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Try to understand my Thatcher. I’ll try to understand yours.

April 11, 2013

I am most definitely not a child of Thatcher. Perhaps few people can claim that, but, through a strange combination of timing and circumstance, I can. When I first came to the UK in 1990, the bulk of the debate on her central policies of privatisation and deregulation, had already taken place here.  It was very much in its infancy back home and didn’t really become the vogue on the rest of the continent until the following decade. Essentially, I took a strange leap in time – from the fierce battle between neoliberalism and socialism, almost straight to the Blair/Major accord which refused to engage in such ideological debate.

I missed the chit-chat. I just saw the effect. I remember the despair I felt when I first witnessed hundreds of people sleeping in Waterloo’s cardboard city – I had never before seen a homeless person. I remember wondering whether I had made a huge mistake in selecting this country as my home, as gay bars in Soho were raided and closed down. I remember laughing with incredulity at a friend telling me her parents were charging her rent for staying at home, before realising she was being serious. I remember the sickening confusion as I watched people beaten to a pulp during the poll tax riots. I remember crying as my father-in-law became bankrupt for the third time in ten years and had to ask us for a loan.

Image

Cardboard City by Stuart Chruchill

 

It is such a collection of unique stimuli which forms the basis for an individual’s reaction to the death of Margaret Thatcher. I am baffled by the refusal of some people to see that; as the experience is different for each of us, so must the reaction be. Your adulation of the woman is as valid or invalid as my deep dislike of her. “Disrespect” is not the expression of a sentiment with which you disagree. “Disrespect” is quite different from attempting to penetrate a bubble of idolatry with dissenting opinion, divergent life experience or inconvenient fact.

I might advance the view that disrespect is reducing a Prime Minister’s political legacy to having “beautiful hands and lovely ankles” rather than Glenda Jackson’s biting critique of her politics. I might advance the view that disrespect is using her death as an opportunity to promote your fashion blog; that disrespect is needlessly interrupting a vital trade mission and recalling Parliament at great expense, when Thatcher herself refused to interrupt such engagements and return, even when her political future hung in the balance.

Saying she was the greatest ever Prime Minister, is not a personal eulogy. It is a political comment on the course of action she pursued while in post. It is not disrespectful to point out that not everyone feels this way. That the parking of millions on sick benefit was a cruel act, the consequences of which reverberate in today’s welfare debate. That the decimation of entire mining communities is directly related to the current discussion of “problem families that have not worked for [insert dramatic number] generations”. That her claim of turning the City into “the financiers of the world” has a direct impact on the magnitude of the 2008 financial crisis with which we still struggle. That her selling off of utility companies gave birth to current discontent about energy companies profiteering and fuel poverty. That her imposition of the poll tax on Scotland a year earlier than the rest of the UK revitalised today’s appetite for an independence referendum. That her attitude to Europe set the deeply adversarial tone with which every subsequent administration has had to contend. That the sinking of the Belgrano was seen by much of the rest of the world as needless loss of life, rather than patriotic act of defiance, and the hostility it engendered is one of the obstacles to forming close trade relations with the developing economies of Latin America.

To respond to these concerns with hysterical pieces claiming “the trendy, left-wing gadflies celebrating Margaret Thatcher’s death would probably be rotting in the Gulag if it wasn’t for the Iron Lady” does not detract from the legitimacy of the view that what is taking place is an evangelically fervent process of beatification and the rewriting of history. It adds to it. Especially coming from the mouths of the same people who, with equal fervour, advocated the benefits of a “raucous, irreverent press” mere days ago.

I had some sympathy for the argument that it is insensitive to speak up on such matters in the immediate aftermath of someone’s death, while those to whom she meant a lot grieve and offer their tributes. But that is not what has largely occurred. What has occurred is a circle-jerk of personal anecdote, engaged in with lachrymose alacrity and for political gain. The text has been in the broad style of “I once saw Dear Margaret in a corridor when I was working as a researcher at the age of 16, I collected the marigold which dropped from her lapel, I have pressed it between the pages of my teenage diary, here it is”. The palpable subtext, meanwhile, has been “we must be brave again, sell anything that is not nailed down, punish the undeserving poor, because it is what She would have wanted”.

Heterodoxy is not heresy. Abstention is not snub. Disagreement is not disrespect. Formulating a strategy for turning someone’s death into a “polls bounce” is. A party cannot claim that she was the last Prime Minister to radically change the direction of travel of this country and simultaneously suggest that where that journey has led is nothing to do with her. A party cannot claim that everything she did was simply perfect and simultaneously deny its own 1990 consensus that she had gone off the rails and the act of political matricide that followed. Your deep guilt and shame over deposing her is not reason enough for all others unquestioningly to allow her posthumous canonisation.

I get it. I just don’t agree.

 

47 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2013 11:04 am

    Reblogged this on Anthony Maxwell and commented:
    I think that the Government has more to apologise for than just Section 28.

  2. April 11, 2013 11:14 am

    Nicely written. There’s nothing disrespectful about telling the truth.

  3. April 11, 2013 11:24 am

    As ever, packed with facts and questions that make your readers think. well written, Alex.

    In the interests of balance, there is still a part of my ‘converted to Anti-Tory’ persona that tells me, that late 70’s Britain, which was in social chaos and economic imbalance, opened the electoral gates for MT’s entry stage right to bring about a minor revolution, which seemed to successfully resolve the immediate issues for the economy and Britain’s standing in the world. Maybe there could have been other ways to resolve those issues, but she did what was necessary in her own way. All the rest is pretty much a bloody disaster.

  4. April 11, 2013 11:28 am

    Reblogged this on My Poetry Library and commented:
    Such is the polarisation of opinion on the subject and so frought with division in the country, for the first time, I am posting this (as a reblog) non-poetic, fairly uncompromising, but eloquently written perspective on Margaret Thatcher’s …

  5. April 11, 2013 11:45 am

    Reblogged this on anoigmatic and commented:
    This!

  6. April 11, 2013 11:50 am

    Your eloquent words describe how many feel. Well done for telling the truth without disrespecting others opinions.

  7. Spencer Allnatt permalink
    April 11, 2013 12:02 pm

    Thank you for a reasoned and balance comment. I also appreciated Glenda Jackson’s excellent offering against some rather yobbish Tory behaviour . I worked in London during T’s vile government and was all to well aware of the divided state of our society which has never fully recovered for many of the reasons you comment on. As the Speaker was quite prepared to do battle against the ludicrous abuse of parliamentary time and cost, it is to the eternal shame of the Labour leadership that they lacked the moral fibre to oppose what to me is a celebration of something particularly disgusting of which any decent Christian society would be ashamed. Ted Heath summed up her attitude as that of ‘the devil take the hindmost’.
    Thank you again
    Spencer

  8. April 11, 2013 12:24 pm

    excellent piece, Alex

  9. April 11, 2013 2:04 pm

    I was surprised at how (comparatively) restrained the comment was on my Twitter timeline immediately after Thatcher’s death. There was in the first few hours, I felt, a sensitivity to the feelings of the immediate family, which was rightly respectful. The attempt to use the cry of ‘disrespect!’ to invalidate any and all critical comment since then – and forever more – shows much less respect; to truth, to intelligence, to history and memory and to those who suffered as a result of her actions in government. So thanks for this; it needed saying.

  10. Linda Palermo permalink
    April 11, 2013 2:17 pm

    Bravo! One small flaw: she didn’t decimate mining communities, a ten per cent cut would have been kind. She destroyed them.

  11. April 11, 2013 2:21 pm

    Really well thought out and written post. So glad John shared this and introduced me to your blog.

  12. Norman wood permalink
    April 11, 2013 2:54 pm

    I agree with every word, thank you.

  13. Lucy Wood permalink
    April 11, 2013 3:24 pm

    Arriving in 1990 puts you at an enormous disadvantage in writing this piece. As PoetJanstie has mentioned, Britain was in a bad way in 1979. The industrial strife that people associate MT with was already happening with a Labour government. You also didn’t see first hand that a large majority of the people were right behind her with regard to the Falklands, hence her greatly increased majority. She’s such a contentious figure that anyone with your strong commitment to the left, or the right, will have difficulty being objective enough to evaluate her legacy. I’m in no doubt that some her policies regarding privatisation, etc, were seriously flawed and her own party eventually felt she was going too far, but on the other hand she gave Britain greater stature internationally and it seems fair to say that she played a part in ending the Cold War via her appreciation that dialogue was possible with Gorbachev. Her critics seem to always ignore this. Your reference to her “beatification and the rewriting of history” illustrates how intolerant commentators on the left can be of anyone who doesn’t completely agree with them. I recently saw this in the way that the left-leaning BBC has been criticised for its “reverential” coverage of MT! You support the legitimate right of people to express their feelings about her, but you fail to point out how repulsive some of the vitriol has been, e.g. from the prominent blogger who said he wished “she’d clung onto life longer if only to prolong her suffering.” To openly celebrate death shows the very lack of humanity that MT’s critics associate her with. Imagine what it would be like to be ruled by such bitter and vengeful people; if only they could take inspiration from Nelson Mandela! Those who insist on hanging on to their identity as permanent ‘victims’ of MT should move on and acknowledge that we have had many years of Labour government since her era. If in that time things didn’t change enough for their liking, perhaps there’s a greater consensus than they care to acknowledge that MT’s influence wasn’t entirely bad.

    • April 11, 2013 4:29 pm

      Not having been here does not mean I am ignorant of the past of the country in which I have lived for over twenty years. I appreciate things were bad. I appreciate she tried to offer solutions. I believe they were the wrong ones. They have set this country on ethe road to both the financial meltdown and the lack of social cohesion which is now the reality. Nor do I ignored her international status – as a matter of fact, having lived abroad until 1990, maybe I am in a better position to judge it. Your evidence is merely what you perceived from within. My father – a conservative – adored her. My mother – also a conservative, but also very religious – detested her and would refer to her as “that hard, unchristian woman”. Her contribution to the end of the Cold War is much appreciated by me, but again hugely – laughably – exaggerated by the media since her death. Like Gorbachev and Reagan were the bit players and Thatcher the one who made it all happen.

      • Peter Godfrey permalink
        April 11, 2013 4:46 pm

        If you think England is so crap, why do you stay here? I for one think it is a great country, in pretty good shape, and getting better all the time. I like it and I am staying here. And it is massively better than it was in the 70s – I was here at the time, I remember it vividly – it was in a dreadful, declining state.

      • April 12, 2013 10:44 am

        I think this is the most well rounded post on Thatcher I’ve read and that’s probably because you weren’t here until 1990.
        A lot of people felt they were better off under her and a lot of people felt they were worse off under her and that clouds their judgement.

        It is ridiculous to say “you cannot criticise a political ideology” just because someone strongly associated with it has died and then hold that person up as a saint. Really, it’s crazy. Although the whole thing is crazy, people seem obsessed with her death when actually, it hasn’t changed anything unfortunately except distract us from the current problems.

    • Enfrance permalink
      April 11, 2013 5:01 pm

      Lucy, you may not remember that at the time the Argentians made a move on the Falklands Maggie was fighting for her political life. She was extremely unpopular but the Falklands occurred at exactly the right time for her and with the support of Rupert’s right wing media hyping her up as a modern Bodicea she was rescued from certain defeat.

      Among her other faults was her distrust of forward thinking employers who were signing up to the Industrial Democracy policies. She was only concerned with defeating the Unions because they had given Heath and the Tories such a bloody nose. Had she not interfered there is a very good chance that the Unions and Industry would have cured many of the ills of the time. She later admitted that the Japanese work place system was an excellent model but she did not point out that it was already in many factories who were successfully working under the ID system of industrial relations.

      • May 9, 2013 10:53 pm

        I suspect that the Falklands/Malvinas war and all the dreadful deaths of young men, on both sides, could have been avoided.

        I suspect that it was politically engineered because she needed something to help her escape her unpopularity over the social conditions she was creating.

        Before Blair used it to death, going to war; having “our boys” fighting Johnny Foreigner, was always the way to pull Vera Lynn out and get the good old Brits right behind Winston, or Margaret and she preferred to be called.

        In my opinion, we killed all these people so that she could win another election.

        Tony Benn’s diaries suggest that British intelligence were aware of Argentina interest in the Malvinas in the dying days of the Callaghan government. The foreign office paid no heed to that intelligence, giving the impression that Britain would put up no real objection to the Argentinians’ invasion. The fact that for months before that British ships were held up in ports, their voyages to that part of South America put on hold, suggest s that there may be truth in this.

        She was an evil woman, who took away from all of Britain a sense of decency, by preaching a ‘devil take the hindmost’ philosophy. She sowed the seeds for the breakup of britain and I hope that will be her legacy come the referendum next year. it’ one that she would have hated more than any other.

    • April 11, 2013 5:19 pm

      I was here in 79. If you’ll forgive the obvious self-advertisement here’s my take on Thatcher’s legacy:
      .
      http://stuartsorensen.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/i-saw-a-newspaper-picture/

      There may have been a need for change but not that.

  14. Peter Godfrey permalink
    April 11, 2013 4:49 pm

    PS Although I tend to think she was a force for good overall, I am reading all opinions on Thatcher, to try to understand the huge differences of opinion about her legacy. I think those who think she was a force for bad should read widely too, to try to understand the other point of view. Presumably the truth is somewhere in the middle.

    • Enfrance permalink
      April 11, 2013 5:09 pm

      Peter, I take your point but my experience of that time was that she went out of her way to prevent some really good work on industrial relations. The support she got from Rupert and others enabled her to shout her view while all other views were blocked out. Those of us who were involved with Industrial Democracy – not all of us were left wing, there were many employers – could see that the looming problems of competing with global firms would need everyone to pull together. She was utterley devisive and much of what we achieved was ruined because boardrooms seemed running scared of her and those shareholders who supported her. Very sad because it could all be so different now.

  15. Enfrance permalink
    April 11, 2013 4:51 pm

    I was a Union rep in the 80’s and we spent much time raising funds for the miner’s families. It was amazing how many people of all walks of life donated not just money but stuff from the larder and some pretty good clothes. I was challenged to call on one family who lived in a large house with three cars outside. We were overwhelmed by their generosity. Not money but large donations of food for the soup kitchens. Apparently, their parents had experienced the soup kitchens in the war and knew their value. Not sure about their politics but that hardly mattered.

    I am being surprised by the number of our friends who are now stating how much they loathed her. Not all of course, but even an ex Conservative councillor who now sees the long term damage she helped to start and having been badly affected by it has reviewed his attitude.

  16. Sean permalink
    April 11, 2013 5:08 pm

    Pretty much anyone that’s voted in the last 23 years has voted for “their Thatcher”.

    She didn’t decimate mining communities – she closed down an industry and didn’t replace it. It may be a semantic point, but coal wasn’t the future then, any more than it is now. By focusing on that it ignores the key point, which is no-one replaced the industry. John Major didn’t and New Labour didn’t look to invest there either – they’ll vote Labour anyway, so it’s a waste of money for both parties…

    She may have privatised the utilities, but John Major did the trains and New Labour took it far beyond her dream, opening up the NHS to market forces, PPI initiatives etc. Deregulation of the banks may have begun on her watch, but it’s continued apace under every party since. The Belgrano may have been sunk on her watch, but it wasn’t an illegal war protested by over a million people. And so on…

    Almost every thing that people criticise Thatcher for has been carried on by the subsequent parties. Some of the things New Labour were critcised from the right came from her. Essentially the minimum wage, increasing (the Thatcher introduced) income support for working families and unlimited housing benefit are all that New Labour really did for the poor. It’s much better than nothing, don’t get me wrong, but had they actually capped benefits, controlled rents and invested in ex-mining areas to reduce unemployment then we may not be getting the cuts we see now.

    Labour voters, Lib Dem voters, Conservative voters have essentially spent the last 23 years voting in her ideology. That’s if you consider it to be her ideology. Perhaps she just reflected a shift in attitudes, and Thatcherism doesn’t exist at all. Perhaps it’s just the way the British actually are.

    • April 11, 2013 5:11 pm

      I wonder whether the inability to assess any conduct without reference to the Labour government which followed or preceded it is now a distinct mental disorder.

      • Sean permalink
        April 11, 2013 7:44 pm

        Hi Alex,

        Appreciate you probably get a fair bit of trolling from the right, and hence the understandable response. I wasn’t trying to be that “but Tony did it too guy”.

        However the point I was trying to make is that ‘my Thatcher’ as it were in the context of your blog post title, is all the years since where her supposed ideology has been repeatedly voted in. It’s not a Labour/Tory thing, more that all the things that she did, and the worst examples you list above, have been done over and over again and people continue to vote for either the party that are doing it, or the party that will do it a bit differently. Does this mean that Thatcherism was a thing, or is it just actually what people want? Given the choice the voting majority have spent over 20 years electing it.

        My view is that we’re still in the throes of the changes to society brought in by the welfare state.The Thatcher years were a challenge to what people thought this should mean, and the changes she brought in haven’t really been rolled back and no-one has challenged that.

        To an extent “Thatcherism” seems to have become a conceptual caricature to allow people to justify voting for the same thing but by pretending they aren’t. I’m not interested in defending her or attacking Blair, I’m just trying to contextualise “your Thatcher” in the years that have followed.

      • April 11, 2013 8:06 pm

        It is not to excuse the lack of action in the Labour years nor the deeper entrenchment during Major and Cameron’s terms, to say that a direct line can be drawn directly from Thatcher’s government to many of the issues facing us today. The point is ideas which appeared so good at the time, that they were adopted by New Labour have been shown since to be manifestly bankrupt and this aggressive eulogising seems to ignore it. How will the UK find new solutions and fresh ideas if it continues to subscribe to the notion that we just need to tinker with the same old broken ones?

  17. Peter Godfrey permalink
    April 11, 2013 5:52 pm

    The point is that all the main parties accepted that what she started was, while not perfect, the best way forward. They agreed with her reforms, by and large; Labour even metamorphosed into New Labour. Not a mental disorder – recognition of the new status quo.

    • April 11, 2013 5:56 pm

      So, you accept she was the originator of the new status quo. Look around you. How’s that working for you?

      • April 11, 2013 7:05 pm

        Well said. The main parties had no choice but to accept what she started because she was there for SO DAMN LONG and it was not possible to turn back the clock. New Labour may have been a response to 3 terms of Thatcherism, but that is not the same as agreeing it was and always had been the best way forward.

      • Peter Godfrey permalink
        April 11, 2013 11:10 pm

        My view, as I’ve said above, is that England is in great shape, and getting better all the time. Why do you think everyone tries to come and live here? Because it’s great!

  18. Rob permalink
    April 11, 2013 7:51 pm

    A fantastic article. I remember the MT years very well, I was just 19 years old when she became PM. I remember not being able to bury the dead, not getting our bins emptied, working three days a week, not because we had no work, but because we only had electricity for three days a week, I remember not being able to buy bread, get a mortgage, go to Birmingham on the bus because there was a no go area at Saltley gas works, due to miner’s striking etc., etc. Alas those happy Thatcher years are gone.

    • Peter Godfrey permalink
      April 11, 2013 11:15 pm

      Rob – your facts are wrong. The 3-day week was pre-Thatcher; the unburied bodies were pre-Thatcher; all those problems were put right by her, as anyone will confirm.

  19. The Reality Gap permalink
    April 11, 2013 8:29 pm

    As a proud life-long Thatcherite I am pleased to read such a reasoned commentary in contrast to some of the distasteful comments heard and read elsewhere. I know that Lady Thatcher would have been the first to defend the right of her political critics to express their opinions and would have heartily enjoyed the argument, as long as the case against was well put and sincerely meant. However the week of somebody’s funeral, anybody’s funeral, is not the time to express such personal criticism. It is bad manners to do so and as such reflects poorly on the rather sad souls who can demonstrate common decency at such a time. Whether this is about Margaret Thatcher or not is irrelevant, the same applies for anyone and everyone.

    • April 11, 2013 8:38 pm

      At least my social media timeline was very muted (as was the leadership of rival parties) to start with, but hardened over the last few days. If the right feel that criticism of her politics on the week of her funeral is harsh, they should have desisted from hyperbolic endorsement of her politics. The whiff of trying to make political capital of her death was pungent and was only ever going to invite one reaction.

  20. Sean permalink
    April 11, 2013 8:31 pm

    Alex, a reply to your reply…can’t seem to do that (unless that’s the point of course…)

    I think the aggressive eulogising was almost a pre-emptive strike against the views of those who opposed her. Those views have logically become more entrenched with the recent changes to welfare, NHS etc.I don’t think she started it though, more that she was there at the start. Focusing on her avoids discussing the possibility that the last two decades have suggested that those policies were, and are, what most people want. I wouldn’t call the last thirty four years the Thatcher years, and I wouldn’t credit her with the policies.

    We’re increasingly in a more fractured political environment. The next general election may well be more about protest (UKIP, Green, NHS, Anti-HS2 etc) Whoever wins will likely continue to carry on policies of privatisation, reducing benefits etc. It may be that it’s the parties they have to enter coalition with that ultimately decide how they go about that, and what restrictions they have while doing so. This could be where the new solutions and fresh ideas come from (possibly because it won’t be career politicians, but constituency representatives) because looking at the three main parties it seems unlikely to come from them.

    • April 11, 2013 8:35 pm

      No evil intent – I think the comments get physically narrower on the page to a point where they’re cut off. Happens automatically.

  21. Gonzo permalink
    April 11, 2013 11:17 pm

    It’s important to remember that you see what you see because of the company you keep. You describe islands of reasoned criticism of her amid a sea of other unreasoned positions – the idolizing, the pro-Thatcher revisionists, and other sycophantic noise in the public space – yet there is no mention of people saying things like “It’s about time” or “I set aside a bottle for just this occasion”. These are not criticisms, nor is it remotely acceptable to wish someone dead because of their political views.

    The problem isn’t the criticism. If you want to use the occasion of her death to write a comprehensive look at what she did wrong to counter a propaganda page, that is fine. And I realize that the people upset by you doing just that is what prompted you to write this.

    What you don’t see, though, is the context. Over the course of the day I saw tweets, editorials, blogs, and comics that weren’t criticizing policies. They were reveling in the death of a human being. They were bragging about parties, dancing on her grave, portraying her as Davros, the devil, a banshee and other grand evils familiar to the British people. I could understand if it ended some terrible thing she was doing. We celebrated the death of Hitler and Osama bin Ladin, who were each in their day, still threats of terrible violence to the world until the moment they died. Thatcher was a politician whose career had ended. Her administration was trotted out regularly as a symbol of all that was wrong/right with the country by anyone opposed to her party or in it, respectively, but that doesn’t change with her death. No one is better off with her dead, and her family suffers through it, yet people are dancing and cheering.

    Yes, the criticism has a vital place at this time, but the anger at the insensitivity is well placed as well. I speak as a person from the US who has only academic knowledge. I read mostly Left-oriented material on her, so I see a very dim view of her administration for the most part. Even so, I’m appalled by what I’ve seen. For every “iron lady” and “condolences to the family” I see at least two jeering at her in a manner that has nothing to do with politics. They may focus it on the wrong outlet, but those who are angry have every right to be.

    • April 11, 2013 11:42 pm

      While I don’t approve of such celebrations personally, the whole point of the piece is that their reaction is an emotional one and without knowing the set of background facts which have brought them to it, you cannot dismiss it as invalid. I found the hordes of people crying bitter tears after the death of Diana bizarre and excessive, but it was their reaction. Who am I to go “tut tut” as long as they don’t impinge on others? Who are you to do so?

      Thatcher was a symbol of her policies; an idol of her economic philosophies. I am more concerned with those policies and philosophies. Others are more concerned with the symbol – either distastefully celebrating or hysterically mourning. They are two sides of the same coin.

  22. April 12, 2013 2:41 am

    One of the odd side effects of Thatcher’s death and the reaction to it is that my grudging respect for her as a person has increased a little; while my seething contempt for the vast majority of the soi-disant guardians of her legacy has plummeted even further.

  23. Reteur permalink
    April 16, 2013 8:49 pm

    This is factually incorrect garbage.

  24. innerbearsdenurchin permalink
    April 28, 2013 7:01 pm

    You should just move to Scotland.

    At least you would be valued and welcomed here.

  25. October 7, 2013 10:17 pm

    Compelling read, honesty always reads well. Have a look at an alternative perspective of Thatcher’s privatisation policies
    http://theconscienceblog.com/2012/11/18/privatisation-is-justified-only-if-it-results-in-competition/

Trackbacks

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