It was the 17th Century English poet John Donne who wrote: “No man is an island … Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
Donne’s oft-quoted meditation came to mind as I contemplated the deaths of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, aged 87, and former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, aged 70, on the same day. No prizes for guessing who got more column inches and television footage: we are still reading and watching stories about the life and times of Mrs Thatcher, while there was the prepared obit of Ms Funicello and a live voiceover, perhaps with sound up of The Mickey Mouse Club Theme. (“Come along and sing our song and join our family: M-I-C K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.” There’s more, but you get the picture! Here’s a link to the song from YouTube if you want to relive the fifties: http://binged.it/16TTThd)
Of course, Mrs Thatcher deserved more coverage: The Iron Lady who tamed the unions, communists and the Argentinians and eventually brought the Labour Party around to her way of thinking. The Grantham grocer’s daughter who became the first female Prime Minister of Britain was as divisive as she was decisive, wiping out jobs in mines and manufacturing, confirming “the lady’s not for turning.” Her long reign gave Conservatives something to gloat about, and Labour and left-wing musicians something to sing and protest about. For the unions, her prime ministership was a winter of discontent that began in 1979 and lasted until she stepped down in 1900.
But how about Ms Funicello? She earned her ears as the most popular Mousketeer in the 1950s, beguiling the anti-communist (like Margaret Thatcher) Walt Disney, who branded former animators and union organisers as communist agitators. She also starred in beach movies in the 1960s, with Frankie Avalon, of Venus fame (“Venus, if you will, please send a little girl for me to thrill…”); and, for male American teenagers, she was the girl next door you wanted to move in with.
Then tragedy struck in 1987; filming Back to the Beach with Avalon, she had trouble walking, and discovered it was Multiple Sclerosis (MS). In 1992, she went public with the condition, and became one of the spokespersons for the illness. She talked about the debilitating effects of MS in her 1994 autobiography, A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes. If you think that sounds like a title for a Disney song from a film, you’re right. It comes from Cinderella.
Many reporters and presenters have used the phrase “divisive in death, as in life” to describe Mrs Thatcher and the protests that have erupted since she died. In fact, security has been stepped up as the anti-Thatcher demonstrators have promised to continue “hate parties” in the streets of London until her military funeral next Wednesday to be attended by the Queen. Protesters have been carrying signs like “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” and chanting: “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Dead, Dead, Dead.” That prompted former Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, to call on people to show some respect. Asked by BBC Radio Ulster if he thought they would celebrate when he died he responded: “When you decide you divide. I think she would be pretty philosophical about it and I hope I will be too.” http://bit.ly/10SzaqX And Tony Blair was not the only Thatcher opponent to call on demonstrators to stop their celebrations. Former Provisional IRA and now Sinn Fein’s deputy First Minister at the Northern Ireland Assembly, Martin McGuiness, said: “She was not a peacemaker but it is a mistake to allow her death to poison our minds.” A friend of Mrs Thatcher, Conor Burns MP, said of the protesters: “The hatred that burns in their hearts is an enormous tribute to Margaret Thatcher. They hate her because she won.”
There will be no protesters at Annette Funicello’s funeral, even those who criticised beach films, Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney, and songs with “dream and wish” in the title (“When you wish upon a star”). And I don’t think anybody hated Annette, even the 23 other Mouseketeers who only got one-tenth of the 8000 fans letters she received every month in her heyday. Her cinematic partner, Frankie Avalon, told Frazier Moore of Associated Press she never realised how loved she was: “She would say, ‘Really?’ She was so bashful about it. She was an amazing girl.” http://bit.ly/14Wigyd
A friend of mine, who’s a big fan of Margaret Thatcher, asked me if I hated the former PM, and I said I didn’t. I first learned of her death watching Q & A on the ABC http://bit.ly/17q7kZp, when Tony Jones broke the usual routine by announcing that she had died, and then asking the all-female panel, including Germaine Greer, Janet Albrechtsen and Mia Freedman, what they thought of Margaret Thatcher. The first to reply was Brooke Magnanti, a research scientist and author of Belle du Jour, her blog diary about working as a call girl in London to fund her university studies. At first she joked: “And me with no champagne.” But then she went on say that people have a slightly different view of Margaret Thatcher than the one Elvis Costello expressed in his song about stamping the dirt down on her grave: “I do think it’s true. I mean we have to remember as well that when Richard Nixon died in the United States people had an enormously different view of him. He went away post-Watergate, came back tanned, rested and ready as an elder statesman and certainly Margaret Thatcher did that extremely effectively. But she has sort of transcended what the policies of her day were to become iconic, either as a figure of hate for the left or a figure of reference for the right.”
I didn’t hate Margaret Thatcher, but I did hate Richard Nixon – the only person I would put in that category. And now I know why – Margaret Thatcher had convictions. She believed all the things she was doing were right, while Richard Nixon believed only in doing whatever it took to get re-elected, even if it was only a third-rate burglary in the Watergate hotel. He may have become an elder statesman to some but he never transcended his paranoia about the media and the left wing. As historian Rick Perlstein puts it in his book, Nixonland (Scribner), “… the demons that consumed him, the demons that led to Watergate, were part of a sincere desire to combat what he believed was truly evil—a battle with which many of the public in some sense identified, who embraced Nixon not despite the anxieties and dreads that drove him, but because of them.” And those who embraced him were the Silent Majority. Many on the left became depressed because those silent Americans couldn’t see what Richard Nixon was really like, and voted for him in droves.
I still do not like Richard Nixon but I could not celebrate his death (though, as I said in a previous blog http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-aL, I do celebrate the day he resigned as president), nor Margaret Thatcher’s. There were a number of Labour MPs, who decided to stay away from a special Parliamentary session paying tribute to Mrs Thatcher. One who did boycott the session, John Healey, said: “Her impact and influence is indisputable, but her legacy is too bitter to warrant this claim to national mourning.” http://bit.ly/YMYjGV
The same could be said of Richard Nixon.
And not to forget Ms Funicello, whose death, like Mrs Thatcher’s, diminishes all of mankind. If you want a bit of nostalgia, go back to the Mickey Mouse Club theme song with Annette singing solo and Cubby and Karen warbling: “Now it’s time to say goodbye to all our family.” But the last word — and tribute — goes to the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Bob Iger, posted on Wikipedia this week http://bit.ly/14ZxnHn:
“Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word Mouseketeer, and a true Disney Legend. She will forever hold a place in our hearts as one of Walt Disney’s brightest stars, delighting an entire generation of baby boomers with her jubilant personality and endless talent. Annette was well known for being as beautiful inside as she was on the outside, and she faced her physical challenges with dignity, bravery and grace. All of us at Disney join with family, friends, and fans around the world in celebrating her extraordinary life.”