April 9, 2013

5 writers on Margaret Thatcher (and 5 songs she inspired)


Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister, died yesterday at the age of 87. Over the course of her 11 year reign, Thatcher sold every government asset that wasn’t bolted down, crippled Britain’s once powerful trade unions, and even snatched the milk out of the hands of unsuspecting schoolchildren (also: exploited an unnecessary war to win reelection; supported apartheid, Pinochet, and the Khmer Rouge; discriminated against homosexuals; inspired Sarah Palin). Or, to put it in the emptier language of obituspeak, she was a transformational, controversial figure whose legacy is still felt today.

Unmaking society, it turns out, also inspires creativity. Below are 10 responses to the Iron Lady—5 quotes from writers, including Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter, and 5 songs from artists such as Elvis Costello and Heaven 17.

As Melville House Art Director Christopher King put it yesterday, “On the bright side, Morrissey just experienced happiness for the first time.”


To my mind, the most complex song inspired by Thatcher, “Shipbuilding,” gets at a basic paradox of working class life: wars result in increased manufacturing and thus an increase in working class jobs, but wars are also largely fought by the poor. Soft Machine founder Robert Wyatt also does an incredible version of this song, which was inspired by the Falklands War. Rightfully considered to be among Costello’s finest lyrics, “Shipbuilding” also features Chet Baker on trumpet.

In “Stand Down Margaret,” The Beat (The English Beat) calls for the new PM to resign just a year after she took office in what is arguably the first great anti-Thatcher song.

“Hitler proves that funky stuff/ Is not for you and me girl/ Europe’s an unhappy land/ They’ve had their fascist groove thang”

Inspired by the UK miners’ strike of 1984-5 (which Thatcher crushed after describing said miners as “the enemy within”), “Between the Wars” is as moving as “A New England” and as strident as “Which Side Are You on?” The song’s third verse, in particular, stands out; I think it’s one of the best pieces of post-1960s protest songwriting: “I kept the faith and I kept voting/ Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand/ For theirs is a land with a wall around it/ And mine is a faith in my fellow man/ Theirs is a land of hope and glory/ Mine is the green field and the factory floor/ Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers/ And mine is the peace we know/ Between the wars”


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.