(TW: mention of cuts and suicide in third-to-last paragraph)
I always associated my grandmother with Margaret Thatcher.
On the face of it, both had similar presentations. Immaculate hair, a fierce demeanour. One read chemistry before working in pharmaceuticals, the other, my gran, moved from running a small shop to owning a small chain of pharmacies. My gran was born in 1933, eight years after Thatcher.
Yet it was only shortly before my gran died that I learned how truly different they were. Thatcher went from a lower-middle class background to Oxford, her subsequent achievements enabled by the post-war settlement that allowed her to go there in the first place.
My grandmother’s story was very different. Her poor Scottish catholic mother abandoned her when she was a baby, and she grew up in a hospital. Her earliest memories revolve around the possibility of adoption by a childless doctor and his wife, a thing that, in the 1930s, would make the economic difference between being decently fed and having the chance at a reasonable life, to having little chance of any good life. We must remember that the old sketch about the classes looking down on one another was literally true until the 1960s, as the height gap – due to malnutrition and disease – was stark.
Thus, when she was reclaimed by her mother and brought home to share a bed with two brothers, and bedbugs, she resented it deeply. She always, I believe, hankered after that middle-class decent life that was denied her at the start; the kind of life that everyone ought to have. As for her, she worked very hard for it, and was lucky, and was additionally lucky to be born at a time which made it, eventually, available to her. She spent a great deal of time in Spain in the 1970s and modelled, to some extent, her femininity on that timeless, dignified bourgeois Spanish femininity, which bought wonderful, beautiful things in Corte Ingles, and was silent about and enabled the horrors of Franco.
She was not an unpolitical woman. I learned it sadly briefly before she died, but she never voted Tory and donated substantially to the Labour party (sadly, mostly at a time when the party has moved completely from soft, strike-breaking socialism to neoliberal complicity). She married a poverty-stricken second-generation Irish man, son of the Irish who came over to work and not starve and break dockyard strikes, and who were viciously persecuted only partially as a result. Her first daughter, my mother, did not go to secondary school in order to work and look after the family, her unpaid but hardly unloved labour making the family achievements possible. Later children all went to university, all those children, and there were many children, and it did not make any “immoral”.
Sadly, it seems likely that some of them voted in Thatcher or for subsequent Tory candidates; as homeowners, and considering the tripling of house prices engineered by Thatcher between 1978 and 1990, it would be in their interests to do so.
I am still mourning my grandmother, who died in January. When Margaret Thatcher died I felt torn as to whether to celebrate. There has been precious little to celebrate recently for anyone poor, for anyone with any belief in society or communality. Yet it feels wrong and petty to celebrate death.
Then I thought to another friend I have lost recently, and another lost long ago. I do not want to stand accused of making political capital from their deaths. Yet I am convinced in my hear that Section 28 and associated shame contributed heavily to the death of one friend, and post-2008 mental health service cuts to another. And more are dying, homeless, hopeless, depoliticised, voiceless, alone.
And so I partied and I drank and I danced for those who are no longer with us; all of those who are no longer with us.
Do not tell me how to mourn.