Even now, decades since she last held a position of power, Margaret Thatcher can still arouse passionate debate. There is no middle ground when it comes to the Iron Lady. You either love her or hate her. You either believe she is the finest politician of all time. Or when she finally succumbs to death, you will gleefully dance on her grave and give her name as the only possible answer to the question “Is there anybody alive you would like to see dead?”
John Cleese would be firmly in this camp. When asked which two objects he would take with him on Desert Island Discs, he said a papier-mache replica of Margaret Thatcher and a baseball bat. You wouldn’t get that level of hatred with many politicians. Except maybe Gordon Brown, but that’s only because he looks like a papier-mache replica of himself anyway.
The pub is always a place where these tensions are likely to be inflamed. A friend and I were having drinks at our local, discussing our right-on politics and generally being all student-like. Then an ageing man, still wrapped tightly in his jacket despite the roaring fire beside him, began telling us a story about Thatcher, whom we had just slagged off heartily. He spoke in a quiet, unassuming West Country voice and I was just waiting for him to start singing her praises. I had my abusive ripostes ready in my head.
“When I was in my twenties” he began, “I helped build this school down in Bath on an apprenticeship scheme. We worked day and night for shit pay, getting the whole thing done ahead of schedule. On the day it was due to open, we were told that Margaret Thatcher, who was the Education Minister at the time, would be opening the school. So I was given a new set of overalls that we had to give back at the end of the day and we waited in line to shake her hand”.
The man paused briefly to drink more ale and allow us to be drawn further into his anecdote. A hushed silence swallowed the room. “And as she shook the hands of the youngsters who put in twelve-hour shifts to do something decent for the community, I knew there and then she was an evil fucking bitch”.
At this line, the whole pub burst into laughter – everyone had stopped to listen. It was more out of relief than anything. Usually, when an old geezer in a pub starts discussing Thatcher, they mention how she “stood up for Britain” and wasn’t afraid of doing what she thought was good for the country. Although why destroying the manufacturing base of our nation and impoverishing the poor while lavishing the filthy rich could ever be seen as “standing up for Britain” remains somewhat a mystery.
Thatcher’s time in charge produced many an anecdote still told today. On gaining power against all odds in 1979, she tried repeating Winston Churchill’s V for Victory hand signal. Unfortunately, she did it the wrong way round and ended up giving everyone the bird. No-one at the time saw this as an omen.
Another great moment was her “Buy British” campaign, in which she demanded that everyone bought British produce, whether in the supermarket or at the car dealership. But it was leaked that her heated hair-rollers she took to the Falklands were “made in Denmark”. I find myself almost admiring someone who can still prove so divisive all these years later. Who else from the 1980s can bring people together so convincingly? Not Bruce Forsyth. Certainly not Michael Foot. Nor Cyndi Lauper.
It has been said that the people in charge of Maggie’s biopic are waiting for her to die to ensure a happy ending. So many people can’t wait for her to kick the bucket that I wouldn’t be surprised to watch a news bulletin saying “Britain is in mourning tonight as Margaret Thatcher is released from hospital”.
Every time I hear Thatcher has been taken to hospital, it’s like the moment before the gunshot is fired in the 100m final – it is possible that in just a short while there will be an explosion of energy and delight. Or there will be an anti-climactic false start.
In Brighton, the pub next to the Dome has a parlour game called “Celebrity Death Match”. For £1 you can write the name of a celebrity on the chalkboard next to the bar. This continues until someone on the list dies and whoever chose that person wins the jackpot. The highest it has reached is £128, but Thatcher is always the first name on the board. Given her seeming longevity, this is perhaps more in hope than expectation.
Her death, whenever it comes, will be grimly fascinating. Half the country will be inconsolable. The other half will be joyous. And I will be £57 better off.