The Velcro of History

Jenny Diski

There was a funeral today. I'm really very bad at ceremony. I giggled at both my marriage ceremonies, and for grief I much prefer to be alone than in a crowd. But there wasn't much grief at this funeral. For one thing Margaret Thatcher had been felled long ago by strokes. She lingered. And it's not sad when people in that condition die; if they are old, it's a relief. Funerals are a time for memories. I cherish the memory of Thatcher ousted by her own party, leaving Number Ten. The miners will remember her making sure that the strikers' families didn't get any benefits. We are all beholden to her for beginning the boom in private greed and the rampant capitalism that has got us where we are today.

There were hats, lots of them, black, big-brimmed and tipsy-on-the-forehead hats worn by the fashionable, including Carol Thatcher who hadn't fastened hers very well so she had to keep pushing it back in place. It wasn't quite clear to me, as she stood on the steps of St Paul's watching her mother's coffin be put into the hearse, whether her hand was raised to straighten her hat or if she held a phone to her ear. Other observers had a clearer view and said it was an iPhone ('I'm at a funeral... I said I'm at a funeral'). I liked the look of her curly-headed companion though. Companions were useful. Kissinger's gave him a nudge to wake him during the Bishop of London's sermon. And although I sent out an emergency tweet, no one managed to lip read the words of the Queen to the Duke of Edinburgh as the coffin passed her in the aisle. The Queen looked rather jolly, not her usual grumpy self at all. Also her hat remained just where she had had it put.

There were suits. Hundreds of them. Dark, dull and filled with white-haired, crumbling, portly, puffy men. All of them ugly, one way or another. Yesterday's men. And some men who will be soon. George Osborne for example. He provided the photo of the day, a fallen tear staining his cheek, while Cameron and his wife grinned heartily in front. It may have been his grief at the loss of a human being, or the effect of the hymns (what Giles Fraser called 'all a bit of an ecclesiastical Magic FM'). Or perhaps it was the fact that yesterday the IMF declared his austerity programme a disaster, and today, along the bottom of the BBC coverage, throughout the proceedings, a news ticker recorded an unemployment rise of 70,000 to 2.56 million, with 900,000 unemployed for over a year.

The day began with Cameron declaring on Radio 4 that 'we are all Thatcherites now.' That strikes a blow to the heart. I've got an old poster from 1968, in the days before we could even imagine Thatcher, which has the original of that phrase, 'We are all foreign scum,' a response to right-wing politicians and newspapers railing against foreigners joining the demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

Simply everyone was there in St Paul's: Jeremy Clarkson, Shirley Bassey, Tony Blair, Terry Wogan (undaunted by Thatcher's comment to Mandelson: 'You cannot trust the Irish, they are all liars'). Melanie Phillips couldn't be there, but tweeted: 'finding it hard not to feel we are today somehow burying England'. And Shirley Willams, sitting with David Dimbleby, and reminded by him that she, like Thatcher, was a woman, agreed, and recalled how once Thatcher had been doing the ironing while she spoke to her. She was 'in tune with popular opinion'. Oh, Shirley!

While Danny Baker wondered over on Twitter how we could have the cheek to laugh at North Korea's pompous posturings, the BBC's chief reporter, Nick Robinson, crooned how wonderful we are at putting on grand occasions. He's so right. Weddings, funerals, Olympics. We should hire ourselves out. It would surely help the deficit. We can put on a properly good show for £10 million. A ceremonial theme park. And there are more to look forward to: the Queen, the Duke, the next coronation. If we can't afford a proper blow out after the Thatcher funeral, perhaps we could get some sponsorship. 'This funeral was brought to you by Choco-Leibniz. Who's guarding yours?'

Over and over again we were told by Dimbleby, interviewees and clerics that politics had to be put aside on a day like this. There were the army, navy, air force paying their respects to the woman who went to war with Argentina when her popularity rating was dangerously low coming up to an election. A gun used during the Falklands War was fired at one minute intervals from the Tower of London. But Dimbleby gave the game away, summing up: it was, he said, a celebration of a politician by politicians, wanting to see grandeur in their profession. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

There were cheers and clapping from the populace lining the streets. And if there were boos, the BBC made sure that they were kept out of sight and hearing. It did her proud. I doubt that there'll be a cut in the licence fee after today's unctuous performance. But most of all I will cherish Peter Hennessy's final assessment of Thatcher's place in history: 'More of Margaret Thatcher... will cling to the velcro of our collective memory than any other politician of recent times.'


  • 17 April 2013 at 5:00pm
    alex says:
    "The original of that phrase" goes back further than 1968: your poster-writer was paraphrasing Shelley, who at the time of the Greek revolt (preface to "Hellas") declared that 'we are all Greeks', i.e. we owe a debt to the underdog.

    • 17 April 2013 at 9:09pm
      aisia says: @ alex
      Er, I think he mostly meant that we owe a debt to the Greeks.

    • 17 April 2013 at 9:47pm
      alex says: @ aisia
      Who in that context were (portrayed/self-presenting) as underdogs deserving of our support on the basis of ancient contributions to our present well-being.

    • 18 April 2013 at 5:37pm
      Tony Graham says: @ alex
      'Nous somme tous des juifs allemandes' (We are all German Jews) was the 1968 chant adopted by French students in response to the way the press 'racially' characterised Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

    • 18 April 2013 at 9:06pm
      alex says: @ Tony Graham
      Thanks. Made me also remember Kennedy's 'Ich bin ein Berliner', not to mention Keynes's 'In the long run we are all dead'..

  • 17 April 2013 at 11:05pm
    JWA says:
    I wandered along to watch, couldn't see anything, retired to put where I was charged £2.50 for a coffee and watched ceremony on the box in the corner. George Osbourne tears will stay with me. Loved the pomposity. Overall reminded me of Philip Roth's description of Nixon's funeral from 'I Married a Communist' - here's a little from several zinging pages - “But the whole funeral of our thirty-seventh president was barely endurable. The Marine Band and Chorus performing all the songs designed to shut down people’s thinking and produce a trance state: ‘Hail to the Chief,’ ‘America, ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag,” ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ and, to be sure, that most rousing of all those drugs that make everybody momentarily forget everything, the national narcotic, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’...
    Then the realists take command, the connoisseurs of deal making and deal breaking, masters of the most shameless ways of undoing an opponent, those for whom moral concerns must always come last, uttering all the well-known, unreal, sham-ridden cant about everything but the dead man’s real passions. Clinton exalting Nixon for his ‘remarkable journey’ and, under the spell of his own sincerity, expressing hushed gratitude for all the ‘wise counsel’ Nixon had given him. Governor Pete Wilson assuring everyone that when most people think of Richard Nixon, they think of his ‘towering intellect.’ Dole and his flood of towering clichés. ‘Doctor’ Kissinger, high-minded, profound, speaking in his most puffed-up unegotistical mode–and with all the cold authority of that voice dipped in sludge–quotes no less prestigious a tribute than Hamlet’s for his murdered father to describe ‘our gallant friend.’ ‘He was a man, take him for all and all, I shall not look upon his like again.

    Literature is not a primary reality but a kind of expensive upholstery to a sage himself so plumply upholstered, and so he has no idea of the equivocating context in which Hamlet speaks of the unequaled king. But then who, sitting there under the tremendous pressure of keeping a straight face while watching the enactment of the Final Cover–up, is going to catch the court Jew in a cultural gaffe when he invokes an inappropriate masterpiece?

    Who? Gerald Ford? Gerald Ford. I don’t ever remember seeing Gerald Ford looking so focused before, so charged with intelligence as he clearly was on that hallowed ground. Ronald Reagan snapping the uniformed honor guard his famous salute, that salute of his that was always half meshugeh, Bob Hope seated next to James Baker. The Iran-Contra arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi seated next to Donald Nixon. The burglar G. Gordon Liddy there with arrogant shaved head. The most disgraced of vice-presidents, Spiro Agnew, there with his conscienceless Mob face. The most winning of vice-presidents, Dan Quayle, looking as lucid as a button. The heroic effort made by the poor fellow: always staging intelligence and always failing All of them mourning platitudinously together in the California sunshine and the lovely breeze: the indicted and unindicted, the convicted and the unconvicted, and, his towering intellect at last at rest in a star-spangled coffin, no longer grappling and questing for no-holds-barred power, the man who turned a whole country’s morale inside out, the generator of an enormous national disaster, the first and only president to have gained from a hand-picked successor a full and unconditional pardon for all the breaking and entering he committed while in office.”

  • 17 April 2013 at 11:06pm
    JWA says:

  • 11 August 2013 at 7:45am
    Anaximander says:
    Now, in August, one of Thatcher's heroes, Eddie Shah, has delivered his thoughts on sex with under-16s. I do look forward to Jenny Diski's dissection given her previous brave thoughts on this topic.

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