June 14, 2013 6:43 pm

Stories waiting to be told

If newspapers are the first draft of history, it is art that begins to refine the argument for posterity

It was by listening to a very nasty song that I learnt of the death of Margaret Thatcher. I had just stepped off a flight to Athens, three-and-a-bit hours of enforced news blackout, and jumped into a taxi. On the radio, instead of the usual melismatic laments delivered against curlicues of tinny bouzouki music, was an old song by Elvis Costello.

I recognised it. It was “Tramp the Dirt Down”, one of the most vicious attacks ever delivered against the former prime minister: “Because there’s one thing I know, I’d like to live long enough to savour, That’s when they finally put you in the ground, I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”

It was a funny old song to find playing in an Athenian taxi, I said to the driver. “She just died,” he replied. “A shame. They called her the Iron Lady.”

I know, I said.

The song was a cruel form of remembrance. I am guessing that it wasn’t heard that day on British airwaves – although I stand to be corrected. On my return to London, I found a less visceral debate being conducted in the media. It was by turns eloquent, impassioned and informative, although there were also lapses of taste, on both sides of the argument, over her worth. Nothing you wouldn’t expect. Although Thatcher’s stint as prime minister was more than two decades past, there was nowhere near a consensus on her wider significance. How could there be?

Nothing equals the British media landscape for its mix of shrill bombast and measured judgment. But to find a definitive assessment, we need to take a longer view. If newspapers are the first draft of history, it is art that begins to refine the argument for posterity. Only from the more sophisticated storytelling powers of our great writers, dramatists and artists can we begin to understand the true impact of figures such as Thatcher. So the argument goes.

Earlier this week, I saw Thatcher Write, a collection of new, short plays that were inspired by the death of the former prime minister. They were commissioned by Theatre503, a Battersea-based group devoted to new writing that has acted with admirable speed: a couple of months is no time at all to turn around such a project.

It was a varied programme, of variable quality. Brian Walters’ Apples was a neat parable: a Bob Dylan-singing market stall holder (!) is affronted when his worker leaves the grocery “collective” to set up on her own. At first she cleans up by providing a greater choice of different and better-quality apples at higher prices. But her venture finally flops. She comes crawling back to the collective to ask for her job back, but the Dylan aficionado, who has in the meantime expanded his own range of apples, has turned into Stalin, forcing her to beg for his favours.

Suit and Tie by Ben Worth was City trader cockiness dissolved into druggy disorientation; Dominic Cavendish’s True Blue was a touching evocation of Thatcher’s confused final days. The climax of the evening was Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho, a burlesque fantasy in which the premier is ambushed in London’s gay heartland and persuaded to renounce her homophobia. We are family, and all that.

. . .

The evening as a whole inevitably offered a far from definitive view. But two strands in the writing stood out for me. One was the importance of Thatcher’s gender, and her refusal to conform to its stereotypical qualities. There were constant references to her masculine conduct. “When I became a man, I put away all childish things,” she says at the end of True Blue, and it does not sound like the derangement of dementia.

The other recurring theme was the sense of a political and social revolution with dynamic beginnings, turning swiftly to shallowness and excess. You wouldn’t expect an act on the theatrical fringe to have much sympathy for the tenets of Thatcherism. Yet the energy of Suit and Tie’s money-grabbing wide boys, and the market worker’s impatience with her collective’s sub-quality apples, is palpable. Even the left-leaning classes acknowledge, it seems, the overdue kick-start that Britain received in the early 1980s.

We may have to wait 10, 50 or 100 years for a more articulate or lyrical vision of this turbulent era in British affairs. But an artistic response that acts more urgently than that is only to be welcomed. Where there is a public clamour for explanation, writers and artists should be unafraid to step in. Events on stage or in the art gallery give vivacity to themes that lie lifeless on the printed page.

A telephone call between National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner and playwright David Hare, in which they both expressed their difficulties in understanding the financial crisis of 2008, resulted in Hare writing The Power of Yes. It was a work that added colour and clout to an event of global importance and labyrinthine complexity.

The clichéd view of arts-lovers is that they follow their passion in order to escape the dreary litany of everyday matters. It is all about solace and sublimation. But in the age of factual overload and semi-digested Twitter truths, the arts have a new, arguably greater responsibility – to put things more clearly. And even Thatcher, no arts-lover herself, would have approved of that.

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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