from ‘Mysterious Britain’
Between 1987 and 1988 I lived in London. I started out sharing a small room with a psychiatric nurse at Bethlehem hospital where this poem is set. We split up and then I remember living a life of true misery and the poverty. I was supply teaching in East London and it was two months before I got paid. I managed to get myself summonsed to court for driving an unlicensed car. I had borrowed it from a friend so I could buy some windows for a squat I was renovating. I then had to move to a subsidised Council house and shared it with: an unemployed teacher, a lovely man who drank and read novels all day; and Louise Elliott, saxophonist for the Laughing Clowns. One day the third tenant disappeared for six weeks. Later, when he’d gotten out, we discovered he’d been arrested for biting a police officer’s arm and had been sent to Pentonville Prison. I hope no one ever forgets that Thatcher wanted everyone to pay a poll tax so they could vote, and this in a country with millions on the dole. The tax was designed to replace council rates and property taxes, and was implemented in Scotland, As a result Scottish Tories lost many of their seats in the next Scottish election. Thatcher, in her wisdom decided to push for a ‘community charge’ in England. This had the effect of enraging almost everyone, including Tories.
Here’s a poem that mentions some famous Thatcherisms:
You are stacking folios (the
fallen leaves brought to order)
in a daydream
in a bank, casual filer that you are,
reading Four Quartets
in a corporate toilet. So normal a day.
Home again, the flecked,
drift past the ninth floor view:
a wrecking yard
stacked with Minis and Vauxhall Vivas,
memory aids to British Industry –
the 25 and the 39
gear down on the long hill
past Peckham Rye, where I pass
the old cabbage smell of a Salvos kitchen,
their soup de jour, or was it
burnt peas and dripping?
A neon cross, blue as an artery
pumped through the night.
to the stonemason’s guild,
a towering cliff
of Methodist bricks, the salvos
and their penny boxes
beribboned on every corner.
(These were the omens that said: Convert!
But to what?)
After hours, you wonder where she’s drinking,
Blue Ward’s Best and Fairest,
among doctors and the nurses, the best minds
singing in a storm of self-prescription,
blowing the pub trumpet
in the Railway Bar, the retired Major
shaking a tambourine
(just to embellish the Victoriana.)
She’s back by dawn
to patients smashing chairs.
Morning comes, their anger’s clipped
and woven into basket cane,
riding it out on a night-shift sled
till she hurts no more, with a migraine
pinned out like a notice board
with the new homilies of the era:
Society does not exist,
the iron lady’s not for turning,
Management invites suggestions. We care.
We get by on News At Six,
fainting fits, fake Scotch, thimbles of caviar,
rush West End theatre tickets,
plus a trip to Italy. Such self-made days
made for the restless,
made profit for a Tory image:
you give your bodies to the state,
they send you the bill.