Margaret Thatcher: An Artist’s Muse

by |April 12, 2013

1 (noun) a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist

The death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has been met with the very attitude she maintained until her final day. Black and White. There are those that applaud the courage of her convictions, her attention to a task she felt important to a country that she felt had lost its way.

The rest have drunk from champagne bottles and danced in the streets. Like Thatcher during her leadership, it appears there is no middle ground. Love or hate, cry or sing.

But for those in the arts there is no love, no tears.

And yet Margaret Thatcher remains one of the greatest muses of the last century, if not the greatest. For the 1980s alternative comedy movement she was both the inspiration and butt of its jokes. And for many a post-modern political pop song she was the go-to figure.

Elvis Costello didn’t hide his hatred for her in the song Tramp The Dirt Down, which contains the chilling refrain…

Cos when they finally put you in the ground
They’ll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down

Former Smiths frontman Morrissey, not one to mince words, also let Margaret know his displeasure in the subtly titled Margaret On The Guillotine, where he asked…

Cause people like you
Make me feel so tired
When will you die?

Bob Dylan had no idea he’d written a track about Margaret Thatcher when his brilliant track Maggie’s Farm from some people’s (my) favourite Dylan record Bringing It All Back Home.

Here’s Bob’s performing it 13 years before Thatcher would take office as Prime Minster of Great Britain.

And here’s The Specials’ cover, aimed at The Iron Lady, from the B-Side of Do Nothing. A song written years before in another country had now become a battle cry for those on the fringes of British society.

The incomparable Billy Bragg called Thatcher his biggest inspiration, following her death the singer has posted a message saying this is not a time for celebration.”The death of Margaret Thatcher is nothing more than a salient reminder of how Britain got into the mess that we are in today.”

While Bragg had the odd vitriolic blast at Thatcher lyrically, his most cutting work was describing the hardship faced by young Britons, the bleakness and isolation many felt during the 1980s. A fine example was this from his incredible 1983 song New England.

People ask when will you grow up to be a man
But all the girls I loved at school
Are already pushing prams

Be it through love or hate, the Thatcher Years brought out a kind-of repressed nationalism amongst Britons. For so much of its existence, Great Britain was a colonial juggernaut, its size and power unrivalled since the age of ancient kingdoms. But the Battle of Britain proved that given the chance, the British Bulldog spirit shone brightest of all with its back against the wall. The rise of British music during the Britpop era will always be traced to one antagonist. Margaret Thatcher.

Of course, it’s not just musicians that used Margaret Thatcher as their creative inspiration. Alan Moore’s Graphic Novel V for Vendetta owes a great deal to the ideas of Thatcherism, an omnipotent, ultra-conservative state. The graphic novel was adapted into the acclaimed film of the same name starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving. Alan Moore would hate it, commenting that the film would portray the government with a theatrical flourish of evil. Instead, he didn’t see the government of the day to be so different from that portrayed in his graphic novel, and the horrific events detailed completely possible under the stewardship of Thatcher.

Withnail and I, one of the greatest black comedies of the all time, undoubtedly circled the unforgiving themes of Thatcherism as the primary antagonist of the ribald comedy. While set in 1965, it was made in 1986 and its darkly funny tale of the struggling, oppressed world of the arts was a direct comment on the troubles of the day.

The brilliant Mike Leigh also found his calling directing tough, gut-wrenching stories of working-class struggles under the Conservative government. His 1983 film Meantime (which starred a young Gary Oldman) is extraordinary, and his 1988 comedy-drama High Hopes is just as good. Both dealing directly with the dissolution of young people in inner-city London in the 1980s.

And obviously there’s the recent The Iron Lady, which gifted Meryl Streep her third Academy Award. Her performance was praised, the film well-received, but takings in England were disappointing and views on the subject matter were divided. Her family called it a ‘left-wing fantasy’ while others like Stuart Jeffries of The Guardian newspaper commented it overlooked the “rage about what Thatcher, economy destroyer and warmonger, was doing to Britain” in favour of an “exclusive focus on Thatcher as a woman triumphing against the odds.”

The art world, always on the tightrope when it comes to government support, felt the full force of Thatcher’s funding cuts and attempted stifling of creativity. But, like all the above, this worked in the opposite direction giving artists the pain and anger to comment on the state of the world. Divisive conceptual artist Damien Hirst, responsible for the still art-or-not pickled shark debate, has claimed to be indebted to Margaret Thatcher. Her funding cuts made artists think of new ways to capture the public’s imagination, while her dismissive attitude towards their work lit a fire under them creatively. Her comments about his hero Francis Bacon as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures” were like a red rag to a bull.

Whatever your political views, Margaret Thatcher will cast an immeasurable shadow across British society for a long time to come. On Sunday it is forecast that the Wizard of Oz tune ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” will be named the bestselling single on the UK charts, 74 years after it was released due to an iTunes downloads campaign to celebrate Thatcher’s death.

Margaret Thatcher may be gone, but it appears it will be a long time until she is forgotten.


Andrew Cattanach is a contributor to The Booktopia Blog. You can see other posts from him here, and his ramblings on twitter here.

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About the Contributor

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

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