The “Help Yourself Society” (Book Three, Part 20: St. Swithin’s Day, The New Adventures of Hitler)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alongside their success in the US market, Morrison pursued more personal and idiosyncratic work in the UK market, including the Thatcher assassination fantasy St. Swithin’s Day. Thatcher, btw, was bad.
Damned to the “help yourself society”—where the strong help themselves to whatever they want and the weak are left to help themselves. – Jamie Delano, Hellblazer
Her premiership was marked by a similar severity to her political rise; her economic policy enthusiastically embraced the monetary politics that had enchanted her at university, slashing public spending alongside taxes and privatising large swaths of industry. She was a vehement opponent of unions, successfully breaking the back of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers over the course of the 1984-85 strike. In terms of foreign relations, she fought a war against Argentina for a couple old colonial possessions, was an adamant enabler of South Africa’s apartheid regime, and was a firm supporter of murderous Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Finally, in 1990, after more than twelve years running the country, she fell. With approval ratings softened by simply fatigue and then bludgeoned by her proposal to replace a property tax with a poll tax to be levied equally on all citizens, effectively shifting a huge quantity of tax burden away from wealthy property owners and onto the poor while simultaneously discouraging them from voting (as voter rolls were used to determine who owed the tax), Thatcher was wounded going into 1990. In November, following the furious resignation of Geoffrey Howe, prompting Michael Heseltine to mount a leadership challenge. After a narrow win on the first ballot, Thatcher was advised by her cabinet to resign, and on November 28th she resigned, leaving Downing Street in tears.
All of this adds up to a horrible legacy, to be sure, but it is not markedly worse than any of the other right-wing governments of the 1980s. It does not serve to explain the full psychic weight she pressed upon Britain in the 1980s. No shortage of more colorful accounts exist—Warren Ellis’s account of how “we would look out of the window every morning to make sure the bitch hadn’t put Daleks on the streets yet” and his account of 1980s Britain in Planetary where he described her as “genuinely mad” and noted the “feminists and women’s studies theorists who denied she was even really a woman anymore, she was so far out of her tree” are both minor classics of the genre, and the subgenre of pop songs fantasizing about Margaret Thatcher is a rich one. But again, these exist of any right-wing politician—Frank Miller’s depiction of Ronald Reagan in The Dark Knight Returns is no less vicious in its parodicism. The horror of Thatcher is not captured in angry parodies of her.
No, the awful heart of Thatcher is simpler than that. There were no shortage of conservative politicians of the 1980s, but there were few who were came to conservative politics out of as fundamentally ideological a commitment as her. Most terrible conservative politicians have a fundamental disingenuousness about their politics; the ideologies they trumpet blatantly serve as masks for craven greed or outright white supremacism, existing to be quietly discarded when and if they contradict with these real goals. They seek to enrich themselves, their friends and donors, or simply out of a bilious rage and vicious desire to hurt people. This does not make them more or less dangerous; it is simply a thing that is generally true about conservative ideology.
Thatcher, on the other hand, appears for all the world to have been a true believer. She really was a firm believer in the Austrian School theory that captivated her at Oxford. She genuinely thought that economic freedom was the most important freedom. It is a peculiarly middle class delusion—a vision of the world that treats what Marx called the petite bourgeoisie as the heart and soul of existence. It is tempting, especially in the face of the knowledge that many of the thinkers and politicians she was influenced by were really just pushing beliefs that would further enable white supremacy, to view her as a sort of hapless dupe, fooled by an ideology that was obviously never actually presented with any sincerity. But this flounders in the face of the evident glee she took in her unwavering zeal for her ideology. Her “Iron Lady’ moniker, her “this lady’s not for turning” speech, her steadfast embrace of her own reputation for stubborn inflexibility, all of this constituted an absolute disinterest in the possibility of error.
More broadly, there are always difficulties in grappling with the humanity of people who find themselves in the driver’s seat of a historical narrative. It is not that Thatcher became wholly divorced from human concerns; she had desires, sorrows, loves, resentments, joys, and the rest. Perhaps at some level of abstraction and raw power one’s humanity ceases to be relevant at all, but that threshold is far beyond “leader of a fading global power,” and indeed past even “comics-writing wizard.” But like Moore and Morrison, Thatcher found herself possessed by concerns that went beyond the human. She became an avatar of a concept—an abstract tendency—who acted in ways that went beyond mere human motivation.
It is this aspect of her that explains her textual role in St. Swithin’s Day, and indeed explains a large swath of Morrison’s early work. Much of Morrison’s early work has focused on, as they described it when writing about Zoids, “how it felt to be part of a group of ordinary people trapped between the titanic struggles of very large opponents who couldn’t care less about your hobbies or your favorite books.” And it was apparent in their take on continuity revisions in Animal Man, where the concern was not on the metaphysical ramifications but on what it’s like to be declared obsolete or no longer relevant. As a countercultural punk in Scotland—one of the regions most savaged by her economic policies—they were firmly among the people excluded from Thatcher’s monomaniacal focus on unregulated capitalism. Their life was one of those being erased in her pursuit of corporate profits.
In this regard, Thatcher was an existential concern more than a set of policies. She was the monstrous presence at the heart of the system that caused all of the isolation and pain they so perfectly captured in St. Swithin’s Day. The boy in St. Swithin’s Day even expresses as much as he approaches to do the deed, thinking, “They won’t see me. Nobody’s EVER seen me. Nobody ever noticed. Nobody ever cared. And it’s HER fault it’s always raining!” The final sentence there is not a non sequitur from a deranged and unreliable narrator, but a statement of a larger and more magical truth—that Thatcher was why the world sucked and had no place for a self-proclaimed neurotic boy outsider. When the boy finally walks up to Thatcher and draws his gun, however, it is revealed to not exist—he simply holds his fingers extended, thumb raised in the air, and says “bang.” Thatcher’s security tackles him of course, breaking his tooth, pushing his face into the rain-soaked ground, as he reflects, “Worth it. It was WORTH it. It was worth it just to see her SCARED…” And that’s it—a tale revealed to have only ever been a small, intimate story of one teenager’s alienation. St. Swithin’s Day is human and emotional to the end,.
Nevertheless the book sparked a furor upon its publication in a £1.50 omnibus edition, finding itself on the receiving end of The Sun’s capacity for whipping up a moral panic when, on March 19th, 1990 it ran an article headlined “‘Death to Maggie’ Book Sparks Tory Uproar.” The article is an efficient masterpiece of performative outrage. ‘A comic book about a crazed teenager who tries to assassinate Margaret Thatcher was branded as ‘despicable’ last night,” it begins, declining to note at all that the comic does not depict an actual assassination effort, even as it describes how “The youth is killed by secret service bodyguards as he confronts Mrs. Thatcher—but says with his dying breath: ‘It was worth it just to see her scared.’” (That the boy dies at the end is a slightly strained interpretation—there’s a white panel as he’s pushed to the ground, which doesn’t especially seem like it should kill him, and then the comic cuts to him on a train for some final reflections, which admittedly does feel vaguely dreamlike and unreal. On the whole, it’s ultimately no more strained than Morrison’s “Batman kills the Joker” reading of Batman: The Killing Joke.) Tory MP Teddy Taylor is quoted declaring, “I am astonished and appalled. This is in the worst possible taste—utterly despicable,” while Morrison, described as having written “a Batman spoof portraying the Caped Crusader as a psycho,” gets to close the article by clarifying, “I do not think anyone needs to shoot Mrs. Thatcher. She is on her way out of government because of the Poll Tax.” Indeed, eight months later she was, while Morrison had cheerily moved on to other things.
Morrison’s drolly assured demeanor in that article was helped, no doubt, by the fact that this was their second time dealing with a big press furor over a book. The first came on the back of their other big anti-Thatcher project of the period, The New Adventures of Hitler, which launched in Scottish arts magazine Cut the month before St. Swithin’s Day began in Trident. A collaboration with their Zenith artist Steve Yeowell, The New Adventures of Hitler was a bitterly satirical strip based on the claims of Bridget Dowling, who was for five years married to Alois Hitler Jr., Adolf Hitler’s half-brother, that for six months from November 1912 to April 1914 Adolf had been a lodger at their house in Liverpool. These claims are almost certainly fanciful—no corroborating evidence has ever been found, while evidence that Hitler was, as is generally believed, in Vienna during that period exists. Nevertheless the idea that Hitler spent six months in Britain in his 20s appealed to the popular imagination. In 1978, Beryl Bainbridge penned a novel Young Adolf that imagined these months of Hitler’s life, imagining a series of outlandish and embarrassing mishaps to explain why, at the end, a departing Hitler vows that “never in all my life… under torture or interrogation, will I mention that I have been to this accursed city, visited this lunatic island.” In 1981 the book was adapted for television, while 1980 saw John Antrobus’s play Hitler in Liverpool performed—a darker and more somber take on the idea.
Morrison’s take on the material is, characteristically, aggressively weird, seeing Hitler wandering through Liverpool searching for the Holy Grail while imagining things like that Morrissey is in his closet singing “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” (Later he sees John Lennon singing “Working Class Hero,” so it’s not just that he sees fascist musicians.) This hallucinatory and obviously quite mad quest is presented as a sort of origin story for Hitler’s rise; the story begins with Hitler vowing, “Tomorrow, definitely tomorrow. Tomorrow I will be famous,” and ends when he finds the holy grail (an overflowing toilet) and has a vision of his future, finally leaving England with a vow that he shall someday return.
Morrison’s suggestion, however, is not simply that Hitler found inspiration in Britain, but rather that he found inspiration in some essential part of the British psyche. Throughout the comic Hitler is guided by a figure named John Bull, a grotesque embodiment of the British spirit who offers him guide to being a tyrant. (“It’s all in here: Ireland in 1797. Peterloo in 1810. India and North Africa and the Boer War. We’ve tortured and tyrannised more micks, proles, and darkies than you’ve had hot shits, my lad.”) The suggestion, in other words, is that Hitler represented a sort of apotheosis of Britishness—that he was in a sense more British than Britain could be. Or, perhaps more accurately, more British than British could have been in the 1940s, the clear implication being that parity was finally achieved in the 1980s. As Morrison put it, “the real New Adventures are those currently being undertaken by the Tory Government,” a point underlied in a sequence where John Bull proclaims that “this bloody country’s gone to the dogs since Victoria died. That’s what this country needs: a mad vicious bitch in the driving seat. It’s always been the same. Since Boadicea” while an image of Margaret Thatcher is superimposed on the background.
It’s not subtle, but that’s very much the point. The New Adventures of Hitler is Morrison at their most impish and confrontational—the impish and imprudent figure that wrote Zenith turning that ability onto Thatcher’s government instead of onto making transphobic jokes about superheroes. There’s undoubtedly a thrill in juvenile transgressiveness in the strip—the reveal that the holy grail (at least within Hitler’s delusions) is a shit-clogged toilet is only one example. But it’s an effective sort of juvenile transgressiveness, demonstrating that literal toilet humor, poorly deployed as it often is, can be wielded effectively as well. And, of course, it’s notable that Morrison’s underlying analysis of Thatcher was rooted in valid points; a sequence in which Hitler furiously outlines his plan for world domination to his baffled brother, explaining that first you “weaken and then destroy the influence of the Marxist trades unions” and then “create and maintain a healthy middle class by encouraging small traders and personal enterprise” works equally well as a description of HItler’s economic policies and Thatcher’s. (And of course one must remember that fascism’s core support is always in the middle class from which Thatcher arose.)
But 1989 was a year for Morrison getting what they asked for, and their shock tactics were no exception. [continued]
August 27, 2021 @ 6:44 pm
As someone who grew up in Liverpool in the 1980s, “Thatcher” was the embodiment of everything wrong in Britain – but the problem there was that the pushback was from folk who were equally ideologically extreme (you could look up “Derek Hatton” although I advise you not to), which may partly explain why the UK has never been able to throw off its binary party political system because I suspect that we are, at heart, a nation of masochists who rather like having sadists in charge…