We didn’t want to be poor no more
Growing up in the Eighties was a story of aspiration — and anxiety
It must have been Michael Heseltine’s star quality which pulled me and my mother away from Coronation Street and the story of Mavis Riley’s doomed love for Victor Pendlebury. It was 23 May 1983, the general election was approaching, and the man they called Goldilocks was in town canvassing for votes.
That Monday evening we stepped out of a tall Georgian townhouse on Monkgate to make the short walk to the Yorkshire Museum. The moment has stuck in my mind because it was so unusual. Ours was not a political home; we didn’t chew over the affairs of the day at teatime. But I was studying Civics at my Catholic grammar school in York and we were encouraged to follow the election. Attending a political meeting was a first for both of us.
My parents both came from working-class northern homes — bricks in Labour’s famous “red wall”— where to vote Conservative was heresy. My mother’s father, a cotton mill worker and a man of few words, referred darkly to Mrs Thatcher as “that woman”. Though my parents had moved up the social ladder, before the grocer’s daughter came to power they associated Conservatives with privilege and inherited wealth.
As for me, 14 years old and one of Thatcher’s children, if you liked my sort of music and read the NME, hating Maggie was obligatory. In my bedroom up on the second floor of a house which my mother herself had decorated with tips from Affordable Splendour: An Ingenious Guide to Decorating Elegantly, Inexpensively and Doing Most of It Yourself, I listened to punk group Blitz blare out “I don’t wanna be poor no more”.
Early in her rule, Mrs Thatcher had talked of wanting to change the hearts and souls of the British people. That evening, when we set out to listen to a leading Tory, was perhaps a small sign of the soul-changing taking place in our family.
It was clear even two weeks before the election that it was going to be ugly for Labour. The party manifesto included support for unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Community, which Conservatives then characterised as an act of job-threatening extremism. Next to the shambolic elderly socialist Michael Foot, Thatcher appeared a woman on a mission. She was basking in the victory in the Falklands which had rescued her flagging premiership. York’s Evening Press declared her response to the Argentine invasion as in the “Churchillian mould”.
We know how the story ended. Michael Foot would put Labour’s catastrophic loss down to a “deeply reactionary and offensive campaign” waged against him, insisting that the party’s message would ultimately be “vindicated”. But Labour had never been so distant from the needs and aspirations of the people. One of the young new intake of 1983 who grasped this was Tony Blair, though it would be 14 years before he would lead Labour back to power. Jeremy Corbyn was another new Westminster entrant. After his own recent humiliation at the polls, one commentator said that he was fighting the election of 1983 all over again in his head, believing that it could still be won.
With so many old arguments now resurfacing, and Mrs Thatcher haunting the popular imagination in the national Brexit argument, my own formative years suddenly seem less distant. But the histories of those times are beginning to pile up, and whatever their political perspective their authors agree that the era saw fundamental shifts in the national psyche; hearts and souls were indeed changed. Promised You a Miracle: Why 1980-82 Made Modern Britain by Andy Beckett talks of “a burst of energy” and argues that Britain became a “mercurial, energetic and colourful, lonely and cruel, charismatic and polarised country”. Dominic Sandbrook’s Who Dares Wins: Britain 1979-1982 records that these years had “an intense flavour”, a “sense of colour and confidence”.
My own memories as a teenager are more muted. Graham Greene thought that men were made by the places in which they lived: it was an insular conservative city that made me. “Ancient City, regular archaeological finds” was how the BBC characterised York in its General Election Guidelines. The economic devastation visited on other northern towns seemed to skirt York. Tourists thronged to once-neglected medieval sites carrying copies of A Walk Around the Snickelways of York, a guide to the narrow alleyways that ran between its principal streets. Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum described York then as “fake”, likening one grand medieval street to an “expensive souvenir shop”.
The image of a twee tourist trap was a little unfair. Though York wasn’t a centre of heavy industry, the confectionery industry and locomotive carriage works were still the city’s largest employers and, during the election campaign of 1983, redundancies were announced at the Redfearn Glass Works. York may have evaded the worst of the economic woes of the times, but there were losers. In my own middle-class bubble in the city centre, though, I imagined that reality was something going on in Brixton and Bradford.
But York was still a city of some political importance and in 1983 would be a key battleground. Labour had held the seat since 1966, though Alex Lyon had only just squeezed his fourth win in 1979. A number of big political beasts descended on the city as election day neared to support their candidates: Heath and Howe; Healey and Kinnock; Jenkins and Williams for the SDP-Liberal Alliance. But it was Heseltine we chose to go and see. The defence minister with the most famous political haircut bar one cut a dashing figure, like a character from one of the Jeffrey Archer novels my mother liked to read at that time. She would not have missed Coronation Street for Geoffrey Howe.
It was little more than a 15-minute walk to the museum. We headed through the medieval walls which encircled the city, then past the Minster, one of northern Europe’s great gothic cathedrals. Our route passed the Victorian Roman Catholic church we attended every Sunday, an eyesore which some in the city wanted pulling down, and on to the Central Library where I spent many a weekday evening, seeking refuge from family rows and relentless home improvement.
Press reports from the Temple Anderson Hall describe a packed house that night. On the platform with Heseltine was the Tory party’s 36-year-old candidate, Conal Gregory. His profession was “wine consultant”, though he reassured Yorkshire folk that he was also co-author of Beers of Britain. He was seen as a fresh and dynamic face, the Evening Press contrasting his “natty” attire with his rival’s “scruffy corduroy” suit.
Of Heseltine’s 30-minute speech I have no actual memory. The Evening Press reporter said that he was heard “almost in silence” in “an eerie atmsophere of pre-election calm”. He talked of Labour’s threat to the nation’s security and proclaimed the success of the Right to Buy policy he had overseen as environment secretary. By the end of 1983, it had seen some 450,000 council properties transferred to individual owners. “There is within us the wish to be free, and there is within the Tory party the determination to ensure that we are,” Heseltine closed his address. After a standing ovation, he gave a brief wave and was whisked away.
Nationally, the momentum was now well behind the Conservatives and that appeared to be the case in York, too. Shortly before the election, an Evening Press poll predicted that Gregory would win: York’s women, it found, overwhelmingly supported the young Conservative candidate and my mother was one of them. The paper was right: the wine consultant, the face of new enterprising Britain, beat the Methodist teetotaler. Gregory’s acceptance speech was not the most gracious: there were boos from Labour supporters when he wished the man who had served York for almost two decades a “happy retirement”. Lyon was almost in tears as he left the platform.
MY FAMILY’S MOVE TO YORK in 1974 for my father’s work (he was a building inspector) was in itself a mark of aspiration. It put distance between my mother and the small declining cotton town where she grew up, with its soot-blackened town hall and the yellowy-brown river which ran through it.
Getting into a grammar school had brought a first sense that there was a life beyond the mills and surrounding hills. Her own mother had left school at 13 to enter domestic service and was extremely proud when her daughters were admitted to the schoo l — as well as the Labour founders of the welfare state, my grandmother revered Rab Butler, the Conservative politician responsible for the Education Act which brought her girls the opportunities she had been denied.
My mother’s experience of grammar school also brought home painfully her own family’s poverty. In her hometown, where almost all adults worked in the mills, everyone was poor, but now she mixed with those whose families didn’t have to struggle to afford the school uniform. Some of the Catholic nuns who controlled the school pandered to the fee-payers they also admitted — “the thick-as-pigshit daughters of Manchester factory owners,” as my mother remembers them. She was small, skinny and disregarded, but she left at 15 with a stack of O-levels and was soon earning more in banks and building societies than her father.
At 20, she went to work for the Inland Revenue in Worthing, met a man at the Ocean Club and soon fell pregnant with me. After a hasty marriage for the sake of her devout parents, they emigrated to Canada to make a fresh start. Six months later, my mother was back in the north, babe in arms. She got pregnant again but the relationship soon broke down and her husband abandoned her.
The end of the Swinging Sixties found her as a single Mum, back in her smoky home town, feeling like an outcast. She was living in a two-up two-down when Allan came to inspect her bathroom to see if the outdoor toilet could be moved indoors. It was a very northern romance. The building inspector became my adoptive father and my mother’s third and final child came along a few months before we all moved to York.
Whilst the great desire of upwardly-mobile working class people was a shiny new house in the suburbs, my mother hankered after old, neglected properties in the centre of the city where few others wanted to live. These once-fine houses now in a state of disrepair, or broken up into shabby bedsits, touched something in her soul. She was one of the first in York to spot their potential.
My parents worked hard and spent little on luxuries, pumping everything they had into home improvements. My mother became a familiar face at auctions, fleamarkets and the fabric stalls on York market and there was the annual pilgrimage to Harrods for the sales. Banks were loosening up and they were able to borrow money for a few buy-to-lets, made easier when my father was promoted.
Later, when my parents divorced, my mother’s property dealings set her up for life. But in those early years, when it was not quite such a lucrative pursuit, it was as much about individual creative expression and making a style statement as making money. It was about not being mediocre or like everybody else.
The Georgian house on Monkgate, bought in a dilapidated condition, became a stage for her creativity. The rooms she created were influenced by the decorator John Fowler and the country-house look then regarded as the height of good taste: a lot of chintz, drapes, festoon blinds, painted furniture and walls in smoky “knocked-back” colours. By 1983 it looked like a show home from The World of Interiors.
“I suppose I liked the idea of grandeur,” my mother told me recently. “For me it was about the quality of the building, the mouldings, the mahogany handrails. I was in awe of the quality of the workmanship.”
At the time, I didn’t appreciate the deeper impulses at work. Instead, I idealised the simple working-class world of my grandparents: meat and two veg dinners, the Daily Mirror racing pages and the plaster statue of St Anthony, watching the snooker and One Man and His Dog with my Grandad. “Why don’t you go and live there?” my mother once yelled when I was miserable to return home after one stay. Children are little conservatives: they want welfare-state mum not Thatcherite mum.
THE NEW HISTORIES OF THE PERIOD have almost nothing to say about religion. In this time of conspicuous consumption and Homebase Sundays, God got pushed out. Sandbrook’s history gives more prominence to snooker. But religion was important in our family and though my mother had left the working class, the Catholicism of her childhood pursued her.
The feelings of being damaged goods never really went away and over time the church began to lose its hold on the family’s soul
From 1973 to 1980 she was engaged in a protracted process to have her first marriage annulled. Having remarried outside the church, she was forbidden from receiving the sacraments and had to watch as the other Catholic mothers went up to communion. “I don’t think I have ever made so many approaches to the Holy See with regard to any particular case before,” the priest wrote when he could finally inform her that the annulment had been granted.
But the feelings of being damaged goods never really went away and over time the church began to lose its hold on the family’s soul. When Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to Britain in 1982, we were not there. It was not as if we would have had far to travel: he came to my hometown, giving mass to a huge crowd gathered on the racecourse. It was one of the great moments in English Catholic history, but my family was en route to a short holiday in Brussels the day he came to York, marvelling at the hypermarkets we found on the way.
Ultimately, the life my mother was building, and the freedom and expression she craved, pushed the church out. She wanted to be free of the church’s ideal of the self-abnegating Catholic and from society’s expectations of what a good mother was supposed to be. That was why she came to admire Mrs Thatcher: the woman making it in a man’s world, defying all assumptions.
Still, in 1979 when I passed the eleven-plus I went, like my mother before me, to a Catholic grammar school under the control of a female religious order. There were just 40 boys in a school of some 470 when I started, a year after boys were first accepted. The convent school opened in 1686 when English Catholics were a suspect and barely tolerated minority. At the main entrance to the school there was an engraving of St
Michael, recalling the legend of when he appeared on horseback above the building to repel a hostile mob.
In our first year we were led to the Relic Room and shown the tiny yellow waxy hand of St Margaret Clitherow, the York martyr crushed to death in 1586. Of course, in 1979 Protestant mobs were never going to gather outside the school, but the outsider sensibility was imprinted in the stories and fabric of the building. Many pupils also had Irish blood. The mood of “populist patriotism” which Sandbrook thinks defined the period was resisted in my school.
The school’s mission was to make “mature Christians and apostles for Jesus Christ”. Well-meaning ones, too. Thatcher once declared that there was no such thing as a “collective conscience, collective kindness, collective gentleness”. No one would have remembered the Good Samaritan, she argued, if he only had good intentions: the key thing was that he was wealthy. Christian charity had to start with wealth creation. Our school was stuffed with good intentions. We were never more than a few feet away from a CAFOD box. Even the proceeds from the school disco went to a baby clinic in Chishawasha, Zimbabwe.
I came increasingly to find the pieties and well-meaningness suffocating. The feelings we were supposed to have didn’t correspond with how I felt inside. “What do you think Jesus would do in this situation?” our RE teacher would ask, offering some hypothetical moral dilemma. The Jesus of our imagination was a laidback kind of guy who dug Simon & Garfunkel.
The apogee of my liberal Catholic education came in May 1983, the week before my mother and I went to hear Michael Heseltine. It was the traditional three-day retreat for fourth-year students, led then by two youngish priests from County Cork, sons of Vatican II and the civil rights movement. They saw us less as material to be worked on than unique individuals.
They related the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull (he wanted to be more than a seagull) as the film’s stirring soundtrack, Neil Diamond’s “Be”, played. There were other, silent moments when we were encouraged just to sit in semi-darkness, “doing nothing, together”.They offered individual counselling and a few who went came out in tears. On the last night there was a disco in the basement, with one of the priests as DJ. He made sure he had all the latest hits: “True”, “Beat It” and “Let’s Dance”. Some robot-danced, the latest craze.
What story would I have told that priest-counsellor, had I seen him? Would I have opened up about my unhappy home and my parents’ disintegrating marriage, or shared my anxieties about puberty? What kind of boy was I, in 1983? “Too much of a dreamer” who “hides in silence”, according to school reports that year. Revealing my feelings was as unlikely as robotic dancing.
I remember we read Howards End that year, and one passage has stayed with me in particular. Mrs Wilcox tells Margaret Schlegel that they never discussed anything at Howards End. “Discussion keeps a house alive,” Margaret insists. “It cannot stand by bricks and mortar alone.” But the final word seemed to belong to Mrs Wilcox. “It cannot stand without them.”
That evening in late May 1983, setting out to a political meeting, I think more than anything I would have appreciated the time alone with my mother, away from all the “telegrams and anger”.
2020 AND ENGLAND HAS NEVER LOOKED SO BLUE — not in my lifetime. Even in 1983 Labour managed to hold on to most of its seats in the industrial north. In the north, and the Midlands, the Conservatives managed to win over the disillusioned and the fearful; those with little faith in the future. Today, I don’t detect that same hope for a better future, freedom and opportunity that drove Mrs Thatcher’s success in 1983 (and Blair’s in 1997). The hope or expectation of doing better than one’s parents has faded. Ours is now an anxious nation. Boris Johnson has to respond to different needs.
I go back to York from time to time. It’s a far more cosmopolitan, outward-looking city now than the place where I grew up. It was Yorkshire’s most Remain city. With its prosperity, and a large student population, it was a Labour hold in the last election.
I pass the houses where I once lived and usually drop in at my old convent school, which now runs as a museum and offers bed and breakfast and the best bacon sandwich in town. An archivist recently showed me the hand of St Margaret Clitherow, my first viewing since I was a small, wide-eyed first-year. The school and its setting made me, as well as the city and my aspirational family: if I’m a Conservative, then it’s one tinged by liberal Catholic guilt.
My mother moved from York in the mid-1990s, heading for true-blue Harrogate. In those post-Thatcher days, she was disillusioned with the Conservatives and for a time supported Tony Blair. Brexit turned her back to the Tories. “I wouldn’t go to see Michael Heseltine now if you paid me,” she said, when I reminded her of that evening in May 1983.
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