Artillery Row

Big news reaches a small town

Where was I when the Berlin Wall fell and Margaret Thatcher resigned?

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s departure from office. “One of the happiest days of my life” tweets Lord Adonis, speaking for the many who remember the sugar rush of joy they felt at the televised images of the wounded woman – large, hounded, glinting, eyes caught in the flashbulbs – leaving Downing Street for the last time.

Many others have shared where they were at that moment. One of the noble lord’s Twitter followers recalls being at Earl’s Court tube station and hearing the news announced on the London Underground tannoy. “People clapped.”

We conflate two related events, for whilst today is the thirtieth anniversary of Thatcher ceasing to be prime minister – an exit that heralded the bright, vibrant, new Britain of John Major – what most of us probably better recall is not where we were when the Lady was driven off, but what we were doing at that crystalising moment when we heard confirmation that she was resigning. That was six days’ earlier.

At any rate, I must have watched her departure on television but I cannot distinguish that from my seeing the images repeated over the course of the succeeding thirty years. What is clear in my memory is where I was and what I was thinking when I heard the news that she had resigned. That moment is as vivid to me now as if it happened last Thursday.

“Morning all!” I beamed as I entered my tutor’s room in the history department at St Andrews university. There were five, maybe six, of us in the tutorial group and everyone else was already there, on time, ready for the scheduled deliberation on the last days of Arthur Balfour. Being the tutorial group’s designated Tory Boy, there was an assumption that I had heard the news and was, at the very least, electrified by it.

It took two or three cross-purpose exchanges before they realised that my cheerful salutation was not news related because I had not had the radio on that morning. When assured it had been on the BBC and was therefore definitely true, my thoughts were scrambled. One of the tutees said that she’d heard there was a student in University Hall who had locked herself in her room because she was so upset at what a gang of men had done to the woman who was better than all of them put together. That seemed a bit dramatic. But I recall feeling neither satisfaction nor horror but pure, conservative, unease at the prospect of change.

A Scottish Conservative party poster bearing Thatcher’s portrait had adorned my teenage bedroom. Only when I arrived at university did I recognise that taking her with me would get me talked about in St Salvator’s Hall, but not necessarily in a good way. So instead, I propped-up a small, framed, postcard of Benjamin Disraeli, against a bottle of Cockburn’s Fine Ruby. Thus began my youthful apostasy in the Tory Reform Group. At that time the TRG was, after all, the perfect place for undergraduate social climbers who could not pull off a convincing anecdote about the powder in St Moritz.

The St Andrews of thirty years ago was not a hotbed of student activism. Long since graduated were the student politicos of the mid-1970s – Michael Forsyth, Alex Salmond, and the founders of the Adam Smith Institute. Perhaps there was still a Labour club, I honestly don’t remember. I do recall a handful of highly articulate Scot Nats. The rest of the student hacks were, like myself, mostly wet Tories, talking about “one Nation” and endlessly repeating the Earl of Stockton’s brilliant, quite, quite, brilliant, quip about selling the family silver, as if it was the cleverest thing ever said.

the TRG was the perfect place for undergraduate social climbers who could not pull off a convincing anecdote about the powder in St Moritz

Yet, Thatcher’s fall, and my instinctive discomfort about it even although I had felt her race was run, remains the era-defining news event from my undergraduate days. Nothing else compared. Nine months’ earlier I had been walking down Market Street and seen a bed sheet draped from an open window with the news that Nelson Mandela was free at last written in marker pen. That was the only note of celebration in a student town I spotted about the crumbling of apartheid.

A few months before that, the Berlin Wall had been breached. What heralded the end of the Cold War registered in passing conversation at St Andrews and I vaguely remember presiding over a motion about it it in the union debating society. But I don’t recall any celebrations. No one popped over that evening with a bottle of Bulgarian country wine and a couple of beakers.

All I recall is spending the evening in a dark recess of the Castle Tavern on North Street being assured by one of my more intellectually self-confident debating society compatriots that the events in eastern Europe should “in no way be interpreted as a victory for the West.” He said this in a tone that implied this was a relief. Averse to confrontation in a social setting, I let it pass and suggested it was my round.

So, there it was, the Berlin Wall being dismantled, and my chief recollection is of escaping the interpretation of what it all meant by bringing back a couple of pints of McEwan’s export on a battered tin tray advertising Tennant’s Special. The jukebox was playing Real Gone Kid.

Was it so different elsewhere in Britain? Did the tannoy at Earl’s Court announce the end of the Cold War? And if it had, would the commuters and shoppers have clapped?

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