Maggie & Me – Damian Barr

Back at the start of last year one of the lovely publicists at Bloomsbury told me, with great certainty and authority, that they were publishing Damian Barr’s memoir and that I was going to ‘adore it’. In my usual contrary-Mary style I said something like ‘oh really’ with eyebrow cocked. Well Alice, who also told me I would love ‘The Song of Achilles’ and ‘Diving Belles’, you were right again with ‘Maggie and Me’ and in hindsight you really should have bet me a tenner that I would have loved it, in fact in the future you really must bet me that, plus interest. Anyway…

*****, Bloomsbury Books, hardback, 2013, non fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Maggie & Me’ is Damian Barr’s memoir, mainly of his youth – though we do get to know more about him now thanks to the last chapter epilogue. It is the sort of book that I have pondered since reading if it would have been easier to have written as fiction. Why? Well, Damian’s childhood is one that came littered with difficulties, a broken home life, not much money and people around him who took advantage of that an abused him. One thing is for certain though; this is no misery memoir, not by a long shot.

‘We watch the news for our revision and it’s always strikers chanting ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out”!’ Except for John we all join in. But it doesn’t quite feel right – hating her just helps me fit in. I don’t need to stand out anymore: six foot tall, scarecrow skinny and speccy with join-the-dots spots, bottle-opener buck teeth and a thing for waistcoats. Plus I get free school dinners and I’m gay.”

I do feel that ‘Maggie and Me’ is a book that you need to know as little about as possible in order to get the most from it. There were several times when I was genuinely horrified by what I was reading, yet never (and this is mainly thanks to Damian and the generosity he provides, possibly through hindsight) did I start to judge anyone, it is like Damian is saying ‘here is my life, this is what happened, take from it what you will’. He doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him, though I did at times (sorry). What I felt he really wanted, and it is what I got from the book, was that through his story, and in people reading it and passing it on, he hopes he might help other younger people in that position or older ones who had been through it.

I am worried I have made it sound like it is the misery memoir that I state it’s not, because honestly it isn’t. Despite the hard home life and lack of money and the coming to terms with his sexuality whilst the epidemic of Aids had arisen, there is always a shred of hope or escapism which keeps him going. As much as I was horrified and moved, like all the best reads I also found myself laughing out loud. This either came in the form of the wonderful Granny Mac, who Maggie Smith is destined to play at some point I feel sure, and her wonderful sayings like “Wit’s fur yae disnae go by yae.” or from many of the family members when they react to the people or situations around them.

‘Bottle blonde’, she huffs, furiously bleaching the inside of a teapot that we’ll all taste later. ‘Pound Shop Dolly Parton. Midden. Hoor’s handbag,’ she curses into the suds before shooshing me for asking what a ‘hoor’ is?’

‘Maggie and Me’ is also very much a book about books and how they can save someone and provide a huge sanctuary for someone. Interestingly (well I think it is) myself and my Granny Savidge were talking about how books and reading, which is by its nature a lonely pastime, has made us so many friends. This is what books did for Damian along with providing a huge amount of escape for him, intriguingly he had a taste for horror which one wonders might have been because they showed a more horrible world than his own could be at times.

‘Somehow he’s managed to smuggle new horror books out of Newarthill Library – our junior cards don’t permit Stephen King, James Herbert or Dean Koontz. But here they all are. I’d never dare but Mark would. We take turns reading out loud. Particularly gory bits get read at least twice. Pennywise the Clown smiles his big red gash and boils our blood for candyfloss. Cujo is off the leash. Red-eyed rats swarm around our feet, their filthy fur tickling our ankles before they shred our shins.’

Interestingly as I was reading Damian’s memoir I was also thinking of Kerry Hudson’s ‘Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma’ and is like a fictional naughty little sister of ‘Maggie & Me’. I kind of like the idea of just having them next to one another on my shelves, companions to recommend to everyone, though as I like my books alphabetised the idea is abhorrent in reality. Like Hudson’s wonderful book, with ‘Maggie and Me’ I found a background which really evoked mine to me again. Whilst I was never abused we didn’t have much money (I remember water on my cereal when we couldn’t get milk), I wasn’t particularly popular and was the last person to get picked for games (until I started forging my own notes, ‘bad knee’) and always felt somewhat apart and so turned to books. I wish the younger Damian and the younger me had been friends really, or at least geeky book and boy loving penpals.

Anyway, back on track away from the waffling, as you may have hazarded a guess I really loved ‘Maggie and Me’. I related to it – something that only happens to your very core or bones once or twice in a blue reading moon – and empathised with it. It was the sort of book my younger self was crying out for someone to put in my hands. I can only hope some lovely relatives, librarians, teachers or other influential bods make sure this is passed on to both the younger generation, especially those who call rubbish things ‘gay’, and to everyone they know really. Books like this help make being different both more acceptable and understandable, we need them.

Who else has read ‘Maggie and Me’ and what did you think of it? In a way I have a feeling it’s like Augusten Burroughs book, which is high flattery indeed as I love those, and hopefully will get the attention that ‘Running With Scissors’ had, or indeed Edmund White’s memoirs or Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’. I am waffling again. What other books about being a ‘child of Thatcher’ do you know as I would like to seek more out?

16 Comments

Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2013, Damian Barr, Non Fiction, Review

16 responses to “Maggie & Me – Damian Barr

  1. Sorry – no disrespect intended, but this book doesn’t appeal to me, but I can understand totally how it would resonate for you. For another 70s/80s memoir I would recommend Andrew Collins’s books – Where did it all go right? and Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now. He’s mainly a TV/pop culture journalist (and v.good and witty too).

    • Hi Annabel, just out of interest what is it about this one that doesn’t appeal. I’m intrigued. No disrespect taken.

      Also thank you very much for the recommendations.

  2. Difficult to put my finger on it, but a combination of things including disliking the title and cover (shallow, yes – but I wouldn’t pick it up in a shop). I read few memoirs and tend to stick to the quirky or showbiz or those set in earlier decades, (I did enjoy Running with Scissors). Maybe it’s really because I don’t want my own relatively cosy experience of growing up in the 70s and 80s to be tarnished by comparing it with someone else who genuinely did have a hard time!

  3. I’ve been desperate to read this for ages, your review makes it sound all the more appealing. Saw Damian speak at the Brighton Festival and enjoyed your podcast with him – this really is a must read.

  4. I think this must be one of your best posts ever. I love the honesty without being glum. I remember the kids like you and this boy in school and being a geek (as you described) was hard. There were geeky girls too. This is definitely a book I will pick up. From another person out there who did not have a cozy childhood. I like that term. Maybe in my next life? Thank you for sharing it and yes your friend should bet you a tenner.

    • Awww thank you, sorry I haven’t responded to this lovely comment sooner. Things have been a bit bonkers. I really hope you pick this book up, Damian has a directness that I admire for how brave he is in doing so. It is books like these that people need to read.

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  10. D Thomson

    This book is fantastic, I was a couple of years older than Damian and his recollection of Newarthill and his descriptions are awesome. Brought back some memories….and I knew more than a few of the people he is talking about! I would recommend this read.

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