I was twenty-four years old, a punky, anarchistic, radical feminist when Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979. I still feel in my body the outraged dismay I suffered when she stood on the steps of Downing Street quoting St Francis:
‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.’
‘Liar!’ I shouted at someone’s telly (we didn’t have one: the poster ‘Women! Do Not Let These Men into Your Head’ gave us TV-free headspace and one of the great slogans of 1970’s feminism).
Talk about a divided nation: I did not know one person who had voted Tory. We didn’t know it at that moment but we had eighteen years of Thatcherism ahead of us. I was forty-two when Labour came back to power.
Well, someone must live in the bad times, as George Eliot said, and, as she writes at the end of Middlemarch;
There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.
Of course, what’s done at Westminster, largely out of our control, affects us. But individual actions determine the nature of the world at least as much as, and sometimes more than, national political life.
How wonderful now to see a Muslim Mayor addressing the London crowd at Pride 2016
In 1979, I’d have bet money that this photo could never happen. This change has been brought about in part by legislation, in part by individual deeds. The making of Danny Abse’s 1967 law mattered hugely to men whose lives had been needlessly blighted by their ‘illegal’ sexuality, but the cultural revolution I lived through in the 1970s was built by brave individuals literally coming out and holding hands and dancing in very unfriendly streets.
As George Eliot writes;
We insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.
It is hard for us, whatever our political stance, to have impact on the big battles at Westminster, but ‘our daily words and acts’ have massive implications for everyone we meet. They give us direct power to change lives as Dorothea Brooke does in Middlemarch;
The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Some readings for hard times
This one is not easy, but worth having in your armoury for extremely frightening times.
My galley, chargèd with forgetfulness,
Thorough sharp seas in winter nights doth pass
‘Tween rock and rock; and eke mine en’my, alas,
That is my lord, steereth with cruelness;
And every owre a thought in readiness,
As though that death were light in such a case.
An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness.
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain,
Hath done the weared cords great hinderance;
Wreathèd with error and eke with ignorance.
The stars be hid that led me to this pain;
Drownèd is Reason that should me comfort,
And I remain despairing of the port.
Sir Thomas Wyatt
Maybe to counteract the above feeling, you need this good advice from Iris Murdoch’s weird and wonderful Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. I found this when I was living through a particularly hard decade in my personal life. She talks about having a mental collection of good things you can turn to in bad times – poems or memories, a child’s nativity play, the devotion of your dog. Then she quotes the Bible;
Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
Epistle to the Philippians 4:8
Struggling with the fallout from a terrible experience, and pitted against dishonesty and corruption, these words hit me like a freight train. I used to recite them like a mantra to make myself believe in truth, honesty, justice, purity, virtue. They were a sort of prayer flag to release a good thought into the world.
As the chaos unfolds, and our public life goes into free fall, I’m writing out those great words again to remind myself: ‘think on these things.’