Glenda Jackson on stump is different kind of race

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

March 26, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- At least I expected Glenda Jackson to be beautiful, but she wasn't.

And she had no aura, no presence. I had expected that, too.

She is bony thin; and tends to black suits that emphasize her fragility. Her hair is short and lank. She wears no makeup, and her skin has a muddy look. She has English teeth.

On a cool evening at the Haverstock School, she was being adopted by the Labor Party as its candidate for the House of Commons seat representing Hampstead and Highgate, a bookish and artsy upper-middle-class neighborhood in north London.

She is running against a Conservative disciple of Margaret Thatcher. His name is Oliver Letwin, and since he is one of the originators of the hated poll tax, Ms. Jackson can be expected to beat him over the head with it.

When she emerged from the back room, the several hundred party officials and supporters broke into applause. Music began: something stately, very English. It continued until she reached the stage.

She sat with her hands on her knees. She smiled a lot, quickly, nervously, and brushed her hair back over her ears repeatedly. She gave the impression of someone happy to be there, but uncomfortable.

Frank Dobson, already the member of Parliament for Holburn and St. Pancras, enumerated the failings of the Conservatives, as he saw them. He refered to the Tories as "the enemy," not the opposition, signaling how seriously some people are taking this election.

Then Ms. Jackson read a short speech. Continuing the theme of her colleague, she said: "This election is the most vital since the Second World War."

It was after the war that a Labor government established the PTC welfare state in Britain, which the Conservatives have been slowly dismantling since they came to power behind Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Ms. Jackson spoke with the kind of New Jerusalem rhetoric favored by the architects of the welfare state, people convinced that after the sacrifices of two wars, the British people were owed a reward in terms of better housing, national health, and other social services.

She herself benefited from it and is loyal to its purposes. She is thedaughter of a bricklayer and a charwoman, and she won a student grant to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Had she not, there would have been no theatrical career.

Her speech had a moral tone; she seemed genuinely outraged at the work of the Thatcherites. It was enthusiastic but not passionate, and the only hint of her years on the stage was her ability to reach those in the more distant seats of the hall without any apparent effort, and without shouting.

When she finished there was a detonation of applause; it hurt the ears. Somebody waved a flag. She seemed slightly embarrassed by the evidence of her popularity. Then she and Mr. Dobson left the stage for a small room to meet reporters.

She was very calm then, not fidgety as she had been on stage. She admitted she had been nervous out there. She said she would give up the theater and movies if elected. "If I win I will. I will have to end it."

And if you lose?

"Impossible."

I asked if she really meant it when she said this was the most important election since the war. It was the trigger question. Suddenly, the real Glenda Jackson appeared, all controlled rage and high emotion. The familiar spirit came forth, that which so illuminated the women she played in "A Touch of Class" and "Women in Love." Her words flew like hammers:

"What is being struggled for here is for the soul of the nation, and an answer to the question of whether we have lost all decency," she said.

"The market forces so worshiped by the Conservatives," she said, "have simply failed our country." She projected an intimidating certitude.

She pressed on. "They have tried to tell us that greed is some kind of doughty self-reliance. They have perversely tried to convince us that virtue is vice and vice is virtue."

She went on just a little longer, then abruptly stopped and asked, "Is that enough? Is the question answered?"

She looked so beautiful then, sitting there, all aglow in her own aura. What a presence!

I felt sorry for her opponent, or enemy.

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