Maggie, Elvis and Me

I bought one of those compilation CDs of Elvis Costello’s greatest hits last year, and found myself close to tears as I listened to ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’, the song he wrote in the 80s about stamping on Thatcher’s grave when she finally died. At the time, I would have done that, I believed. But my reaction to the news of her death on Monday took me by surprise. Instead of punching the air as I’d imagined I would, there was just a vacuum. The old lady who watered roses under police escort died lonely, in a society which she claimed does not exist. I had no desire to join the parties in Bristol or anywhere else springing up to celebrate her death, but equally it’s a bit rich to be told to ‘respect the dead’ when we appear not to be able to respect the living. On the day she died, the government introduced a raft of cuts to welfare and taxes which will penalise the poor, and put an extra £100,000 a year into the pockets of our millionaires. Gorgon-like, you cut off one head and more grow to take its place.

There’s a poem by Carol Ann Duffy from ‘The Other Country’ ( an anthology published in 1990 which offers a tapestry of voices of the different players of this era, some personal, some political but all reminding us that the two are inextricable) called ‘Making Money’. Duffy adopts the persona of a banker – he’s ruthless, heartless, amoral as he revels in the poverty of kids living in Indian slums, of women prostituting themselves to finance their next fix. Yet in the last verse there’s this sense that almost despite himself there is a creeping awareness of not just the destruction of others but the destruction of himself in the relentless pursuit of cash:

Palm Grease. Smackers. Greenbacks. Wads. I widen my eyes

at a fortune; a set of knives on black cloth, shining,

utterly beautiful. Weep. The economy booms

like a cannon, far out at sea on a lone ship. We leave

our places of work, tired, in the shortening hours, in the time

of night our town could be anywhere, and some of us pause

in the square, where a clown makes money swallowing fire.

Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Making Money’, from ‘Selected Poems’ (1994, Penguin, London)

It’s hard not to read this poem, 20 years on, and feel that – while the economy is far from booming – little else has changed.


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