Maggie & Me

Surviving Scotland

Alexander Matthews reviews journalist Damian Barr's childhood memoir.

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

So what’s this all about, eh? Scotland in the 1980s you say? An unappetising world of Adidas Gazelles, Hart to Hart and Neighbours, Tunnocks tea cakes. The eternal nightime glow of the Ravenscraig steelworks (well, eternal till they shut it down, course). Mum blowing benefits on booze – Buckie fortified wine to be exact. Having yer head shoved down into a deep freeze, new Adam’s apple pressed against the metal, watching “a lone pea trapped in permafrost for ever like a lost polar explorer”.

It’s enough to make you run a mile, you’re probably thinking.  Bleakness and misery, you say? Bad weather. No more free milk for schoolkids – thanks Maggie. But don’t run. Pick up the book. You’re in safe hands with that Barr. This is a memoir, there’s misery to be sure, but it’s not fetishised, thanks. He had a crappy time of it growing up – the clever gay boy in a gruffly anti-intellectual, macho world. Parents divorced, Dad shacked up with a dolly with too much makeup, mum with eyes for a chap who’s skilled enough in torture when she’s not around that he could’ve had a part-time job with Pinochet.

But this memoir isn’t really about having a crap time of it. It’s about growing up different in a world that didn’t quite suit or understand you. It’s about the power of reading and the imagination and a best friend named Heather to make it all bearable. It’s about ambition, surviving. There is no bitterness here. Barr got bullied but he’s no victim. There is relentless optimism (for the most part – when he wasn’t worrying about having Aids – which the scary ads in the paper made him worry he thought all of his type had).

Barr’s prose is vivid, beautifully weighted, freshly phrased. He turns the ordinary and the mundane into something acutely realised and richly interesting. He takes a journalist’s curiousity – and craft – and applies it to the world – home – that most of us are too blind to see. This is entertainment, grippingly so (I devoured this book over the course of a long weekend) – but it is of the eloquent and intelligent and funny variety. Its present tense sucks you right in, giving the scenes described a shocking immediacy.

The title is perhaps something of a misnomer – after all, as a kid it’s not like Barr ever even met the Iron Lady. But as a symbol of fortitude and strength, she becomes a surprising source of encouragement to young Damian. This was a woman they might have hated, that they tried to blow into little bits (1984, Brighton). But she went against the grain, she held fast, kept her head up. She survived. And, lucky for us, Barr did too.

Maggie and Me is published by Bloomsbury, R249.

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