Christopher Norris

 

 

A Family Business

 

‘A Family Business’ has to do with Margaret Thatcher’s chapel-going childhood, her small-town petty-bourgeois social background, her rise to power, her domestic and foreign policies, and above all the massive and enduring effects of her period in office. The poem will I think be fairly uncontroversial in reflecting on her father’s likely influence but perhaps more of a red rag to various bulls in what it says about the tenacity, psychological depth, and morally damaging character of that influence. There are moments of comparative light relief but the piece is basically an exercise in Juvenalian saeva indignatio, or the sort of satire that takes no hostages and which extends no tolerant ironic allowances for human frailty or untoward circumstance. In fact there are passages where the indignatio almost overwhelms the satire and, as happens at times with TV shows like Spitting Image, the poetry takes on a decidedly angry – though I hope not abrasive – tone.

 

 

A Family Business

 

Three pews back on the right she sits, devout

   And hanging on each word the preacher aims

At those few souls elect who know about

 

Shop-keeping and the providential claims

   Of shrewd accountancy along with that

Fine double-entry scheme of things that frames

 

Their godly warrant for arriving at

   New ways to optimise the current state

Of family fortunes. This they’ve got off pat

 

Through years of diligence to correlate

   Their Christian faith with what attracts the most

Lucrative custom at the lowest rate

 

Of overheads or taxes one could boast

   About in decent company and not

Raise pious eyebrows. There she sits, engrossed,

 

As he (her father) tells them how they’ve got

   To lay up worldly goods as well as store

Up blessings that would pay out on the dot

 

At that last day of reckoning when the more

   Astute among them who’d resolved to look

Out for themselves and theirs would surely score

 

Top marks in God’s panoptic ledger-book

   Of souls redeemed. Not so that other bunch

Whose talk of social conscience showed they took

 

The gospel texts to preach some out-to-lunch,

   Most likely socialist idea of how

To save us from the moral credit-crunch

 

That came of living for the here-and-now

   Of private greed. On this he reassured

His restive congregation: they allow,

 

Indeed demand, a gloss for readers cured

   Of such delusive notions and aware

That what most efficaciously ensured

 

The soul’s deliverance from its mortal share

   Of sinfulness was not the vain desire

To give up, Lear-like, all the goods in their

 

Hard-won possession. Let them heed the prior

   Since commerce-tested maxim that the way

To true salvation might instead require

 

That one give up those hopelessly passé

   Ideas of soul-salvation that decreed      

An end to acquisition and convey,

 

Rather, the soul’s as well as body’s need

   For laying in enough to see them through

These testing times. Then maybe they’d succeed

 

(The alderman admonished) and undo

   The ill effects of that false message spread

By liberals and social-hopers who

 

Believed the task of giving daily bread

   To those in need of it was higher on

The to-do list than seeking to embed

 

The fear of God in human hearts far gone

   In wickedness. His daughter ponders this

And other points in his distinctly non-

 

PC approach that some might take amiss  

   Though just the cure (she thinks) for that malaise

Of faith misplaced that looks for future bliss

 

In some fine programme for a higher phase

   Of ethical advancement when the whole

Existing scheme will enter its last days

 

And then emerge transformed. She sees her role

   Already as the messenger who’ll bear

His tidings from that chapel where the sole

 

Mark of success was rousing folk to prayer

   And make of it a doctrine that would cause

Even old socialists, caught unaware

 

By her new gospel-truth, to doubt the laws

   Of progress. These (they took it) should consist

In keeping their utopias on pause,

 

Projecting justice as a long-term tryst

   With history, and – when medium-term defeats

Piled up – recalling all the chances missed

 

As evidence of how the world mistreats

   Those visionary few who’d prove at last

The ones who got it right. In the mean streets

 

Of Grantham, Lincs, the Zeitgeist stands aghast

   As those beliefs that once maintained a bond

Between ideologues of any cast

 

From centre-left to centre-right, beyond

   Mere party politics, are felt to lose

All sense or pertinence and then respond

 

By self-destructing as the parties choose

   Their lesser evil or, more often, opt

For some malign amalgam that would fuse

 

The worst of every world. Why had they stopped,

   She wondered, those old Tories she despised,

Short of the perfect answer: to adopt

 

The techniques he’d successfully devised,

   Her preacher-patriarch, to keep his flock

Of listeners so routinely unsurprised,

 

Like her, by such hard sayings as would shock

   Those with more tender consciences, upset

The ‘Socialists for Jesus’ lot, or knock

 

A hole in all things shored against the threat

   Of old Jehovah. These might take the form

Of biblical remonstrance or be let

 

Loose like a kind of Benjaminian storm

   From paradise that left its mounting pile

Of debris and propelled the shambling swarm

 

Of progress-touters forward all the while

   Toward the same catastrophe whose dread

Event he’d conjured up. His graphic style

 

Left little doubt of how it should be read

   By God’s elect as yet another sign,

If such were needed, that the daily bread

 

The Lord’s Prayer spoke of, like the loaves and wine

   Of Canaan, figured forth the moral good

Of gainful trade. Let no-one then repine,

 

He cautioned, if the texts thus understood

   Seemed lacking in those qualities that earned

The praise of social-gospellers who could,

 

By cunning tweaks, convince us they discerned

   In scripture Christ’s intention to inspire

His followers, then and now, with lessons learned

 

From proto-communism’s book, or fire

   Their fervent souls with some perverse new take

On the old texts that reckoned all their dire

 

Apocalyptic prophecies would make,

   If suitably construed, a fine device

To turn his message right around and shake

 

Its biblical foundations. So they’d splice,

   Those heretics, a secularizing mode

Of exegesis with the kind of twice-

 

Born zeal for some redemptive twist that showed

   Them destined from the outset to that fate

Decreed for all who falsified the code

 

Of scripture since they thought such change of state

   Pertained to Caesar’s realm or the domain

Of social justice where we might create

 

Some ersatz heaven on earth. This he’d explain

   By citing verse and chapter week by week

Until his exhortations filled her brain

 

With their bewildering mix of bible-speak

   And his own trademark brand of Poujadiste

Small-town ressentiment that made him seek,

 

Each Sunday, some occult sign of the beast

   Now slouching close. Or he’d find nearer home

Some new and shocking sign of how we’d ceased

 

To honour parents, dutifully comb

  The Good Book for instruction, hold in awe

The Ten Commandments, count the Church of Rome

 

Most grievously in breach of every law

   Laid down for our salvation, and – his theme

In stressful times – acknowledge the deep flaw

 

In human nature.  This should make it seem

   Sheer hubris, so the lesson ran, to think

In terms of social progress or to deem

 

Us capable of virtues that would prink

   Our defects out in any decent dress

That wouldn’t, on a closer viewing, shrink

 

Down in the undeceiving wash to stress

   How chronically deluded were those folk

Who pinned our only chance of blessedness

 

To hopes like these. The truth of what he spoke

   She came to think self-evident, and so

Considered it her greatest master-stroke

 

In later times of crisis to forego

   All queasy conscience-searching and endorse

That same bone-deep and chapel-nurtured low

 

Opinion of mankind that had its source,

   Not only in his fixed idea of sin

Congenital and passed down through the course

 

Of post-Edenic history, but in

   His having cautioned her to disregard

All claims that ‘social progress’ let her win

 

Against old prejudices that died hard

   Amongst their kind. This was the sort of tale,

He said, in which those progress-mongers starred

 

As heroes of an exploit doomed to fail

   Since based on an agenda that proposed

Some secular deliverance from the vale

 

Of suffering whose significance he glozed,

   Each Sunday, as God-sanctioned to remind

The faithful of that crookedness disclosed

 

In the sin-darkened heart of humankind.

   Such was the message borne by gospel text

And by the clinching evidence we find

 

From one historic instance to the next

   Of promised heavens-on-earth that soon revealed

The age-old bitter truth whose import vexed

 

The social hopers since its only yield

   For them was flat despair. She had no thought

That perhaps Alfred’s’s take on things concealed

 

Motives or interests of another sort,

   That maybe his high praise for those who laid

Up earthly riches might find scant support

 

In holy writ, or that his daily trade

   In groceries and far from generous view

Of average human nature as displayed

 

In everyday transactions gives a clue

   To why his gloss on scripture took a slant

So sin-obsessed, so resolute to do

 

His fellow-mortals down, and keen to grant

   The ultimate depravity of all

Those secular redemptions that supplant

 

The progress-shattering truth. That’s why they fall

   Under proscription as the devil’s work

Which still (his constant theme) holds us in thrall

 

To heretic conclusions that can lurk

   Unnoticed in the noblest hopes and dreams

Of liberals or those whose bright-side quirk

 

Was liable to bring their splendid schemes

   Of social justice to the sorry end

Reserved for infidels. On suchlike themes,

 

With sundry variations, she’d depend

   In times to come when moral or humane

Considerations turned out to commend

 

Some policy that went against the grain

   Of pure self-interest, or that said we’d best

Seek public goods beyond what served to gain

 

The moral high ground only by the test

   Of how far public feeling might be swung

To further private ends at the behest

 

Of corporate interests. They ensured a bung

   By large donations at a timely stage

In her ascent to power, like those among

 

Her media moguls who’d been quick to gauge

   The turning tide and just as quick to seize

Their chance giving her the full front-page

 

Vote-winning treatment. No surprise if she’s

   So often, decades earlier, to be found

Head bowed, hands clasped, or silent on her knees

 

And inwardly to double business bound

   Since destined now (she knows) to be the one

Who’d teach them all those principles of sound

 

Soul-management that father had begun

   By laying down for the concentric spheres

Of chapel, home and shop. That’s why she’d stun

 

The global commentariat in years

   To come by taking as her guiding light

A household politics where all frontiers

 

Like those set up, as if by natural right,

   By Keynesian economists to flag

The private/public line would then invite

 

Her stock response: just take your shopping-bag,

   Compare the goods and prices, figure out

The best deals you can get, be sure to tag

 

All items carefully, and then you’ll flout

   That whole perverse doxology that held

It vulgar simple-mindedness to tout

 

Such homely wisdom as a lesson spelled

   Straight from the shopping-list. Think too, since it’s

A thought one’s irresistibly impelled

 

To entertain, how perfectly this fits

   With everything she’d later do to show

The male establishment she’d grabbed all its

 

Macho prerogatives so there’d be no

   Conforming to the usual stereotypes

Of womanhood. Hence her resolve to go

 

That extra mile and silence all the gripes

   Of those who said she’d lack the element

Of grit or sheer cold-bloodedness to wipe

 

Her conscience clear each time her actions sent

   Some workforce home, some taskforce out to kill

And be killed, some directive to torment

 

The consciences of those who did her will

   And knew the human costs, or a quick nod

To the Joint Chiefs of Staff that they should spill

 

Enough blood to convince the awkward squad

   She saw things their way. Hard not to conclude

That something like her father’s vengeful God

 

Of petty-bourgeois rancour made her brood

   Incessantly on old wrongs and project

The retribution onto those she viewed

 

Either as foreigners whom you’d expect

   To act like that or ‘enemies within’,

Like striking miners. These comprised a sect

 

More dangerous by half since their chief sin,

   In her book, was the kind that tore apart

The bonds of nationhood and laws of kin

 

By the fifth-columnist’s satanic art

   Which, for her father’s daughter, always loomed

Largest of all those lessons at the heart

 

Of Judaeo-Christian culture that foredoomed

   Some prophets, tribes or nations to be sold

Into captivity while others, groomed

 

For the lead roles in scripture, join the fold

   Of God’s own folk. It was her father’s voice

That echoed in the history they told,

 

Those old blood-curdling tales, and in the choice,

   When ratings slipped, to take her chance on war

As a well-known restorative. ‘Rejoice!’,

 

Her victory-message said, which meant: ignore

    The near one thousand combatants who died

On both sides, and especially the more

 

Than one third of them drowned or fried

   In the old crate Belgrano even though

The best intelligence placed it outside

 

The danger-zone and sailing on a slow

   But steady course that took the ship far clear

Of anywhere its feeble guns might blow

 

A hole in her grand strategy to steer

  The nation back onto the course of true

Blue values that transcended all such mere

 

Facts of the matter. So, if we ask who

   Should, in the longer view, be held to blame,

Then working out which guilty foot the shoe

 

Fits least toe-pinchingly is not a game

   Best played by asking simply who did what

In legalistic terms that link up name

 

With deed as if through some tight-fastened knot

   Of straightforward agency. This fails to see

How few of the coordinates that plot

 

Our own life-histories are such that we

   Can trace them back to origin and just

How many of them, subject to i.d.

 

Checks of a stricter kind, are such as must

   Be put down to some shaping power that far

Exceeds the furthest bounds of what we’d trust

 

As hitched securely to the guiding star

   Of unique personhood. One standard way

Of taking this is lowering the bar

 

Of moral judgment so that we can say,

   In any given case, let’s just allow

That tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner

 

Since, everything considered, we can now

   Much better understand that it was well-

Nigh inescapable she’d turn out how

 

She did. This means, should we elect to dwell

    Intently on it, that his favourite line

Of pulpit-talk, his images of Hell

 

Mixed in with thoughts on how best to combine

   True godliness with making all you can

Along the way, must lead us to assign

 

Her to a cool bit of the frying-pan

   And not straight to the fire. Yet that’s to stretch

Forgiveness to a point where it would span,

 

If need be, every human vice and fetch

   Up some fresh mitigating circumstance

With which attorneys might begin to sketch

 

A case for the defence. Then they’d advance

   The cause of all whom adverse fate had left

With few of life’s advantages, or chance

 

Had thrown into a childhood world bereft,

   Like hers, of everything that might have saved

Them from that home-and-chapel-sanctioned theft

 

Of what, for others, all too briefly staved

   Off adulthood’s arrival. We must track,

It’s clear, some middling course between depraved

 

Since all-excusing attitudes that lack

   The blame-idea and others that accord

Zero allowance to the way things stack

 

Up early on and right across the board

   For those whose chief misfortune is to get

Themselves born into just that unexplored

 

Since deeply unappealing social set

   Where piety assumes the sullen guise

Of lifelong forced sobriety and yet

 

Offers sufficient leeway to devise

   Some handy tricks of conscience. These would leave

It free to pick and choose which rule applies

 

In cases where adopting a naïve

   Or literal view of gospel truth could pose

Large problems, as when trying to deceive

 

One’s business rivals, leading by the nose

   Some unsuspecting customer with cash

To spare, or keeping colleagues on their toes

 

With memories of how matron used to thrash

   Them back in public school (such were the joys!),

Or thinking it good policy to trash

 

That ship with its four hundred men and boys

   Rather than let a UN peace-plan wreck

Her god-sent chance of war to quell the noise

 

Of those at home who’d get it in the neck,

   Like those at sea, if only she could fix

Things there as easily as from the deck

 

Of a Class-10 destroyer. These were tricks

   She’d picked up unawares yet by a keen

Observance, Maisie-like, of that which sticks

 

From childhood through the sundry shifts of scene

   In later life when lessons in their use

For ends of state will turn out to have been

 

(Since, so we’re told, the physical abuse

   Was kept for shop-girls) the most lasting mark

Our Grantham grocer managed to produce

 

Beyond the chapel-door.  Soon she’d embark

   On the long quest for what might bring her power,

At last, to spread the message of his dark-

 

Side Manichaean gospel with its dour,

   Self-implicating knowledge of how sin

Must shadow every act and thought of our

 

God-haunted lives. If all great crimes begin,

   As some would say, in childhood’s auguries

Of innocence undone, who’ll think to pin

 

The blame down finally as hers or his?        

 

 

 

Christopher Norris © 2014