Margaret Thatcher death parade

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.

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Powerless again in school

Secondary school is still fresh in the memory. More so now that I’m working in the bloody things. After yearning to leave the constraints of Key Stage 4 education, once more I find myself analysing Shakespeare or discerning whether John Agard uses enjambment in his poems: stuff I didn’t want to care about again until my inevitable descent in to Hell, whence the Devil shall make me search for narrative devices in some obscure novel.

I am working for Aim Higher as an English tutor, a programme dedicated to getting working class kids in to Higher Education – and when I see my University classmates updating their Facebook with statuses like “Just had organic hummus for breakfast”, I can only conclude that the scheme has been a massive success.

Aim Higher sends students to struggling schools so they can gain classroom experience, earn a bit of money and inspire the next generation.

On my first day, one year 11 at reception told me in hushed tones: “We are the sixth worst school in the country according to results” with not a little bit of pride. As the day unfolded, it was as eventful as you’d hope in such a demanding environment.

My first instruction was that I needed to help a girl who had fallen behind on her Macbeth coursework. “She’s only just given birth, so she’s been off for a few months” her teacher implored, which made me choke on my tepid morning tea -it would have shocked me less if it had been due to abduction by aliens. Yet this information wasn’t treated like hot gossip. In fact, I was told the whole sorry affair so matter-of-factly, it seems that pregnancy is a regular excuse for late coursework. It’s the 21st Century equivalent of ‘The dog ate my homework’.

Getting to my first lesson was my chief battle, not helped by the numerous paper aeroplanes, pencils and bottles that were being hurled around the corridors like a game of Ultimate Frisbee. I entered the classroom and it immediately became clear why the school was in Ofsted’s ‘Special Measures’, which is the government’s way of saying a Pakistani terrorist training camp would make a better breeding ground for articulate GCSE students.

Uniform was brazenly ignored, with many of the 15- and 16-year-old girls blurring the boundary between a belt and a mini-skirt. The boys were all listening to music, slouched on chairs, bereft of energy and ideas.

What’s worse is that I have absolutely no power. It doesn’t help that the teachers themselves are overrun by the pupils, so I can’t very well put my foot down when I see poor behaviour. If they can tell a teacher where to stick their whiteboard marker, they would regard my lectures on acting responsibly with pure contempt. I had less power than the powerless teachers, who themselves are less powerful than the powerless senior staff who seem to lock themselves in their office for fear of the war zone outside. Despite the difficulty (and impossibility) of many of the children, I still found it enjoyable. Get through this, I reckoned, and I could do anything.

For one lesson I was with top set Year 8s, where 32 kids were crammed in to a space that would make a janitor’s closet feel spacious and welcoming. The teacher explained the thinking: “We only have four classes for each year, so they cram any kid with a bit of ability in here and let the rest get on with it”. I questioned this when a confused-looking blonde girl stared for minutes at an extract from ‘Romeo & Juliet’, trying to fathom what Shakespeare was on about. She scrunched her nose and finally said “I reckon he was a bit Downy”. Yes. England’s greatest wordsmith. A Downy.

On this single day, many other things happened. A teacher came into the staff room at morning break, crying her eyes out because a student had just verbally abused her. In between her whale song-like sobs I could just about make out that she had been called certain unrepeatable words and that she also feared the sack, as a quarter of the staff were soon to be made redundant because of falling pupil numbers.

In the last lesson, a Year 11 group analysed the poem ‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy, in which she compares love to an onion. The teacher clearly forgot that these children were more trained in throwing objects than Fatima Whitbread, so she gave them all an onion and a knife, asking them to make comparisons between the smelly object on their desks and love. Little did I know that just five hours in to my new job, I would be dashing about a classroom shouting “Stop throwing onions!”

But that’s school. Entirely unpredictable. Exciting. Daft.