registered to vote in North Yorkshire at that time, after a “Withnail and I” type spell living in a farmhouse near Easingwold. It was the biggest Tory majority in the country, a place where the working classes, horny-handed sons of toil and agricultural labourers, were transported to the polling station in one of the Lord Snooty’s tractors so that they could tug their forelock and vote Conservative because they knew their place.

I had resigned myself to not voting, partly because my vote would not dent the majority, partly because it was a round trip of about forty miles after work. Any remaining flicker of wanting to do the right thing and exercise my democratic rights, won at great cost by the struggle of my forebears, was totally extinguished by three pints of Sam Smiths and a bottle of cheap red. It was the beginning of a long career of armchair socialism.

And then, at about 9.30pm, there was a hammering on the front door. With much grumbling, I prised myself out of the cosy, warm sofa and went down see who it was. I swung open the door, expecting to find someone else come to join the post result wake, only to find three labour party workers, their faces furrowed and serious. They were all in identikit socialist worker outfits of Donkey Jackets, Rock against Racism badges, three-day stubble and John Lennon glasses.

Their leader did not waste time on any social niceties. “Alex is in trouble. You’ve got to come out and vote.”

Alex was Alex Lyon, the sitting MP for York at that time, a well-respected, popular and principled constituency MP in an area that was reliably Labour. If he was in trouble, the political tectonic plates were truly shifting.

“I can’t,” I stammered, “I’m not registered here. I haven’t got a polling card.”

The storm troopers of the revolution exchanged weary glances and shook their heads. Che Guevara leaned in through the doorway and picked up the pile of voting cards. He fanned out the cards in two hands and proffered them to me.

“Pick a card, any card,” he said. “As long as it’s got a man’s name on it.”

I hesitated. Breaking the law came hard to a well brought up lad from the North. My scruples crumbled, however, on the rocks of their scorn.

“Jesus wept,“ one said, “It’s not a hanging offence. Exercise your democratic rights, man. People have died for this, y’know.”

That did it. I marched to the polling station burning with democratic fervour. Wat Tyler, The Levellers, Oliver Cromwell, Emily Davidson, Keir Hardie – I was standing on the shoulders of giants. Songs would be sung in my honour, municipal closes of social housing would be named after me, I would feature in a film made by Ken Loach. Immortality was mine. The man who bravely defied the forces of reaction to cast his vote freely, without fear or favour. Well, there was quite a lot of fear, actually. I slunk into the polling station, collar turned up, mumbling at the teller, hyperventilating and sweating profusely and then scurried out, expecting to be wrestled to the ground by the police.

It made not a jot of difference, of course. The Blessed Margaret stormed to victory with a fairly modest majority of 44 seats. I slunk back into to work on Friday morning, hung over and depressed. I arrived to find that my desk had been moved from the corridor and now occupied pole position in the front row, right next to Derek’s desk. He greeted me that day with a sickeningly broad, beaming smile, and proceeded to lecture me on the onward march of history and progress under the benevolent wisdom of Mrs T. That day and every succeeding day for the rest of my tenure there. It was a horrible, horrible first day of the new Reich, one that left me squirming with disappointment and dread.

What my twenty-two year old self could not have realised back then, was that this was just the start. Over the following forty years, it was all going to get much, much worse.

Coming next week

Part 2: 2019 – The Forty Year Fact Check

John Keats versus Led Zeppelin – a score draw.

The approach of Bonfire Night always feels to me like the transition from autumn to winter. The dark, cold, wet nights after the clocks have gone back heralds a time to be endured rather than enjoyed. It also coincides with what was traditionally thought to be the toughest school half term. It’s a long haul to the Christmas holidays. It’s time to hunker down by the fireside with a wee dram and a ghost story. But before we say a final farewell to the glories of autumn, let’s just remind ourselves of a time that has inspired great writers down the centuries. First off, John Keats. Bit of an irritating cough, but a fine poet and social thinker.

 Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,

   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

      For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,

   Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

   Steady thy laden head across a brook;

   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?

   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

   Among the river sallows, borne aloft

      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Now compare and contrast with the majestic Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. I’m convinced that if Johnny Keats had been strutting his stuff in 1969, he would have been wearing loon pants and a Led Zep T shirt. Now that is proper cultural capital, Ofsted. Go back to the drawing board, read Bourdieu properly, and raise your eyes above a narrow band of Great Works. There are contemporary Great Works all around you, if you are prepared to make a judgment that is not just parroting received opinion. Enjoy.

The View from the Great North Wood – The Secret Commonwealth

Cultural musings from The Old Grey Owl…

The Secret Commonwealth    


Philip Pullman

This is the long-awaited second installment of Pullman’s trilogy, The Book of Dust, a sequence that revisits the fantasy parallel England of His Dark Materials. Anyone interested in children’s literature or the fantasy genre as a whole, will have been counting down the weeks until this release, such is the power of Pullman’s fictional world, and the impact that the original trilogy had when first published in 1995. Those original fans will soon be joined by a whole new group generated by the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials which is set to air on Sunday November 3rd. The trailer certainly suggests that it will be a much more successful rendition than the ill-fated dog’s dinner that was the 2007 blockbuster starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Not that that would be too difficult mind you.

So Pullman is hot stuff at the moment. But what about the book? Let’s just get a few things out of the way first. Pullman is A Great Writer. His Sally Lockhart novels are glorious confections of London Victorian adventure mysteries, with pea-soupers and coal stained brick warehouses on the banks of the filthy Thames. Those alone would guarantee his reputation. But it’s the first trilogy, His Dark Materials, that moves him into the ranks of the genuinely great. Engrossing, believable, moving, challenging, Pullman creates a parallel world that is both restrained and oddly familiar. He asks big questions about belief, orthodoxy, law and punishment and democracy. But perhaps his greatest achievement is the creation of his central protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, and his invention of the notion of the Daemon, an animal- like creature that everyone in this world has as a lifelong companion, a representation of the soul, the quintessence of the individual. Lyra is one the most memorable characters in children’s fiction. In all fiction. Appearing first as an eleven year old girl in a version of Oxford University, she is resilient, loyal, brave, intelligent, and without any trace of snobbery or prejudice about race, class or gender. And she is one half of one of the greatest love stories ever told.

Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua in His Dark Materials

The first instalment of The Book Of Dust, La Belle Sauvage, featured Lyra as an infant, rescued from the baddies by Malcolm Polstead, an eleven year old boy. The second book moves us on twenty years. Lyra is now an undergraduate at Jordan College. Malcolm, is a University Lecturer. They both become caught up in the struggle between the CDD, the repressive state police, responsible for rigorously enforcing religious orthodoxy, and the liberal resistance. The struggle centres around the control of the source of a mysteriously powerful species of rose oil that is grown in the Levant (the equivalent of Syria/Turkey) Pullman uses this to reflect upon contemporary struggles between the West and the Islamic world, on the issues of religious wars, refugees, terrorism, populism. It dies s through the vehicle of a journey eastwards from Oxford, to the Middle East. The journey has all the elements of the classic adventure story: the main protagonists are split up and are all on separate quests to find themselves and to find solutions to their separate problems. Their journeys allow Pullman to paint a vivid picture of exotic lands, full of bazaars, train stations, cafes and markets, serially escaping dangerous situations, only to fall into more dangerous situations. It’s exciting and mostly well told. Pullman can still knock out a page turner. Mostly.

But. This is not a children’s book. It’s complex, dealing with real world issues of politics and prejudice. It is quite adult at times, in its language and depiction of relationships. It’s very sophisticated in the way it handles the growing awareness of sexuality of Lyra, following on from The Amber Spyglass. The depiction of a near gang rape is genuinely disturbing. Pullman himself would I think be quite pleased with that verdict. He has been very reluctant himself to categorise his novels as being for children. And there is a strength in that, because it allows him to break free of the constraints imposed by genre. The worst crime Pullman commits, however, is that, at times it’s a little ….dull. The political wranglings of the Pullman equivalent of The Vatican are arcane and convoluted, and I’d be surprised if they held the attention of many children. Certainly not the ones I know nor the ones I have taught. And it suffers, above all else, from the curse of the established writer. It’s far too long.

Weighing in at over 700 pages, this is a book that wouldn’t have got past the first fence had he been an unknown. That first book has to be absolutely tightly- wrought, like a finely tuned piano. Not a spare word out of place, coming in at under 300 pages tops, the draconian guidelines of publishers and agents at least produce economy and crackle. They impose discipline as much as formulaic writing. Look what happens when you’ve made it. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books just kept getting longer and longer as no-one would dare to suggest to the behemoth, Jo, maybe you need to rein it in a bit, love. One can only be grateful that she had only planned seven of them. If she had kept going, we would have been at over the thousand page mark by now, no question. The same applies here. And this, for all its strengths and joys, is a little flabby and baggy.

I’m sounding very negative. It’s still a wonderful book and he’s still a titanic writer. The return of the Great Love, at least in Lyra’s memory and regrets, and the beginnings of a new love to replace it, is fabulous. Even so, it’s only a four star member of his astonishing list of achievements. And when you’ve set the bar as high as he has, that’s a little disappointing. If you’re an English teacher, or you just love books, you still must read this. And hopefully, you’ll love it more than I did.