When you think about your young and easily distracted days, sometimes a moment or an object stands out as a vivid memory that helps qualify time and place. I recall being in London at a flat party in the early ‘80s, and everyone was having a grand old time. We were trading our horror stories about growing up in our respective whited sepulchers (I in New York and the rest in London). I was ready to rant and rave against America’s policies – foreign and domestic – and my English friends had no problem confronting the same issues with their government.
What I remember most was not the political conversations (the specifics of which have long since faded from memory) but the unforgettable image of a poster tacked on the wall. It featured U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher being held in the arms of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The poster was fashioned like a movie advertisement, with a mushroom cloud in the background, the title screaming out: Gone with the Wind.
I remember staring at that poster for a long time, fascinated by the obvious and clever connection to the iconic image of Clark Gable (as Rhett Butler) and Vivien Leigh (as Scarlett O’Hara) from the famous American film Gone with the Wind. The imagery evoked the old film poster in such a way as to enhance the humor of the Thatcher-Reagan one. While Rhett and Scarlett’s romance sizzled even with Atlanta burning, Thatcher and Reagan’s did so as well as a nuke went off in the distance.
Fortunately, there was a real world qualifier in the room that I cannot forget either. A fellow named Nigel sat in the corner in his wheelchair smoking a pipe and drinking whiskey. We were all pointing at the poster, chatting about it and laughing, and he seemed to be brooding as he stared blankly across the room at someplace beyond its walls.
I asked my friend Gary, “What’s up with him?”
Gary sipped his bitter and leaned towards me to whisper. “He lost his legs in the Falklands.”
“Oh,” I said, remembering the “war” that took place earlier that year over the disputed islands off the coast of Argentina. I had been in America at the time and thought it odd that we were supporting a colonial power when the Monroe Doctrine supposedly forbade that kind of thing in our hemisphere long ago.
We all stopped our foolish laughter after that and got on with other things. Gary took a Depeche Mode album off the turntable and slipped U2’s Boy onto it. As “I Will Follow” blasted out of the speakers, I turned away from Gary and walked over to Nigel and sat down next to him. “I’m sorry if my laughing about that stupid poster bothered you.”
Nigel stared at me. “It’s not just the bloody poster; it’s that wretched woman!”
“Yes, well, many of us Americans aren’t too happy with Ray-guns either.”
Nigel pointed the wet end of his pipe up at the wall. “You see, you are all laughing about that, but there is a mushroom cloud there. I’m certain the Japanese tourists who see it in the shops in Piccadilly aren’t laughing!”
I nodded but said nothing. Gary came over and sat next to me. Nigel stared off again at the distant place beyond the confines of the flat and said, “The whole thing is not amusing.”
I glanced down at the stumps of his legs, the floppy ends of his jeans hanging over the seat of the wheelchair. I felt compelled to respond so I said, “You’re right; it’s not funny at all.”
The proceedings turned decidedly grim after that, so Gary and I ended up leaving the flat and going down to a pub where we knew everyone. We both ordered a pint and Dexys Midnight Runners were singing “Come On, Eileen” on the jukebox, and everything seemed right with the world at that moment, yet I knew that wasn’t true.
Later that night I walked home the long way along the Thames and stared at the illuminated Big Ben and Parliament, the lighted bulbs along the embankment swaying in the breeze. It was a great photographic moment, but I didn’t have my camera with me. I recalled the poster and Nigel’s reaction to it, and all I could think about was how he said it wasn’t funny and how all of Reagan’s shoot-from-the-hip stuff wasn’t humorous to me either.