There's a story parents on Teesside tell children about a wicked hag that lives in the Tees. Peg Powler grabs by the ankles children playing too close to the edge, drags them under, and drowns them. Then she feasts on their skin and flesh.
On 22nd November 1990 I was in the final year of primary school when the school secretary stuck her head round the door. "Mrs Price", she said, "Mrs Thatcher's resigned". And we all stood up and cheered. We scarcely knew who she was, or why we loathed her, but we knew, every one of us, that loathe her is what our mams and dads did, and we were delighted. People sang "ding dong the witch is dead" then, too.
In 1987, Margaret Thatcher came to Stockton-on-Tees and visited the site of Head Wrightson's newly demolished heavy engineering works. It had closed that June, despite only twenty years earlier employing over six thousand people and covering 68 acres, sprawling across the south bank of the Tees and creating a racket that could be heard the length of Stockton High Street. Not now. Thatcher's walk became known as her "walk in the wilderness". It was the moment she pledged herself to urban regeneration, and indeed the area became a business park. But Maggie seemed the whole time oblivious to the fact that her policies, not just the winds of change, were what meant it needed regenerating at all. Her sanctification of market forces produced the systematic destruction of our manufacturing industries - and of the communities that worked in them. That's what gave her a wilderness to walk in.
If you want a piece of drama to make me cry, all you need to do is stick in a bit about the miners' strike. Gets me every time. It's in the bones and the blood.
To this day, the image or the voice of Thatcher cause in me a physical horror. I can't be the only one who sees her face when hearing Peg Powler's name.
I'm working on Teesside at the moment, in my fancy middle class job making theatre. I feel tremendous pride in and love for my home region. The trouble is, I always find it that little bit harder to maintain this when I'm actually here. That business park is nothing to inspire pride and Stockton's once thriving Georgian High Street is now a mix of charity shops, pound shops and betting shops. Some of the most beautiful Georgian buildings were knocked down in 1971 for a shopping centre, to widespread public fury. This street, where the friction match was invented, within sight of the terminus of the first-ever passenger railway journey, is dying. Not much more than five minutes out of town is a housing estate suspended mid-demolition, with a few scattered houses obstinately surviving the project's having run out of money. Meeting people to gather material for this project I find an enormous amount of inspiring history, but keep running up against a lack of hope in the present.
Thatcher didn't do this. But it is done in her name.
So if you grew up in the north east in the 1980s - or before - you're unlikely to shed tears over the death of Maggie Thatcher. I feel no triumph, mind. I've no interest in dancing on her grave, not least because that's the sort of nasty vicious compassionless thing she'd have done. I can understand those who want to celebrate their community's survival of the woman who wanted to destroy it, but for myself, no. I'm not pleased. I was surprised on Monday to find that in fact I felt tremendously upset. I was reminded of Ralph at the end of Lord of the Flies, weeping at the end of his ordeal, weeping at his rescue, not before. He weeps "for the end of innocence, for the darkness in man's heart". He weeps because what he now knows makes this no rescue at all.
An old woman with a familiar name has died, but Maggie Thatcher is still in Government under a different name: rather, the same name with an ism at the end. Thatcherism is worse than Thatcher, more compassionless, more destructive. When that dies, then, then I'll dance. For now, Peg Powler is still lurking under the Tees, still grasping at children's ankles, still feasting on our skin and flesh.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will