Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Maggie's dead (or: How to explain a politician's death to your kids)

While driving my daughter to her basketball practice session this afternoon, we listened to the radio, as we always do in the car, the only place we listen to radio these days. A punk rock rhythm was beating out, interspersed with political statements voiced by what sounded like Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher. The noise of the traffic was drowning the music, so I turned up the volume to hear it better.

"Wot iz thet, mom?" my daughter asked me in English, obviously influenced by the incongruity of hearing the English language being spoken loudly and clearly on a Greek radio station without any translation. It's very difficult to explain to a child what I wanted to hear. The death of a politician who had little bearing in Greek politics at the time is a difficult one to explain to a child.

"Oh," I started, "well... a former English prime minister died... and she was quite an important person... but not everyone liked her... and they made up songs about her." It's funny how Thatcher's death is being portrayed in a country like Greece. Global news of this magnitude takes up our news coverage, even though it should have little bearing in our every day life. What I would have liked to tell my daughter was that Thatcher's death is important even to Greece because Thatcher ruled Britain at a time when Britain was a bit like Greece, an awful place to live in due to high crime, unemployment, disillusioned youth and terrible politicans:
Shorn of its empire, Britain now cut a very miserable figure on the world stage. For at least two decades we had been falling behind our rivals, and now the contrast was painful to see. Britain's average inflation rate for the 1970s was 13%. West Germany's was just 5%. Our unemployment rate was 4%. Theirs was only 2%. Our major cities seemed shabby and seedy, our newspapers were full of strikes and walkouts, almost every week seemed to bring some new atrocity in Northern Ireland. Over the course of the 1970s, two Prime Ministers, Edward Heath and James Callaghan, had been broken by the trade unions, while a third, Harold Wilson, descended into paranoia. Foreign papers talked of Britain as the Sick Man of Europe. Callaghan himself told his Labour colleagues: "If I were a young man, I would emigrate." Dominc Sandbook, BBC 9 April, 2013
"With music like that?" she frowned. Punk rock can never really be appreciated in the way that it flowered in its prime in its origns. Punk has a bleak dark beat to it which does not associate well with a sunlit country like Greece. Most Greeks I know who appreciate this kind of music are night owls, not getting up until the middle of the afternoon. I personally like to listen to the Clash's London's Calling, but I must admit that I do this covertly, when I'm alone in the house. It does not bode well with the sights and sounds of my everyday life. I never listen to this kind of music around the kids. It's part of the secret world of their mother, in the same way that we all have secret worlds that become discovered at some point in the course of one's lifetime, by which time it may be too late to make amends to our attitude about the people that we have lived with all our life and thought we knew well.

"Yes, it's weird music, isn't it?" I said. "It shows that some people really didn't like this woman." Politically motivated music has a different beat in different cultures. Greek political music takes on a monotonous rhythm reminscent of the music popularised during the dictatorship period of the 60-70s.

"Why? Was she a bad person?" Anyone keeping up to date with current affairs today will understand how difficult it is to explain this one without taking sides on the issue. The woman never did me any harm. If my parents were immigrants in the UK instead of NZ at the time of her rule, I have a feeling that her policies would have actually been in their favour rather than to their detriment.

My parents would not have gone to the UK to work in the coal mines. It is doubtful that such work was open to them in the first place. I don't think the miners' unions of the time let immigrants into such well-paying jobs. Instead, they would have gone to work in some kind of factory, ie the manufacturing business, which Thatcher supposedly destroyed, along with the miners’ unions. So in effect, my parents would not have kept their manufacturing jobs. But this is exactly what happened to my parents in NZ, anyway, about the same time that Thatcher came into power. In 1979, my mother lost her job in a hosiery factory due to its closure. My father knew that his time was also running out in the factory where he worked producing nylon thread (which was used in producing hosiery and in other industrial uses). That is when they decided that they would buy and operate their own fish and chip shop business. I know what my Mum and Dad - my children's grandparents, one of whom they never met and the other they never knew because he died when they were very very young - would have done in the UK during Margaret Thatcher's years - they would have done exactly the same thing as they did during Robert Muldoon rule in NZ.

"Some people liked her and some people hated her," I answered to my daughter's question. "Because she was a very determined woman, some people say she had a very harsh personality, but she just wanted people to work very hard for the money they were earning." I decided not to tell my daughter whether I liked or disliked this woman. Margaret Thatcher meant nothing to me at the time of her rule. I only remember her caricature in The Young Ones, which I watched because I liked the punk rock it often played, much to my parents' confusion. Their peasant origins never really allowed them to understand their daughter's world. We never really got on either, even though we had a deep affection for each other which was mutually understood. They knew I would never forget them: I always wrote letters and called them while I was travelling. My mother, who worked so hard to make sure we didn't have to live a hard life, might be surprised that I ended up living in a village only a kilometre or two away from the one she left to go to the other side of the world for a better life.

"She sounds like you, Mum," my daughter said. In a sense, my daughter is right. Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer, and she is remembered sweeping outside her father's store, where she learnt what it meant to work hard. I worked in my parents' fish and chip shop for close to a decade. My parents never expected me to work in this way in my older years, like they did, or in a job like theirs. It was very smelly work, and I never enjoyed it.

It's funny how much I have written about fish and chips lately, isn't it? I have a feeling that even if I lived in London instead of Wellington during the 80s, and London was burning, my parents would have chosen to live close to the river Thames on the east side, which was one of the scummiest places to live in London at the time. A bit like Mt Victoria where we lived in Wellington. Both Mt Vic and the East End got their comeuppance by the early 90s, being transformed into inner-city havens for the rich, where the house prices doubled and trebled in value, just like ours did when my father sold it in 1994 after my mother's death. Even if they didn't live near the Thames, they would have made sure that their family could be saved in time if London was burning. You can't do away with fighters that easily.

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