Top girl

by Julian Meyrick

'The best man in England.' Ronald Reagan on Margaret Thatcher

'For £3 million you could give everyone in Scotland a shovel to dig a hole so deep
we could hand her over to Satan in person.'
Frankie Boyle


 CARYL CHURCHILL'S AWARD-WINNING play Top Girls, was first staged at London's Royal Court Theatre in August 1982. It is regarded as a seminal contribution to the leftwing drama of the period. Its central character, Marlene, is appointed CEO of an employment agency over a male rival, who expected the job as his right. Marlene's determination to succeed is relentless and, in the context of second-wave feminism, ground breaking. But when her no-prospects teenage niece visits from the Midlands, Marlene's working class roots reassert themselves, turning the play into a parable of political choice: of Thatcherism and its swingeing, bitter, eschatonic economic reforms. In 2012, it was revived by Melbourne Theatre Company. I saw both the original production and the revival and…

…really, I'm still there. Standing half frozen in loveless, slithery, intestinal streets. Cramming into mephitic, rush-hour Routemaster buses, fags in one pocket, asthma spray in the other. Eating crap food in spectral parts of London I had not known existed, though I lived there twenty-five years.

I've been in Australia for twenty-five years now. So this was a mid-point in my life, a hinge, a pivot, around which my fate swung like a field gate. When I got to Sydney in 1987, I knew I had avoided something that without doubt would have destroyed me. Somewhere in my soul must have been that quality I most despise: a survivor's instinct. When bad things happen and we run away, what honour in that? What meaning and hope in that? I ran and I came here. I wonder if my life since hasn't been long atonement for that one moment of hasty retreat. Because, of course, most stayed.

It was a time of ultimate, relentless, demeaning dislocation. Everything torn from its natural place, socket from bone, in chronic, painful fashion. I had just finished university, had been to and come back from the US. My father had died five years before – my father, the chief executive wrangling with the unions in the 1970s, who did not live to see them broken a decade later.

I was mentally ill, wandering the city trying to cope with a sucking parasite in my brain, ripping my thoughts to pieces, consuming them and vomiting them out in dark, paranoid gushes. But, then, the whole country was like that. A period of structural adjustment. Meaning: the life you knew was gone. This is the world now: unemployment, squalor and self-loathing. A new misery for a new class of loser. As the north of England shut down, people came south looking for work. London went from a city of twelve million people, to a city of sixteen million, haemorrhaging crushed-looking, hopeless-looking, execrated young men.

In 1983, thanks to the gerrymander, the Falklands War and a chronically divided Labour Party, the Thatcher government was returned to power in an election landslide with just 42 per cent of the popular vote. Words cannot do justice to the fine grades of hopelessness allotted to daily existence after that. 'I wander through each chartered street/Near where the chartered Thames does flow/And mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe.' The lines of William Blake a century before still resonated.

Somewhere in the distance was a group called 'the winners', of which I was supposedly one. But I fell. And if you fell at this time, you fell all the way down, disappearing into a soundless, sightless pipe of non-existence. If I had stayed in London I would have ended up on the street. This wasn't my fear, it was my destination. After a while the street was the only thing that made any sense.

THATCHER. T-h-a-t-C-H-E-R. THE name rings like metal on cold stone. How we hated her! An ecstasy of loathing, a never-ending plume of vocalised disgust. The Iron Lady. Gloriana. Attila the Hen. That Bloody Woman (TBW). Maggie the Bitch. The industrial chemist with the cement chiffon and the treacly tones of a third-rate torturer, trained, I later discovered, by the National Theatre's voice coach, courtesy of Sir Laurence Olivier.

Like Caryl Churchill's Marlene, she was an outsider on three counts: class, gender and regional origins. 'She began to ascend the political ladder,' says political scientist Anthony King 'at a time when the Conservative Party had changed scarcely at all since the nineteenth century. Merely to list the respects in which Thatcher deviated from the Tory norms of her generation is to appreciate what a remarkable career hers was.' Thatcher, typically, was pithier: 'I offended on many counts.'

We scrutinised her Cabinet with an eye for detail hitherto reserved for soccer teams and rock bands. Each Minister had inverted film star status: upper-crust Keith Joseph and his monetarist nostrums; Norman 'on-yer-bike' Tebbit, the yob from Chingford; Billy Bunter-ish Geoffrey Howe, whose resignation sunk her in the end, publicly humiliated once too often by a PM who did not care for soft, fat men, even those who had been inordinately loyal; the Plastic Challenger, Michael 'Tarzan' Heseltine; and the eyes-Right rest: Portillo, Carrington, Lawson, Neave, Whitelaw, Brittan. A woman surrounded by men, she ruled her male seraglio with preachy words and steely convictions. 'Perhaps because her first and greatest hero was her father, Margaret benefited from the emancipation of women without showing the slightest interest in it,' suggests Charles Moore, her official biographer. 'In eleven and a half years as prime minister she brought only one woman into her Cabinet and she did not last long. The handshake Mrs Thatcher extended to women was like a wrestling move: she would grab her opponent and pull her as hard as she could out of the way to get to the man next to her.'

During the 1970s, Thatcher was a One Nation wet under Ted Heath, the Rotarian toastmaster the unions chewed up and spat out barely breaking a sweat. England was 'the basket case of Europe', sour and duffle-coated, with three-day weeks, power cuts and endless industrial disputes. Postal strikes. Miners' strikes. Dustmen strikes, piles of trash ten feet high decomposing in decomposing streets. Thatcher as secretary for education clashing with teachers over minor reforms ('Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher').

Then came the thaumaturgical wonderworking of Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman, the Centre for Policy Studies and nationalist critiques of 'actually existing socialism'. Keith Joseph made a speech about the lamentable tendency of poor people to breed too much and revealed himself unfit for leadership. Thatcher became Heath's challenger, then his successor, then Britain's first female prime minister, the words of St. Francis of Assisi on her lips: where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error may we bring truth.

The ironic result, we know: deregulation, privatisation, taxation reform, union reform, the Big Bang; three million unemployed but inflation down, thank God. Casino capitalism and Romford market ethics began their soul-corrupting changes. 'The zero-sum logic of monetarism enabled the concentration of capital wealth at home and the expansion of British investment in the global market,' according to cultural historian Paul Smith. 'Monetarist policies became the basis for the massive increase in financial speculation and profiteering that radically altered the everyday practices of millions of people.'

ABOVE ALL, THATCHER was rude, openly, unapologetically rude, lowering the tone of partisan discourse as she aggressively struck the heads of those who stood in the way. Out went the politics of consensus, in came the politics of conflict – and they have stayed in. Though the world's problems have ticked into a new orbit, the verbal nastiness of Thatcher at her performative worst remains the mark of what we consider strong leadership. All conciliation is compromise, all empathy weakness. Conviction politicians don't negotiate, they kick butt, as Maggie kicked butt, letting nothing stand in her path, not the unions, not her own party, not Argentina. Running to the Reader's Digest World Atlas. What are they called again? Finding them only with difficulty and a magnifying glass: the Falklands islands. Population: mostly sheep. Main occupation: eating grass. Next, 'Gotcha' and the polls skyrocket. Now that's a leader.

'Thatcher's purposes were radical. Most of those she dealt with were ultra-cautious. It followed she must be radical in her methods as well. Only thus could she achieve her ends. She chose the role she would play,' says Anthony King.

I knew what she was from the off. The same as Reagan in the US, him with a smile that would wither a missionary's faith: an actor. In the end, that's what she was truly good at: playing a part. She could suit harsh words to harsh deeds in a manner that was publicly convincing. A period of structural adjustment. Whole towns closed down, fuck the poor, reward the rich, reward most the want-to-get-rich, the b(w)ankers and the st(c)ock b(st)rokers, the chancers, the spivs, and the barrow boys in the City, once selling oranges now flogging long-maturity non-convertible bonds and a little insider information.

That's why it had to be a woman, a Top Girl like Marlene. Given all that Maggie represented, all those long, bitter years of gender struggle, it was genius casting. Being a woman you knew there was no going back. Being a woman you knew she meant it.

'AN ANGRY, WITTY frontline report on Britain,' as Irving Wardle wrote in The Times.

Top Girls holds to a classic three-act narrative structure devoid of classic three-act narrative content. Its opening is a long, dream-like dinner scene set in a London restaurant at which famous women from history, mythology and fiction meet up to celebrate Marlene's career success. It's a technical tour de force of overlapping dialogue and elliptical thematic development, a pathfinder model for the 'in-yer-face' drama of the following decade. One by one the guests arrive: Pope Joan, the legendary pontiff who hid her identity as a woman until unexpectedly giving birth in the middle of a religious ceremony; Lady Nijo, the concubine of a thirteenth century Japanese Emperor and a renowned Buddhist nun; Dull Gret, the heroine of the Breughel painting of the same name, who led an army of women into Hell to fight the devil; Isabella Bird, assured Victorian-era world traveller; and Patient Griselda, from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, who endured unimaginable hurt at the hands of her aristocratic husband as a test of her obedience and love.

Top Girls is sometimes portrayed as a thesis play about contemporary feminisms, a schematic examination of the post-liberation political spectrum. This is a category mistake. Top Girls is not 'about' politics in an illustrative sense, a neat Brechtian Lehrstück with dovetailed logic and instructive conclusion. It is a complex, burning, infernal maze, a rush into the contradictions of neo-con capitalism as mad as Dull Gret's dash into Hell. Churchill's play is to political argument what a car crash is to road statistics: a violent example of the problem, fateful in the irreducibility of its data.

As the women share their stories, there is no attempt to shape the conversation in parabolic manner, no spin, no forcing of solutions. Bad behaviour, abject behaviour, regret, irony, obliviousness, crudeness, rudeness and selfishness wash through and around their accounts of struggle and heroic achievement. The chief dramatic value of Top Girls is this unsparing, open-eyed honesty, and the dinner scene points the way. The women talk, but Marlene, beyond greeting her famous friends as they arrive, does not talk. Her job, like the audience, is to listen.

Top Girls is celebrated for its surreal opening act, but it is the one following that does the work of framing contemporary reality – the Age of Thatcher. Little is shown directly, but what is shown sits on the razor-wire divide between naturalism and allegory. There is constant, subtle invocation of wider context, of truths and tales not represented yet ineluctably present, in virtual form. Like Doctor Who's TARDIS, the play is bigger on its associative inside than on its explicit outside. So careful are Churchill's dramatic choices that their evidentiary value powerfully accumulates. Top Girls has all the force of a case study.

At the employment agency, Marlene works with two female colleagues, Win and Nell, and an unseen male rival, Howard. In a pepper-spray of interviews with prospective clients, we see a range of contemporary woman and hear about their problems and ambitions. There is Louise, older and competent to a fault, who has progressed the careers of dozens of men – and a few new-style women too – without advancing her own. Shona is younger, brassier, after everything she can get and more, boasting of her glamorous life as a travelling saleswoman – though it turns out everything she says is a lie. And there is Howard's wife, come to plead her husband's cause in a mixture of fright and fury, and tell Marlene she should stand aside from a 'man's job'. When Marlene realises what she's being asked, she is forthright in her response: 'Piss off!'Later, Howard has a heart attack and Nell remarks: 'Lucky he didn't get the job if that's what his health is like.'

In an era of performance indicators and benchmark outcomes, the algorithms of profit are, at first blush, indifferent to gender. There are winners and losers; some of the former are women, some of the latter are men. Marlene and her colleagues are comfortable with this fact and more than ready to accept its consequences.

When Angie appears, then, it's as if she is from an entirely different play. She is one of the least likeable of Churchill's characters, 'stupid, lazy and frightened', in the words of her mother, Joyce. She hates Joyce, and wants to kill her. She bosses around her younger friend, Kit, to no particular purpose. She is obsessed with Marlene, her glamorous London-based aunt, and runs away to see her. In the middle of the second act she turns up at the agency unannounced, a blow-in from another planet, fastening herself onto Marlene without any idea of what she wants from the relationship, or how much of an encumbrance she represents. Marlene's judgment on Angie is less bombastic than Joyce's, but more deadly: 'She's not going to make it'. Angie is a loser in a world interested only in winners, lumpenproletariat, the indigestible, un-upgradeable, needy part Britain turned its face away from; the cost of Thatcher's 'revolution'.

I THINK BACK and memories tumble out like bodies from a cupboard. I remember:

Standing in a deserted South Peckham housing estate, on a bone-white winter's night, hefting an antique electric typewriter I had just bought, but could hardly lift. This, an area the buses wouldn't go after 8 pm. Blocks of apartments loom like soulless giants. How did I get there? I have no idea.

Being chased by a gang of black men in Brixton. I'm coming back from work, late at night. They follow me off the train and jump me near the station. I run into the road knowing that if they catch me I'll be seriously hurt or killed.

Lining up to catch the Drain, the rickety, Victorian-era tube that runs from Waterloo to the City. It's a queue three rows thick and covers the entire platform. It's completely orderly, relaxed even. Everyone in their own greed-obsessed hell.

Visiting a friend in Edmonton, North London, the day after the 1986 riots. I arrive at Seven Sisters. Dead-eyed doorways and blackened windows stare back, burnt out and vacant. The city seethes with barely restrained anger.

Squatting in an abandoned pub in Custom House, East London. The area is a vast rubbly, inner-urban wasteland. Decrepit reminders of London as a once-busy port lie everywhere: mouldy signage, collapsing docks, nautical detritus. The pub, a listed building, is the only whole one left. After a few weeks I become aware of what I can only describe as a Resident Evil. I find an old diary and discover the pub was an illegal brothel. When the police came to arrest the man running it, he hanged himself in the room I am sleeping in.

Walking through London. To the north, up through the Greater Union canal. To the east, out past then-undeveloped Canary Wharf, and Cinnamon Wharf, the sweet smell of spice dating from the fourteenth century. To the south, through Lewisham and Catford, where taxi drivers keep hammers under their seats. To the west, my part of London, to the gentrified ease of Tudor parklands and polite Windsor pubs.

I WAS MYSELF, at the time, a 'top girl'. I taught myself to type at university. Later I was shown how to use a word processor by a secretarial agency that, uniquely, didn't mind hiring a man. Tanya, a busty Australian with a bossy manner, ran me; offices in Oxford Street, right in the heart of the false, lying, toxic pizzazz of the 'economic miracle'. At first, I worked in a typing pool. We used carbon paper. I sat in a room with about forty women, in front of an electric typewriter that could 'remember' one line at a time. You'd type the line, press a button, and the machine would write it out. When you finished a document, you took it to the front where a supervisor checked it, approved it or sent it back to be corrected. If it was approved, you separated the differently coloured copies and filed them in different trays. Two tea-breaks a day, twenty minutes each, and an hour for lunch. Later, I worked for an executive who had seen off every secretary he'd been assigned. Tanya said, 'you go', throwing me in as a desperate measure. He was taken aback when he saw me, a man. He was a bully of the sort I knew from school, was almost certainly gay. Here was something I recognised from my old life. I got all sorts of jobs after that.

Through everything – the illness, the wanderings, the riots – I was constantly going to the theatre, especially to the Royal Court, the home of new British drama. Top Girls, Fen and Serious Money, all Churchill plays,are the pillars holding up this bit of my past. Top Girls and Fen appeared while I was still at university. Serious Money premiered just before I left for Australia. It was supposed to be a searing condemnation of the avarice of The City, in mock-Jacobean blank verse. Squadrons of traders and bankers bought up the tickets. They loved it. For them, it was a celebration of the energy of The City. Churchill didn't write plays for a while after that.

I am working in the City, on the highest floor of a state-of-the-art new office block. It has everything: kitchen, gym, subsidised restaurant, etc. I live in a bubble, rubbing shoulders with people who earn FABULOUS SUMS and obviously expect me, at some point, to join them. My brain is an over-heated rat, slowly expiring. I am more or less frozen, emotionally and sexually, and have been since my father's unexpected death. There's another secretary in my office. She's great! Really funny and lovely and nice. She likes me too. But she's from a different class and nothing happens between us. Plus ça change…

I am approached by someone living on the streets, an older man. He wants money. At this time I spend a lot of time talking to bums. I was a better person, then, in all the ways that matter. But I suspect he will drink it away, so I offer to buy him lunch instead. He's conflicted, but eventually says yes. We sit in a shitty cafe and he looks down at his sandwich and asks, 'do you mind if I take my teeth out?' He eats the sandwich without his dentures and tells me a long, rambling story about someone who locks himself in a car and drives into the Thames. Towards the end I realise he is talking about his brother. I am paralysed by horror, caught up in an ancient tragedy, a terrible, perilous narrative in which the protagonist, this man, loses everything and everyone he's ever loved.

I have to escape.

My mother tells me that because she never surrendered her Australian passport I am, incredibly, an Australian. My friends say, 'You'll be back in a week'. But I know I won't. There's a sign on the side of the local pub, luminescent blue, punching through the bleak winter light: Take Courage. I nurture my plan to 'get out' and borrow £400 from my barrister cousin to do so. I buy a one-way ticket, Olympia Airlines. It doesn't have a non-smoking section, but it does have one where you can't smoke cigars! I throw a party to say goodbye to my friends. One beautiful couple I am especially close to, him Hindu, her Muslim, arrive together but tell me they have decided to split up. Family pressures, religious pressures, London. Always in our hearts, our blood. Thatcher's London killed their love.

I saw the kings of London town,

The kings that buy and sell,

That built it up with penny loaves

And penny lies as well.

And where the streets were paved with gold the shrivelled paper

shone for gold,

The scorching light of promises that pave the streets of hell.

– The Old Song, C K Chesterton

THATCHER WASN'T ALL bad. She broke the 'old boy' hold over the Conservative Party; supported the legalisation of abortion and the decriminalisation of homosexuality; initiated the hand-back of Hong Kong to China; kick-started peace talks in Northern Ireland (not generally acknowledged); was a friend to Israel but condemned the bombing of Osirak; and was right to be sceptical, it turns out, of the benefits of a unified European currency.

Most of all, she was a woman leader in a man's world and by being so, ruthlessly and successfully, ensured it no longer remained a man's world – at least to the same extent. After her, everything was changed. Her downfall over the vastly unpopular, much-rioted-against Poll Tax in 1990 was a moving on, not a moving away. She'd done her job. Britain had been Thatchered. Labour lost its left-wing edge. The financial sector claimed its place at the top of the economic pyramid. The country opened up to the best and the worst the free market had to offer, its radical equivalences and erstwhile merit-based opportunities.

I could tell another story, about my mother, a television producer who had to beg her way into a closed shop workplace by pretending to be a deserted wife with three children to support; who stoically endured a succession of incompetent, patronising, self-serving male bosses reliant on her for the completion of work they themselves could only bungle. When she was retrenched the union abandoned her, having sworn blind they would not, and she fought them all: management, union, government, battling on, like Maggie, until she won through, not only for herself, but for her colleagues as well.

After my father's death she no longer had to pretend to be a single parent. She knotted her grief into a tight, unspoken ball and charged ahead, achieving the promotion she long deserved, banishing the condescending overtones of the slight de jour, 'career woman'. In this she thought of herself not as special, but as representative. It is this framing that gives second-wave feminism a universal value, something that, at its best, enlarged us all, men and women, young and old, those who remember the 1980s, and those who live with its consequences. 'Margaret Thatcher was, is and always will be a legendary figure. For some, she is the wicked witch of selfishness and privilege. For many more, she is a symbol of what women can do, what the British character can be, what the English-speaking peoples stand for, and what conservatism at its best is,' biographer Charles Moore concludes.

There are no male characters in Top Girls but they are often a topic of discussion. Like the women who we do see, they are a mixed lot, good, bad, indifferent, boring, worthy, sexy, false. The last scene is set a year before the play notionally begins, with Marlene paying an irregular visit to her sister. Where Joyce lives is not specified. But it may confidently be characterised as 'not-London', a geographic expanse of de-industrialised privation stretching north of the Watford Gap. Perhaps it is East Anglia, Churchill's own county.

Like the opening, the finale is extended. But this time the action is in the realist register, as the sisters battle each other and their own impossible feelings. Marlene has 'escaped' her hometown and her class origins. Joyce stayed put and ekes out a living with a clutch of cleaning jobs. Marlene regards with disgust their parents' marriage in which her drunken father regularly bashed her mother. Joyce counters that he himself was treated little better, 'working in the fields, like an animal'. For Marlene, Thatcher's Britain represents a new horizon of self-actualising possibility. For Joyce nothing has changed, save for the worse. They cannot win each other over, the gap between their experiences and belief systems is too great. But they are, for all that, still kin, bound by a shared history and sensibility.

By more than that, it turns out. The last revelation is the most devastating, and the most confounding of all pat political opinion. When she was younger, Marlene fell pregnant and Joyce adopted her child. Angie is Marlene's daughter.

NOW WHEN I wake in the night the old panic returns, though the London that once provoked it has long since vanished, is a distant memory even for those who still live there. I look in the mirror and see a round, small-featured face. In my twenties, I was often mistaken for a woman, and though I am older and more lined, the air of gender ambiguity remains. When I am rehearsing actors we sometimes play a game imagining characters' future lives, after the dramatic action is over. Where are Marlene and Joyce now? What happened to Angie?

These questions are not real ones, I know. Yet they will not let me go.



References

Churchill, Caryl (1982). 'Top Girls'. Methuen in association with the Royal Court Theatre. London.

King, Anthony (2002). 'The Outsider as Political Leader: The Case of Margaret Thatcher.' British Journal of Political Science. 32/3 (Jul.)

Moore, Charles (2011). 'The Invincible Mrs Thatcher'. Vanity Fair. (Dec.)

Smith, Paul (2002). 'Thatcher and After'. Social Text. 43. (Autumn).

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 40: WOMEN & POWER © Copyright Griffith University & the author.