Coming ashore at Gravesend like Pocahontas, the dying Native American princess, and wobbling up the raked walkway in a stiff breeze, I had to duck to avoid the menacing swoop of a tethered crow. This was a malignant spirit, in an evil wind, in a defeated place loud with absence. Naturally, on such a day and at such an hour, I was on the lookout for symbols and portents. The funeral rites of Lady Thatcher, the great leader celestially upgraded from her complimentary suite at the Ritz, began as our ferry, the Duchess M, butted out, cross-current, from the revived container stacks of Tilbury Riverside (Maritime). She was carrying an elderly couple and one distracted, finger-scrolling young man. Back in August 2007 the Lower Thames and Medway Passenger Boat Company Ltd, owners and operators of the Duchess M, were fined £18,000 (with £9000 costs) for transporting more passengers than the vessel certification allowed: ninety temporary migrants had crammed aboard.
Gravesend looks like the kind of place from which a plague-dodging exit is on the cards. The riverside Heritage Quarter, with its decorative ironwork security gate, is post-traumatic, chemically coshed, in receipt of bad news. The charity shops were shut, the nail parlours spurned. And the Ground Zero cocktail bar was bereft of punters willing to suspend their distaste for the tactless name in order to raise an iced glass to the memory of the golden-maned Boudicca of their upstream neighbour, Dartford. Dartford is where Margaret Thatcher, like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, launched her career as a big-stage, big-dollar performer. With age, Thatcher and Keith Richards relocated their original identities, with fat biographies boosted as pure legend, bad behaviour sanctified by extreme wealth. But while the Stones are still working hard for their portfolios and properties, Lady Thatcher’s twilight was infolded and unmoving. She became a destination to be visited, afternoon tea taken, like a famous rock or lighthouse. In her statuesque last act, more mask than meat, Thatcher was revealed as a fallible old woman whose sharpest memories were of childhood, the Grantham years of strict Methodism and endless homework, before she lost her essential self in becoming a manufactured, voiced-coached projection. Like the robot warrior Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
A mantle of silence had fallen over land and river. The elderly couple now perched on hard benches, with bowed heads, resting, enjoying their £2 concessionary rides: they offered no recognition of this moment of national bereavement. The immaculately planned funerary procession, by limousine and gun-carriage, out of Westminster to St Paul’s Cathedral, had the appearance, on the news feeds streaming unwitnessed into the cafés and pubs of the Thames Gateway, of a triumphalist police outing, a reunion for veterans of the Battle of Orgreave. A reunion attended, in true British fashion, by a stubborn knot of anarchists and history-infected leftists confirming the status of the dead woman by turning their backs on her. Without consultation or consensus, we were all chipping in to cover the millions required for this pastiche of a solemn state occasion, the public acknowledgment that a mere politician could symbolise the best of the nation: conviction, courage, shellacked coiffure and limitless uninhibited self-interest. Which was, as the numerous media types up at dawn that morning insisted, an arguable proposition. In best black, they stalked the perimeter of St Paul’s Cathedral, where the Occupy protesters had been permitted, for a brief time, to pitch their tents, without nuisance to the paying customers or the money men behind their barricades in Paternoster Square. One by one or in neatly opposed couples – Ken Clarke and Shirley Williams, say – funeral attendees were interrogated about the legacy. Rarely can such an Alice in Wonderland charivari of local stereotypes have been assembled, some of them (like Dave and Samantha Cameron) quite obviously having a good time, with smiles and quips and cute photo-op hand-holding. The front rows were a woodpeckerish blizzard of Judas kisses, blood enemies forced to prod stiff lips towards cold cheeks. Toothless foxes sniffing at dead chickens. They were all there: from the well-rehearsed formaldehyde rigidity of senior royalty to the public faces of smug and comfortably suited former cabinet colleagues, along to be sure she was really in the box. To broken bullies blinking back tears under an unruly thatch of eyebrow. To the shameless court of right-opinionated entertainers still at large. To ennobled perjurers, medal-snaffling athletes, arms dealers, coup plotters, financial bagmen, wounded veterans, and such morally compromised foreign dignitaries as could be persuaded to take a mini-break to springtime London.
The only obvious sensitivity observed during this circus – so unlike the private funerals of Attlee and most of Thatcher’s predecessors as prime minister – was that the funerary flotilla kept off the Thames. Churchill could be invoked but not so directly challenged. Military honours for the sinking of the Belgrano and the painful losses of the Falklands adventure (two bald men fighting over a comb) couldn’t be set so nakedly against Churchill’s bloodline and epic martial history. And, in any case, the Palace would certainly veto a return to the water for the Duke of Edinburgh after the long, cold hours of the Diamond Jubilee river pageant and its effect on an ageing bladder. So the Thames was the safest place for dissenters, far removed from the reverent silence of political London, the muffling of Big Ben. At midday in Gravesend, the clock mechanism of St George’s Church, where Pocahontas is buried, sounded the hour. Distant chimes, rippling across the town, responded in what felt like a celebratory chorus. In the Towncentric tourist office, where they have decided to reboot the whole zone as ‘Gravesham’, the latest update from the funeral was so soft that the manager’s radio seemed a whispered broadcast from a distant planet. The main attraction of Gravesham seemed to be its easy access to the Bluewater shopping hub in its chalk quarry, and to the Eurostar link at Ebbsfleet.
And what about the name of the ferry boat? The Duchess M, trundling backwards and forwards across the broad river, between the bustling international container port of Tilbury and Gravesend, the historic sump of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, feels like a subliminal tribute to Thatcher: little visited now, but with persisting memories of the days when she was overwhelmed with paying passengers. Perhaps there is a nudge in the direction of Jacobean tragedy, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi? ‘She stains the time past, lights the time to come.’ The black crow, dive-bombing us as we stepped ashore, was a thing of ragged plastic: a loud fake, a deterrent to keep random passerines and crapping gulls off honest English soil. It shrieked and hissed in the wind, lacking claws and beak. The passengers heading for the pier didn’t even notice it.
If you travel against the inrushing City surge, the cattled mob decanted at Fenchurch Street station, a railway excursion to the Thames Estuary is a perfectly manageable affair. Many of the stalled trains share a destination: EMPTY TO DEPOT. I climbed aboard for Tilbury Town. A young woman, having let the crowd disperse, leaving a free-festival tide wrack of giveaway newspapers, jumbo coffee containers and breakfast-bar wrappers, completed her complicated make-up routine and adjusted her tight skirt. The funeral didn’t make the front page of Metro: PUTTING SEX BACK INTO BALLET.
I’d decided to pay my respects in an unorthodox way, by time-travelling into the period of Thatcher’s pomp, when she occulted the light, alchemised the bad will of the populace and did her best to choke the living daylights out of the awkward, sprawling, socially coddled essence of metropolitan London. Hers was a tyranny of the suburbs operating from a position of privilege at the centre: she might have invested in a Dulwich retirement property, but she couldn’t sleep in it. In 1988 I began to explore the derelict deepwater docks of the Isle of Dogs and Silvertown (already floated as a future Olympic site) for a book called Downriver. Margaret Thatcher, in the person of the ‘Widow’, was a dark deity presiding over a nightmare version of England, channelling our worst impulses, our meanest prejudices, our fear of the alien. In those days the mark of the beast was clearly imprinted on the ravished terrain between the A13 and the river: discontinued industries, generic towers rising on the malign compost of the deregulated financial markets, crude surveillance systems protecting speculative retail parks. ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ The repeated challenge as security guards questioned me at every imposed barrier. Thatcher was an abiding presence. Like the smell of the Thames: oil and river-rot and yellow mud. Along walls and embankments, the rabid slogans and anti-Thatcher curses were large and scarlet. In certain hideaway pubs, inscribed photographs in polished frames signalled a positive allegiance. Now, from the window of the empty train to Tilbury, there was nothing. No acknowledgment of funeral or legacy. Margaret Thatcher’s traces were visible in every new shed, in every mushroom estate under a pergola of pylons, but she was forgotten.
The divisions between rich and poor, initiated by that perverse Thatcherite morality, are obvious to anyone moving across London. The sense of parallel worlds, barely touching, is palpable. As I emerged from the new Shoreditch High Street Overground station, on my way to Fenchurch Street, I saw my fellow passengers divide very rapidly into two streams: towards the money business of the City or the pop-up boutiques, bijou galleries and corporate sports pitches laid out among the magnificent Victorian railway arches. The City stream had to step around a pungent nest of rough sleepers, camped right there, on cardboard and discarded newspapers. The regiments of the unhoused are back, after the pre-Olympic purges, the cosmetic expulsions. Sleeping bags in bushes beside bus garages. A dozen or more drinkers, lost souls or members of the electively disenfranchised, hiding away in patches of thorny scrub and under the rumble of motorways. There are, noticeably, more beggars on the streets, the freelancers and the briskly upbeat employees of charities. More drug casualties are enraged, ranting, kicking at doors, tearing up scratchcards. They are invisible to the hustling cyclists and dwellers in new, secure, railway-hugging or canal-exploiting blocks: unless there is a collision, a ruck, an exchange of insults on the towpath.
Tilbury is as much of a two-finger salute as it was in 1988. Dock Road remains the paradigm of entropy – while the Railport, now cut off by high walls and security cameras, thrives in a rumble of lorries churning up dust. In vast, windowless sheds specialising in Logistics. In geometric stacks of red, brown and blue containers: HAMBURG SÜD, HANJIN, MOL. Like a monumental Paul Klee hammered out in steel. In Thatcher’s day it seemed a ground-level manifestation of what I took to be her vision of enterprise: deranged scams, small businesses wiped out. And the ghosts of the unions exorcised along with the industries in which they once played a significant role. There used to be an eccentric junk shop honouring an even more eccentric version of the past, made up from chipped and repaired artefacts and blatant fakes. Everything looked like a hopeless front, a smokescreen for whatever villainy went on in the back room. There were yards of heaped white goods, damaged and dripping acid, being made ready, so I was told, for export to Nigeria. Fleets of cars with dubious paperwork were being sliced and reattached by the crusher’s equivalent of Dr Frankenstein’s scalpel. Otherwise, the only action came from a bluster of minicab firms offering the fastest way out. Shaggy horses, chained and hobbled, cropped the rubbish-strewn fringes of the defunct railway. They are still there. The little independent shops are boarded over. There is no sign of life in the Dockers’ Sports and Social Club. The unfortunately named Stallions fast food restaurant offers kebabs and burgers. The cash-for-gold pawnshop, apologising to loyal customers, says that it will remain closed for the foreseeable future. ‘Sorry for the Pinconvenience’: a neat coinage. The only illumination in the whole set is the faded sign for SUNLIGHT SOAP still surviving on an old brick wall.
A little dizzy now, and peckish, I opted for a coffee break in the Dock Café, where I hoped to pick up on local responses to the national day of mourning. This bright, clean facility was certainly an improvement on what had been here before. The starred item was the Olympic Breakfast at £5.80, with two eggs, two sausages, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, beans, bubble and squeak. I settled for a cappuccino and a vegetarian fry-up. The clients were monocultural, young, close-cropped, cheerful, chatty, in laundered leisurewear and new trainers. Very young children ran about between the tables, or sat on them, dipping into the enticing mess on the plates. ‘Watch out, mate. She’s a devil. She’ll nick your toast,’ one teenage mum warned. The place was like an amiable, extended family crèche. If you transcribed some of the dialogue – I did – it sounded bad, but the tone, the jocular pitch, the banter, took out the venom. Laughter drowned background music and then the news. ‘I told her, don’t do that,’ my neighbour said, of his estranged partner. ‘Then I whacked her across the front room. Silly tart. I’d rather fuck my sister.’ Workers, unworking, settled in for the morning. There was no obvious economic trickle-down from the dock zone. This was not so much a severed community as a decapitated one; a boisterous, good-humoured endgame behind steamed-up windows.
Just as I was about to leave, to make my way over the railway bridge and down to the river, to the World’s End pub and Tilbury Fort, a young woman struggled through the door with a heavy tripod and an obvious bag of camera equipment. She wore a laminated nametag around her neck on red-and-white ribbon like incident tape. My idea of sounding out the margins for Thatcherite echoes was not so original after all. This was Angie Walker of BBC London News. She’d been quite chuffed to be asked to cover the funeral, picturing a prime spot in Westminster, on the Strand, if not inside St Paul’s – only to learn that they had banished her to Tilbury Town. Wherever that proved to be, it was a long haul from her home in Windsor. And now that she was here, she couldn’t find anywhere open, or anyone to talk to: not a docker, not a UKIP cheerleader, not a card-carrying leftist willing to be sound-bitten. Delighted to have bumped into someone, she offered me a coffee – only to realise that I was in the same game, trawling for exploitable copy. Nobody in the Dock Café had the faintest interest in Margaret Thatcher, or London’s remote television ceremonies. She meant as much to them as Elizabeth I, who schlepped down here to deliver her rousing speech to the troops at the time of the Spanish Armada.
The Railport was booming, but passenger transit and human immigration were over. All the platforms – spectacular ruins at the time of my last visit – were now enclosed, privatised, part of the secure container colony. In the three hours since I’d left my house in Hackney, I’d found no image of Thatcher, subversive or supporting: the hardshell godmother of punk was without honour in her own country. She simply wasn’t there. John Lydon (formerly Rotten) was up on the hoardings, three layers back, advertising butter. Thatcher was a historic footnote in a culture that had abolished history. Or a tethered spectre in the form of a flapping black crow.
Determined to squeeze a few last drops from the defunct imperial trading port of Gravesend with its sad statues to Pocahontas and General Gordon, martyr of Khartoum, I left the pier and its deserted wine bars and found my way to the Old Town Hall: the political and civic centre. The big attraction was an exhibition of paintings by Duncan Grant: ‘Duncan Grant, Gravesend Artist’, that is, not the Bloomsbury wildboy. A pulsating view, down High Street and the Heritage Quarter to the Thames, having something of Ensor or Munch about it, was on offer at £50. The Gravesend Grant was stylistically promiscuous: strobing acrylic pointillism, Aboriginal dots like swimming-pool tesserae, heaving Van Gogh fields under troubled outpatient skies. The exhibition was hung in a refreshment room. Jennie Scott, the development officer, who wasn’t familiar with the earlier Duncan Grant, offered me a tour of the building, with its high, wood-panelled halls, judges’ thrones and trapdoors leading to basement cells where a Jack the Ripper suspect, William Piggott, was once held. Gravesend had a history of witch-finding, I was told. ‘If you were an elderly eccentric woman with bad skin, you had particular problems.’ Anne Neale, known as an ‘ill-tongued’ woman, sent for trial in 1675. Such superstitions lingered even after the building of this neoclassical edifice said to imitate the Parthenon. In 1990 the first Poll Tax hearings had the town hall in an uproar that invoked the days of the Gravesend mob, the dragging of burning boats through the narrow streets. Two hundred non-paying citizens were summonsed to appear before the court; the disillusioned of Thatcherism exposed to cold reality. Thirteen turned up. The rest stayed away, confirming the obvious: it was all over, the crow-beaked madness, the handbagging, the scripted but humourless jokes.
The port of Sheerness, at the mouth of the Medway, which meets the Thames just as it meets the sea, felt like the end of the world. Unconvinced sunshine, enormous skies, a railway station with no human operatives. The melancholy of those platforms, between Gravesend and Sittingbourne, was absolute. Solitary, pacing figures in smart casuals, wired for sound and sometimes managing to hold up a book at the same time. Tired people exposed by their proximity to the river, the regimented fruit trees, the abandoned or newly begun building projects. Canvassed opinions, beachside, disclosed reflex responses to Thatcher’s demise: admiration for her strength, discomfort over the council house sell-off and the Poll Tax. ‘She turned the country around,’ the council leader, Andrew Bowles, said. ‘It was going to the dogs.’ Down at the shoreline, Southend glinting on the horizon, the dogs have won. They skulk, shit on the sand, drag reluctant walkers against the gusting breeze. Concrete steps leading down to the beach have been painted with apocalyptic phrases. This is the right place in which to slump and contemplate the finish: BURIED IN THE BELLY OF ITS LIBERTY. YOU CAN SEE THE END OF THE WORLD FROM HERE. The text refers to the American Liberty ship, SS Richard Montgomery, wrecked off the Nore sandbank with 1400 tonnes of explosives on board. They say that if the Montgomery goes up, the detonation will take out Sheerness. The three masts of the deadly ship are clearly visible and marked with a warning buoy. Afternoon walkers come to watch and wait. One man, stripped to the waist, was filling a blue bucket with sand, and carrying it, time and again, to his car.
As the train dipped into sudden tunnels, leaving me unsure on which side of the Thames we now found ourselves, I thought about Angela Carter. And the opening of her 1991 novel Wise Children: ‘Two cities divided by a river.’ Where Thatcher was an absence, and more than an absence, a negation, an assault on the notion of organic society, Carter was her contrary, a white witch, a perverse and libidinous celebrator of the stew of London. Dying in February 1992, Carter remains a living presence in our culture, her readership expanding every year. It struck me that these two women, strong, self-made, fierce in doctrine, gave a balance to whatever England was in the years between punk and John Major. A year after Thatcher was removed from Downing Street, weeping and in shock, Angela Carter was gone. In some weird way, we needed them both: darkness and light. When Carter reviewed Downriver for the LRB she said: ‘All writers of fiction are doing something strange with time – are working in time. Not their own time, but the time of the reader.’ That is what brought me back to Tilbury, as if the ghosts of fiction should be trapped there for ever.
I returned by way of Stratford International – which involves a compulsory detour through the retail labyrinth of Westfield. At last, at the end of my sombre tour through the Thames Estuary, I found images of Lady Thatcher: a window display in Waterstones. The Iron Lady by John Campbell and Introducing Thatcherism: A Graphic Guide. Cruising shoppers, marching to the beat of piped music, did not pause. Bundles of the Evening Standard, with images of the flag-draped coffin, had been crammed into a silver bin, along with coffee cups, crisp packets and empty Tesco bags. The headline in the ever astonishing Hackney Gazette, as I plodded home, was not Thatcher-related, even though it sounded as if it ought to be. It was local and ordinary, another tale of failing services, burdensome bureaucracy: BODY LOCKED IN MORGUE FOR WEEKS.