Monday, 2 July 2007

Margaret Thatcher's Most Amazing Triumph

Most of my British friends, when they think of Margaret Thatcher at all, remember her as an arch-conservative, a self-made politician who put business above social services and economy over the well-being of British communities. My husband tends to froth at the mouth when anyone mentions Mrs Thatcher, and I am not here to try and convince anyone that what she did was right or good. But forget the coal mines she shut, the unions she crushed and the milk she snatched; I happen to know that Margaret Thatcher pulled off an astounding feat. You may wonder if I am talking about the economy here, her firm stance with the IRA, or her handling of the Falklands War. I assure you that I am not referring to any of those piddling things. No, Margaret Thatcher did better than that. She won the hearts of fifteen uppity Japanese teenagers I once knew. And as far as I am concerned, whatever barriers she may have broken through in British politics are as nothing compared to that.

These girls attended an exclusive girls' finishing school in Tokyo, a junior college for young women who were not academically inclined, informally known as a school where one usually finished with an 'Mrs' degree. They came to our school ostensibly to study English, but really to lark about and have a good time. Still, though they essentially treated our lessons as nothing more than a chance to have fun,I found them a lively, spirited group and, in the main, enjoyed our classes. But because they were not known for their generous opinion of middle-aged women, which most of us teachers were, they weren't everybody's cup of tea. They could be hypercritical and judgmental about the less fortunate or beautiful of their gender, and when they were, they didn't do a lot for a person's self esteem. They were young women who appraised every other woman's appearance and charm with a jeweler's eye, and they weren't shy about expressing their opinions, either.

Several months after I quit my teaching job there, Margaret Thatcher came to Japan, and she stopped by the school for a visit. As it happened, she sat in on their particular class, which a friend was teaching at the time. This friend hated Margaret Thatcher's politics with a passion and found her cozy relationship with Augusto Pinochet particularly repugnant. So when she knew that Mrs Thatcher was going to be an observer in her class, she was not best pleased.

I almost pitied poor old Mrs Thatcher showing up in front of this particular class with a teacher who hated her guts and a group of catty girls who happily ate grown women for breakfast. I had to tell myself that she almost certainly deserved it.

As it turned out, though, Mrs Thatcher was a big hit and gave every appearance of having a wonderful time. She expressed genuine interest in what the girls were studying, sat cozily with them and chatted about what they were interested in, and basically charmed their socks off. After she left, they were all in awe. When my friend asked them what they thought of Mrs Thatcher, they all allowed that they'd never met anyone like her. So sweet and nice, so much fun, and -- I swear I'm not making this up! -- so beautiful.

Now, you'd have to know these girls to know how incredible this was. It wasn't just the fact that Mrs Thatcher was well dressed and properly groomed that impressed them. Though these girls spent hours on their personal preparations every day and certainly expected this of others, I knew for a fact that they thought little enough of many celebrities. I'd brought in photographs of actresses and musicians like Meryl Streep, Madonna, Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt, and these girls had been mightily unimpressed by their talent and appearance. But Margaret Thatcher, as far as they were all concerned, was ten out of ten. "She had such pretty skin," sighed one. "She was fashionable! And she was so smart -- and so friendly!" enthused another. The concensus was that Margaret Thatcher was one hell of a role model -- a woman they would love to emulate.

Scary, isn't it?


Brian said...

I have met classes like that .

Many of them little bitches .

And it seems that this lot recognised one of their own kind .


Carole said...

I love argument, I love debate. I don't expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that's not their job. --Margaret Thatcher.

Perhaps she loved these girls for who they were, rather than who they should have been. And they sensed it.

Eryl Shields said...

I expect the girls were blinded by Thatcher's supreme confidence. Confidence of the magnitude she possessed can make the ugliest of people look beautiful. I speake of her in the past tense but actually have no idea if she is dead or alive.

Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- My husband would agree with you 100%. He was a little wary of these girls, though he did like the most spirited one -- a very independent, funny girl who wanted to be a policewoman. Someone told me that she ended up getting married instead, and I will admit that I was disappointed. Part of me pictured her becoming a very feisty, tough cookie of a policewoman...

Carole -- My friend commented that she too found herself in awe of Margaret Thatcher, that she was prepared to loathe her but found herself marveling at the woman's charm. I never met her, so I never got to see this for myself. I would like to think that she saw the best in these girls and wanted to serve as a good and positive role model, but then I also pray for World Peace.

Eryl -- It is very possible that what you say is true! Wish I could give Margaret Thatcher (I believe she is still with us) a little of my superfluous humility and ciphon off a little of her overflowing confidence.

Kim Ayres said...

I'm inclined to believe it was the supreme confidence that could blind the shallow into thinking she was fantastic.

I think she's still alive. I'm sure I saw her on the TV recently celebrating the Falklands war 25th anniversary. Mind you she looked like she'd died a couple of years ago, but just hadn't realised it yet.

eg(scotland) said...

I have a view that MT has been hated and ridiculed simply because she was a woman. I am not saying that I agreed with her policies but the time she was PM would have been difficult for any PM. Time and history will judge how bad or how good she actually was.

However, what I really want to say here is what amazing stories from your life Mary that you share with us - it's incredible. Thank you for sharing.

And thanks for popping over and leaving a comment on my site earlier today - much appreciated.


Brian said...

I don't want to debate Thatcher's policies either, as this blog is neither the time nor place.

As for a woman becoming PM , I heartily approve of the thought that women can achieve that . The only problem I can see there is that to do so , they have to be more ruthless than the men , and a ruthless woman is far more dangerous in my opinion than her male opponents.

As a drama teacher however , I confess that I shudder at the sound of her speaking voice.


Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- My husband has enjoyed your comments -- and Brian's. He is not a great Margaret Thatcher fan. I was not in Britain during her realm, so tend to be more neutral, but she did make one statement I thought was overwhelmingly stupid and insensitive. Commenting on the complaints made by a 25-year-old man about the buses he used daily to commute to work, she said 'Any man aged 25 who has to take a bus to work can count himself a failure.' It is bad enough that she believed that (and it says a lot about how she must have dealt with public transportation when she was prime minister), but to come out and say it!

EG -- I feel ambivalent about MT. On one hand, yes, I admire the fact that not only as a woman but as a grocer's daughter, she managed what she did, but I am also stunned by her insensitivity to the more unfortunate of her country's citizens and the fact that she befriended people like Pinochet -- and Ronald Reagan.

Thank you for your kind words -- and isn't it great that Alan Johnston is now free? And his stories are bound to be a lot more interesting than mine!

Brian -- I'm still chuckling over the last line of your first comment. Though I have to say that those girls weren't really bitches, they had it in them to be catty when they wanted to -- as so many of us do!

Politics seem to bring out the worst in most people, women and men alike. I wonder how Hilary Clinton will fare in the coming months...?

Kanani said...

I always thought of her as a very confident woman. Maybe it was that.

I think they would have been won over by the others as well, if they'd met them in person. As it was, their experiences outside of their own realm was very limited to a superficial world --one perpetuated by their own parents perhaps, and so when you showed them the photos or spoke to them, they really had no idea of the depth you were introducing!

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- I think you are right; when you meet someone in the flesh, they are infinitely more interesting than a plain old photograph or even a movie. Still, it was hard to know that these girls had a higher opinion of Mrs Thatcher than Meryl Streep. If memory serves correctly, they were all big fans of Audrey Hepburn. But then a lot of people in Japan are.

Kanani said...

Well, Audrey was iconic.
The look, the voice, her beauty. I mean, who doesn't love Audrey? But she also had some depth to her, and perhaps this is something they needed to explore more deeply.
What Meryl does is shift from character to character gracefully, fully slipping into the being of the person she's playing. You don't even realize it's acting, it's done so well!

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- I think it is safe to say that most of my Japanese students were greatly attracted to beauty. I suppose most of us are, in one way or another.

I had a colleague who was a great fan of Meryl Streep. He thought that she was beautiful, but he confessed that it was her acting skill and her ability to do accents well that he really admired. Given that, I really admired HIM.

Paul said...

In my previous life I worked in Whitehall during the 1980s and I met Thatcher among many other politicians. I think the important thing to remember about any of them is that's what they are - politicians. It's their job to be charming and make you want to vote for them, and even if they are speaking to non-voters (e.g. foreign children abroad) they still have an eye for the photo opportunity or soundbite. Every politician I met (bar one, who I won't name as he's no longer with us) was perfectly charming. But underneath it all, they were still politicians!

(P.S. thank you for your comment on my blog, Mary! Much appreciated.)

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you for commenting on my blog, Paul. Your blog looks interesting and I look forward to reading more of it.

In fact, the friend who taught this class said exactly the same thing: she knew Mrs Thatcher was simply turning on the charm. Nevertheless, she was completely taken aback by how convincing her charm was. I think she imagined a rather obnoxious, abrasive, insensitive woman.

Jewell Ertman said...

I would most defiantly be in admiration of her as well. Such a successful women, What Power!!

Phil said...

Enjoyed the read. An almost unbiased opinion of MT must be pretty rare. They say the devil has the best tunes - probably the most charm too.


Mary Witzl said...

Hello, Phil, and thank you for commenting on my blog!

As for unbiased opinions of MT, there was not one single teacher at our school who didn't practically froth at the mouth upon learning that she was going to show up at our school. The reaction was generally "What? Well, I'm not showing up on that day, then, and you can't make me!"

I've noticed that you know a lot of the expressions I grew up with. There are plenty of people who've never heard of that one, believe it or not. Must be our religious backgrounds.