Thought called malice
I live in contrarian California, that shadow state that runs parallel alongside the real California; it is a land not of good vibrations but of almond plantations, of farmers, not surfers. There is no legally drawn line that marks the boundary between real California and its shadow twin, no sign on the highway welcoming you and urging you to enjoy your stay (not that you would), but as you drive east, away from the coast and the excitement, and enter the Sacramento or San Joaquin Valley (I assume you’re just passing through on your way to Yosemite … or lost), you will viscerally feel the change.
Those assumptions you may have about California – borne from watching a thousand films and TV shows, from listening to a thousand pop songs – are not to be found here. You are someplace else, somewhere more rustic, more rambunctious, somewhere culturally irrelevant, a confused hinterland that is California without the benefits and flyover country without the politeness.
This divide between the real and the shadow is made explicit on election nights. The real California, that strip of land that hugs close to the Pacific turns blue, but in the valley of the shadow California the electoral map turns red.
You can see it written on the cars thanks to the omnipresent bumper stickers, the silent (and pitiful) means by which an American advertises his or her religious beliefs and political persuasions to strangers. In shadow California the anti-Obama bumper sticker industry does sterling business; when stuck in traffic pointed bon mots confront you: “Nobama,” “Obummer,” “Sorry Yet?” “Where’s the birth certificate?” “I Was Anti-Obama Before It Was Cool.”
Self-identifying as progressive these stickers never fail to make me cringe – almost certainly their intended effect. I find them pathetic. If they dripped with cynicism and a general disdain for politics and politicians, I might find them amusing, but these seem at best tribal and at worst the impotent angry cry of the hateful. I like to think that I could never hold such irrational and ill-expressed feelings towards any politician. I trick myself into believing that I am protected by a carapace of rationality; I would never think like these people – who are too rustic and too rambunctious – do.
Then Thatcher died.
Here in shadow California over the last week, a number of people have told me how they “loved” Thatcher. Perhaps, as is the case with the many conversations about the Royals that I’ve endured, it was just them groping for a common ground … but loved? That word strikes a discordant note next to Thatcher. Respect, I could understand, or admire, but wasn’t Unlovable Margaret the actual point of it all? An unlikeable but foreboding Matron figure to prod and hector the country back into health – Parliament’s answer to Hattie Jacques. Martin Amis has described her as being the “necessary Prime Minister,” the one tasked with having to make the difficult decisions that nursed the sick man of Europe out of the winter of discontent. Indeed, it may been the case in ’79 that the body politic required a thorough detox, but administer an enema too often and too vigorously and it soon starts to feel like a buggering.
I grew up in the North East of England, the Labour heartlands, and there are (some) similarities between it and shadow California, both struggle with high unemployment and justifiably or not feel forgotten and ignored. Thatcher was a permanent fixture of that childhood, an implacable force that I found severe and frightening, a person you could not imagine not being Prime Minister.
The pictures above are from today’s edition of The Northern Echo, the main paper that covers the whole region. They have taken the decision to offer newsagents and readers two different covers marking Thatcher’s funeral. One, a somber image of events in London for the funeral, the other featuring formers miners from colliery towns in Durham in the North East protesting “the women they blame for blighting their communities”. You may simply view it as an effective PR stunt on the part of the paper’s, but it does serve to visually encapsulate her divisive legacy and a regional divide that exists on this issue. As a child I remember being driven through those colliery towns (or more accurately ex-colliery towns once the pits had closed) – Blackhall, Easington, Seaham, etc. – and they were socially deprived communities, devastated by unemployment and now left unfit for purpose, what had been its only purpose, everything had been built around one single enterprise that they had called time on.
Unlike shadow California bumper stickers are not a universally recognized form of protest in the North East. The neighbors who lived across the road from my Auntie, however, had a German Shepherd that they had trained to do tricks when you said the word “Maggie.” It definitely gave a menacing growl on hearing “Maggie”, I also seem to recall it would make a spitting motion too, but that may just be childish memories of Bob Carolgees and Spit the dog (a terrible 80s variety act) getting mixed up with real life.
I remember the November night that Thatcher resigned. It was the night of the week I had to go to Cub Scouts, something I dreaded. Surprisingly the leadership contest between Thatcher and Heseltine had been big news at school. I can only assume that in the days of there only being four television channels available and pre-24 hour news, the news had been deemed so important that it had bumped the BBC’s regular children’s programming scheduling off the air, and instead of watching Gordon the Gopher millions of British children had been treated to the attempted (and eventually successful) ousting of Thatcher. That has to be the answer as we certainly weren’t politically astute nine and ten-year-olds. I do not think we even watched Newsround (a daily five minute news show on the BBC aimed at children. Fox 40 aspires to hit its heights), or perhaps it was just the thought of Thatcher not being Prime Minister that was interesting as it seemed so unfathomable to us. She’d always been Prime Minister. Yes, there had been other Prime Ministers (apparently), but that was in that dubious pre-history, the time before we were born and so could not be verified with any confidence. On leaving Cub Scouts that night, one boy – a fat ginger-haired child whose name I’ve long forgotten and who I always found a little too unpredictable in his behavior for my liking – asked his dad what had happened in the leadership contest. On being told that Thatcher had resigned the boy, embarrassing his father and confusing the other waiting parents, put the hood of his coat over his head, and let the rest of his coat function as a cape (it was the only reasonable way to play Batman in the playground) ran round in circles shouting “Ding Dong, the witch is dead.” And now so she is, and on the basis of this week’s top 40 that boy’s song choice proved prescient. Although it must be said that it is far wittier being an off-the-cuff remark of a nine-year-old boy than the collective act of thousands of adults.
My wife cannot fathom that, that enough people were willing to download “ding dong the witch is dead” in the event of the death of an 87-year-old woman that it charts at number 2. I bring up the Obama bumper stickers, but she doesn’t buy it. “They’re angry now, Thatcher hasn’t been in power for over 20 years.” I then explain about how with Cameron and new austerity, Thatcher and Thatcherism is more relevant than ever, and perhaps if this had occurred fours years ago or in four years time the reaction would have been a little more muted, but as I say this I know it is total guff that I am pedaling, the reaction would have been the same. The honest answer is, like the anti-Obama stickers, it is tribal; a malice thought, though on – if I am being honest – I can empathize with.