Arts blog: Thatcher’s musical legacy | Historical fiction

Spitting Image provided one of the most iconic images of the late Margaret Thatcher. Picture: Getty
Spitting Image provided one of the most iconic images of the late Margaret Thatcher. Picture: Getty
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DAVID Pollock dissects Margaret Thatcher’s musical legacy, while Andrea Mullaney looks at our fascination with historical fiction

‘Why would one politician inspire such an outpouring when so many others have remained untouched?’

For a lady with no immediate connection to the music world, Margaret Thatcher inspired a lot of music. Those of us on Facebook and Twitter in the hours following her death were treated to an entire Jools Holland series-worth of elder Britrock statespeople’s more epochal minutes: The Beat’s Stand Down, Margaret; Morrissey’s Margaret On the Guillotine; Billy Bragg’s Thatcherites and Between the Wars. From the leftfield, meanwhile, we got Mogwai’s George Square Thatcher Death Party, which inspired its own divisive gathering in central Glasgow on Monday night.

Perhaps most affecting of all, there was a chance to revisit Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding and Tramp the Dirt Down, both devastatingly sad and beautiful songs shot through with Costello’s sense of heartbroken injustice at the consequences of the Falklands War.

By contrast, voices of affirmation from the music world – from the arts world in general, in fact – were few and far between. There was Geri Halliwell, eagerly talking up “our 1st Lady of girl power … who taught me anything is possible”, ignoring the raging debate about whether being a powerful woman made Thatcher any sort of friend of feminism. A furious backlash saw the tweet hurriedly taken down and apologised for.

The interesting question, though, is why one politician would inspire such an outpouring when so many others have remained untouched. Radiohead may have gently knocked Tony Blair in song, but the incredibly divisive David Cameron and George Osbourne, for example, remain unscathed by the popular arts.

The clue, perhaps, lies in youthful memories as a Child of Thatcher, staying up late and feeling that deathly Spitting Image stare fixing upon you from the screen. In the 1980s the panto villains of choice were Darth Vader and Margaret Thatcher, and both fulfilled the role in which they’d been cast through a sheer sense of merciless invincibility. Or, as the author Ian McEwan summed it up in a newspaper column earlier this week, artists loved to toy with what she was and what she represented because “reality had created a character beyond our creative reach”.

DAVID POLLOCK

‘Many heroes of historical fiction display a remarkable tolerance towards racial and sexual differences’

IT’S ironic that just as the publishing industry is going through big changes, with the rise of eReaders, what we’re actually reading about is often set in a far less technologically advanced age. With a boom in historical fiction marked by the immense critical and popular success of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series, among many others, a Historical Fiction Festival launched in Edinburgh this week seems timely.

The festival, at Summerhall from 12-15 April, features talks by writers whose settings range from ancient Rome to the Second World War. But all of them, to some degree, face the same challenge: how to make those bygone times come alive. Research helps, but only goes so far, as eventually historical novelists have to create characters who are convincing as people of their time.

Mantel herself has spoken wryly of the tendency of some period novels to feature feisty heroines with anachronistic 21st-century attitudes, pointing out: “Generally speaking, our ancestors were not tolerant, liberal or democratic … [they] very likely believed in hellfire, beating children and hanging malefactors.” Writers, she told the Royal Society of Literature, have a duty not to pervert the values of the past and have to learn to tolerate strange worldviews.

Factual anachronisms may spark letters of complaint, but what might be thought of as attitudinal anachronisms are more pernicious. There’s a sort of modern arrogance that holds that our forebears’ understanding of the world was less enlightened and needs to be posthumously corrected – many heroes of historical fiction display a remarkable tolerance towards racial and sexual differences that’s conveniently ahead of their contemporaries. Sometimes that’s fair enough – modern readers of a lighter-hearted period crime novel, say, don’t particularly want to come across the kind of casual, nasty racism that was common up to even a few decades ago and which leaps jarringly out of certain older books. But sometimes it can distort the past, playing down the immense struggle faced by those few who did try to challenge prejudices.

Still, however rigorous the research, however sincere the attempt by an author to think their way back into the mind-set of a character from past centuries, all historical fiction is undeniably contemporary fiction too. The success of Mantel’s Wolf Hall is as much about modern concerns as a sudden insatiable curiosity about Henry VIII – as the fuss over her comparison of the Duchess of Cambridge with Anne Boleyn showed. And Sir Walter Scott himself, fittingly foregrounded at the festival as the virtual creator of the genre, used his historical settings to comment on his own society.

So the festival’s forum on Sunday afternoon, with writers and academics debating the value of historical fiction as a means to understand the past, despite its inevitable distortions, should be interesting. After all, as the philosopher George Santayana wrote, those who cannot understand the past are condemned to repeat it – and no-one wants to go through all that again.

ANDREA MULLANEY

 • For details of the Summerhall Historical Fiction Festival, see www.historicfictionfest.com