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