I had always wondered why my mother, hardly a socialist, used to dislike Thatcher so intently, even if my father, whom she acrimoniously divorced, happened to be someone who supported Thatcher's Prime Minister-ship throughout all her years of power, a period some time after my parents split up. Was she just really saying how much she disliked my father, or was she offering a comment on Thatcher herself? And yet I never quite put her dislike of Thatcher into a broader context than my father's admiration for the woman, and it wasn't until a recent conversation with my mother concerning a letter she once wrote, another conversation with my father, and a casual perusing of a John Pilger article on Iraqi Kurds, that I sensed something of her intense belligerence towards surely one of Britain's most brutal and uncaring modern Prime Ministers.
Or perhaps I feel Thatcher's callous lack of sympathy because it relates to my mother, and more recent events in my own life. If this is a post-political age, is it because many of us have lost the belief that the political can very much be the personal? Does it take a convoluted set of circumstances to reveal the political to us when we've too easily assumed its irrelevance to our own lives, no matter if I've been of the Left ever since leaving school?
My parents married in London in 1966, and pictures from that period suggested they were people for whom the swinging sixties and the budding hippie era had no impact. My father was always smartly dressed in dark suits, and usually white or light blue shirts and dark ties. This was befitting, I suppose, of a man who worked in accountancy, and my mother would wear the grey suited garb of the secretary that she happened to be. They looked like what they were: an attractive, conservative couple in their mid-twenties. My father was around six foot two, with shoulders made broad by the well-cut suits he wore, and had a sallow skin tone and black, lightly wavy thick hair surprising for a man whose family, going back several generations, had a house and croft on the Outer Hebrides. The darkness of the hair was understandable. Many Islanders had hair as dark; but it was usually accompanied by very pale skin and reddish lips. My father seemed like he had come from somewhere else altogether, washed ashore from a far off land, and I would sometimes idly wonder where that genetically might have been. My mother was very much Scottish, with reddish hair and a pale complexion, and she must have suffered greatly from the sun and heat as a teenager when her family moved to Rhodesia in the early sixties, where her father worked as a plant mechanic.
My parents might have been a conservative couple, but their marriage lasted no longer than many a marriage that came out of swinging sixties London, and by the mid-seventies my father was living elsewhere - perhaps with another woman, perhaps with his widowed mother, but certainly not with my mother and me. All I remember of the period was eating tinned macaroni, and cheese or beans on toast, and I'm not sure whether I frequently ate these for dinner, whether they were the dishes that most stayed in my mind after disgusting my palate (I especially disliked the macaroni and cheese) or whether in later years it was my father constantly reminding me that all I ate under my mother's roof were those few dishes. What I never recalled was going to bed hungry, and that may have been because I would sit up late with my mother and share with her the fruit and nut selection she would chomp away on while watching some film on television late in the evening: there was some nearby shop that sold dried fruits, nuts, pulses and rice cheaply. Why she didn't make up dishes out of these inexpensive ingredients I didn't think to enquire at the time, and later, when I did so, I began to understand.
Despite the perhaps inadequate diet and the late nights that might leave a social worker apprehensive, I remember these as amongst the happiest moments of my childhood; the more authoritative parenting that came later I remember less fondly.
One afternoon my mother left me in the flat alone, saying she was popping along to the doctor, and that my father, who would be taking me for the afternoon, would be only a few minutes. As it so happened my father didn't arrive for almost an hour, and when he did so he was half-concerned for my well-being; half-angry with my mother for leaving me on my own. I was bemused, and I'm not sure if I didn't remain bemused for a long time thereafter, through the three or four years of living with my father, and then moving up to Inverness to live with my father and his new wife. In over ten years I saw my mother only three times, and on each occasion while we were still living in London, and when she was staying in what my maternal grandmother euphemistically called a rest home. "You're mother is very tired", she would say. I would look at my mother's drawn and exhausted face and know that my grandmother wasn't lying, even if she was only telling a partial truth.
My mother's face seemed to contain so much more than fatigue; on each occasion when I left she hugged me so tightly I felt I could hardly breathe, and didn't know whether I wanted to continue to do so. Breathing without her somehow seemed a betrayal. When I left her there in that tranquil and wooded environment I felt strangely indeterminate: I didn't know whether I was mourning her staying or mourning my leaving. My grandmother would always say that it was for the best; it was for my father to look after me now.
And look after me very well he did, I suppose. His new wife's ex-husband had died the year before, and with the flat he and my mother owned now sold, and with my stepmother, Julie, selling her house in London, could afford, with the help of the bank of course, a stone built, seven bed-room, Bed and Breakfast on Fairfield Road in Inverness. It was near enough to the town centre to attract the tourists, and far enough away to avoid such traffic as the town possessed. My father at the same time also continued his work as an accountant, and it was mainly Julie who looked after the guest house. This was now the late seventies, and my father, feeling like the small-town businessman I suspected he always wanted to be, solidified that sense of dignity by becoming a member of the Conservative party, attending numerous meetings, and getting involved in Thatcher's 1979 election campaign.
I remember on a couple of occasions going round the town on the conservative campaign bus, wearing a red, white and blue poncho, while 'Blue is the colour, Maggie is the name, we're all behind her and winning is her game' blasted out on the loudspeakers. I suppose one or two of my teachers saw me on the bus, or at least knew of my father's support for the Tory party and, after she won the election, I would occasionally feel that I was being treated slightly differently in class. I suspect that on one occasion where I was belted for mucking around in the playground and pouring a jug of water over someone's head it was because the history teacher who caught me was a Labour voter, and I'm not so sure now I wouldn't want to do the same to some child who so obliviously supported a party that seems to me, looking back, to have set out systematically to ruin lives.
But that may be my older politicised self talking, or it might even be less the political self, than my mother's recent comments working through me, and emotionally attaching themselves to whatever political consciousness I've developed. I may for a long a time afterwards have smarted at the belting, but as the years passed I think I've smarted much more over the way in which I sported a poncho and sang Maggie's theme tune. The belting may have been perceived as an act of sadism on the teacher's part, but has been absorbed as a deserved masochistic punishment retrospectively.
But what punishment did I retrospectively deserve when a few months later I went down to Brighton with my father and step-mother? Our week long holiday consisted of being surrounded by people attending the Conservative party conference, and I found myself not so much playing on the pebble beach, but in the company of various Tory worthies: my father attended the conference each day, and my step-mother and I, sometimes bored with the often wet weather, would usually sit and wait for him in the foyer of the hotel. On a couple of occasions he proudly introduced me to people who were just names to me then but whose impact on the world was rather greater than their effect on me, and I sometimes wonder whether I could have topped the indifference of an eleven year old with the assertive disdain of an adult. All I remember of the trip were a few meals, those dark suited figures, and the beach where the sky so often seemed overcast.
But I suppose I'm also remembering certain details because of events that are much more recent and that have shaped my memories of the past, of which three seem especially important here. The first is my mother's letter that I mentioned in passing at the beginning of this story, but which I shall withhold for a little longer. The second concerns my father's family history; and the third my own immediate emotional life. For it was about a year and a half ago, while doing a belated post-grad at Edinburgh university, that I met Yasmina, who was from Lebanon, and who I was seeing up until a couple of months ago, when she returned to Beirut and to her own culture that did not, she felt, quite include me. We would talk a great deal about her life in Edinburgh, about the art that she responded to, the limitations she saw in both western living and western aesthetics, and while I tried to understand her perspective as much as I could, and her mine, I knew I was often stranded, and she likewise.
Sometimes it would be no more than a mispronunciation of a name, sometimes, though, it would be a confrontation of values in the middle of an argument. I suggested maybe it would be different if we went to Beirut together. But, when she left, she insisted it was over; that it couldn't work. I believed that perhaps it could have more than she thought, and this may have been why over the last few months I've shown far more interest in my father's background than I ever did in the previous thirty five years of my life. That often idle wondering became active inquiry as I asked him how come he seemed so much darker than the other people on the island.
I put the question to him out of nowhere I suppose he initially would have thought. It was one evening in a restaurant after he'd come to see me on his way down to London to visit friends. He said he had expressly taken the car, rather than flying, so that he could spend some quality time with me. I don't think he realised just how much quality time I required: for never before had I asked him about his father. As we sat in a North African restaurant next to the university, I asked him why he never talked about him; he said that I'd never really asked. Did he know where his father lived, I enquired. Not any more, my father replied, in a way that suggested indifference more than evasiveness. He then launched into an explanation of his origins, saying that he never really talked about it because nobody ever asked him. He said, according to his late mother, that his father was an Armenian Canadian; that his family had moved to Canada after moving from country to country on escaping the massacres, and settled there in the thirties. His father met my grandmother while he was a pilot based in Britain during WWII. His father was already married, and so he left my grandmother with whatever savings he'd accumulated during the war; returning home when the war ended. My grandmother insisted she would never see him again, and that my father would be brought up knowing only his mother.
My father offered me this information promptly and generally unemotionally: the only sign of distress lay in the pickiness with which he was eating his food; usually he would eat quickly and enthusiastically even while talking. I asked him whether instead of trying to get in touch with his ethnic past, he ignored it all together, and was this denial, if that is what it was, consistent with his political beliefs?
If this story possesses an air of condemnation towards my father, I think any cruelty he possessed was due to incompetence rather than maliciousness, and this is where it is useful to say something about my mother's letter. It was written in the mid-seventies, shortly after my father had left, and she was living alone with me in our Finchley flat. My father, she mentioned, had recently left her, but promised to pay alimony every month.
However, his business was supposedly struggling; once or twice no money at all was forthcoming, and on other occasions less than the right amount. My mother would go along to the social security office and tell them she had no money, and they would process her claim while also at the same time contacting my father. He would tell the social security people that he was paying my mother alimony, and the social security payments would be stopped, or fail to come through. Nervously exhausted, she finally wrote to her MP, who happened to be of course none other than Mrs Thatcher. In the letter my mother explained her situation, and wondered if the Right Honourable Member of Parliament could intervene on her behalf. She received no reply, and about six weeks later, with the exhaustion spiralling into a breakdown, she went to the doctor, and phoned my father to pick me up.
As I sat opposite my father over dinner that evening, a month or so after my mother had told me her Thatcher story, I asked him if he felt that his Armenian roots somehow shamed him, made him feel not quite an authentic member of the Tory party. I enquired with a degree of provocation, and he answered by saying, somewhat surprisingly, that it was possibly the case. He simply didn't know. I then mentioned my mother's letter to Thatcher many years before, and he said that he never knew of it. Was he surprised that Thatcher didn't reply? He supposed she received many letters; she couldn't have responded to them all. But this was a cry for help, I insisted, and as I said this with no doubt a dismayed look on my face, his face slowly collapsed in on itself. He seemed to have guessed what I was thinking moments before I had actually started thinking it. He seemed to know as I searched his face, visibly invoking my mother's pain in my own visage, that I had noticed his had lost all its tautness, as though it wasn't held together by the bone structure but by an inner confidence that I had punctured.
No doubt this is my own exaggeration, but he looked like he'd aged several years in those five minutes. At the moment he found himself justifying Thatcher's inconsiderateness, he must have suddenly been wondering about his own lack of sympathy towards his ex-wife; a sympathy he was perhaps finding now, in this moment, many years later, and partly because of the insensitivity of his very own heroine.
We talked for a little longer, but after the meal was over he decided that he was too tired to go for a drink and would go straight back to his hotel. He wanted to make an early start for London. He offered me a lift, but I said I fancied the short walk home. As he walked across the road to where his car was parked, I watched this tired, frayed man whose suit suddenly no longer propped him up, and could feel a certain sympathy that I hadn't ever previously felt the need to offer. I wondered if the breakdown my mother had succumbed to many years before would shortly visit him.
A few weeks afterwards I was reading through a collection of John Pilger articles in a book called Distant Voices, a book a friend had given to me a few months earlier but that I'd never got round to reading. I came across an article which ended with a letter from the Kurdish leader at the time Saddam Hussein was gassing his people. It was a direct appeal to Thatcher and the British government for help, but Thatcher didn't reply and instead, according to Pilger, gave Iraq 340 million in export credits. As I read it a shiver went up my spine, and it wasn't only because of the horrific coldness of the Thatcher government, it wasn't even because more recently Blair and Bush went and fought a war against a country partly premised on the awfulness of a dictator who gassed his own population. No, it resided not least in this sense that my mother's letter, my father's background, my relationship with Yasmina and my own past and present, all seemed to rise to the surface of my consciousness, or to the depth of my emotions, in merely the reading of this passage from a book.
It was this feeling, this multifaceted emotion that passed through my body, that made me sense that Yasmina and I weren't as far removed from each other as she believed. This was after all a region of the world right next to where my father's family would have come from, and when my father looked in the mirror would he not have seen a face closer to those in the Middle-East than the pinkish visages of Parkinson, Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke? Did he have no interest in a land that was closer to his father's family's birthplace than Inverness would be from London? Armenia, Kurdistan and Lebanon: am I perhaps reducing these countries to but an aspect of my own subjectivity? However, this might be the very point. That if my father had been less concerned to escape his origins than confront them, had he been less obsessed with giving the impression of working hard and supporting his family than accepting that at a certain point he couldn't, then who knows what might be different. I might have had a multi-cultural up-bringing, my mother may have escaped her nervous breakdown, and Yasmina would have believed our differences weren't so insurmountable.
Maybe these are hypotheses too far; perhaps my mother would have had a breakdown anyway, and if there had been greater intent on Yasmina's part and mine we would still be together. Yet I can't help feeling that microcosmically my situation suggests a broader failure, and it is a failure coming out of a wider political insensitivity. Phoning Yasmina and persuading her that we could make things work may not be anything much, but from a certain perspective perhaps it is.
© Tony McKibbin