Tag Archives: Margaret Thatcher

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?

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

Fiction Uncovered 2013

One of the bookish initiatives that I love the most has to be Fiction Uncovered. In case you haven’t heard of it, as I know it is a UK initiative and not sure how much worldwide audience it gets, the aim of Fiction Uncovered is to really do what it says on the tin… It uncovers fiction that might have gone under the radar in the last year and undeservedly missed out on any awards or, more importantly I feel, word of mouth on the scale it deserves. Each year I get more and more excited about what the list might be as each year it has supplied me with some books I have really loved. Plus we all love a list of books we might not have heard about don’t we?

Guess what? The list has now been released and here are the eight novels that I think we should all be getting very excited and interested in at the moment. Like last year I will give you the bumph the book comes with and then my initial thoughts in order of authors surname so you don’t think I have favourites…

All The Beggers Riding – Lucy Caldwell

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. (Trad.) When Lara was twelve, and her younger brother Alfie eight, their father died in a helicopter crash. A prominent plastic surgeon, and Irishman, he had honed his skills on the bomb victims of the Troubles. But the family grew up used to him being absent: he only came to London for two weekends a month to work at the Harley Street Clinic, where he met their mother years before, and they only once went on a family holiday together, to Spain, where their mother cried and their father lost his temper and left early. Because home, for their father, wasn’t Earls Court: it was Belfast, where he led his other life…Narrated by Lara, nearing forty and nursing her dying mother, “All the Beggars Riding” is the heartbreaking portrait of a woman confronting her past.

Simon says: Not to start off on a negative slant but the blurb mentions horses in the first line, I don’t like horses or books with horses in… and this book is now making me think of horses. However as you read on the blurb actually sounds very interesting and here we have one of those things that I love… someone looking back on their life and possibly a domestic drama with the added subjects of ‘the troubles’ and possibly some secrets, or am I reading too much into ‘where he led his other life’. The fact the narrator is looking after someone who is dying, bearing in mind my current situation with Gran, might be tough but it could also be therapeutic. Sorry I have gone on…

How I Killed Margaret Thatcher – Anthony Cartwright

Why Sean Bull sets out one day to assassinate Margaret Thatcher…’Judas Iscariot’s here, look. Here comes Judas Iscariot…’ Nine-year old Sean has never seen anything like what happens on the day Margaret Thatcher takes power and his grandad discovers his uncle voted for her. So begins the start of a family secret and the end of Sean’s idyllic childhood in the industrial Midlands – until, one day, deciding that someone’s got to stop the train of destruction, he sets out for revenge. A heartbreaking and timely story of a moment of national crisis as felt by one family, How I Killed Margaret Thatcher delivers a devastating English twist on the dictator novel.

Simon says: Have people been expecting Maggie to die imminently for a while? First Damian Barr and now Anthony Cartwright, though technically it is the other way around though we haven’t heard so much about this book. As one of ‘Thatchers Children’ (which to me means I wouldn’t have voted for her, but couldn’t have anyway yet I cannot deny her leadership affected my childhood completely) I do find hearing about people of around the same generation as me and how it affected them, so I want to read this one soon.

Black Bread White Beer – Niven Govinden

Amal is driving his wife Claud from London to her parents’ country house. In the wake of Claud’s miscarriage, it is a journey that will push their relationship – once almost perfect – towards possible collapse. In this, his latest novel, Govinden casts a critical eye on a society in which, in spite of never-ending advances in social media communications, the young still find it difficult to communicate. A devastatingly passionate and real portrait of a marriage, ‘Black Bread White Beer’ keenly captures the abandon, selfishness, hazards and pleasures that come with giving your life to another.

Simon says: I am slightly kicking myself as this has been in my bureau, printed off especially as I wouldn’t read the e-book which is how this came out initially, for quite a while. I am definitely going to read it, well I was anyway, all the sooner now though. I think it sounds fascinating… Sorry I haven’t read it sooner Niven – though that might be because I was promised it would come with a Caramac chocolate and it didn’t!

The Village – Nikita Lalwani

“The Village” by Nikita Lalwani is a disturbing and utterly gripping modern morality tale set in contemporary India. On a winter morning Ray Bhullar arrives at the gates of an Indian village. She is here to make a film. But this will be no ordinary tale about India – for this is no ordinary village. It is an open prison, inhabited by murderers. An apparent innocent among the guilty, Ray tries hard to be accepted. But the longer she and the rest of the crew stay, the more the need for drama increases. Soon the fragile peace of the village will be shattered and, despite Ray’s seemingly good intentions, the motives of the visitors and the lives of the inhabitants will be terrifyingly, brutally exposed.

Simon says: I feel like I might have heard small rumblings about this book, now having read the blurb I cannot believe I haven’t read this book as it sounds soooooo up my street. Firstly as i have been meaning to read a book set in India for a while, secondly because ‘an open prison, inhabited by murderers’ sounds genius in terms of fictional potential tension, atmosphere and danger.

 The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

“The Colour of Milk” is the new novel by Orange longlisted author and playwright Nell Leyshon. ‘This is my book and i am writing it by my own hand’. The year is eighteen hundred and thirty one when fifteen-year-old Mary begins the difficult task of telling her story. A scrap of a thing with a sharp tongue and hair the colour of milk, Mary leads a harsh life working on her father’s farm alongside her three sisters. In the summer she is sent to work for the local vicar’s invalid wife, where the reasons why she must record the truth of what happens to her – and the need to record it so urgently – are gradually revealed.

Simon says: Every year there is one book I have already read which I have loved, and may partly be while I therefore feel tuned in with FU, I absolutely adored this book when I read it last year. Thrilled.

The Heart Broke In – James Meek

Would you betray your lover to give them what they wanted? Bec Shepherd is a malaria researcher struggling to lead a good life. Ritchie, her reprobate brother, is a rock star turned TV producer. When Bec refuses an offer of marriage from a powerful newspaper editor and Ritchie’s indiscretions catch up with him, brother and sister are forced to choose between loyalty and betrayal. The Heart Broke In is an old-fashioned story of modern times, a rich, ambitious family drama of love, death and money in the era of gene therapy and internet blackmail.

Simon says: Now I had an unsolicited copy of this last year (kicking myself again) and Ritchie as a character, from the blurb, put me off so much with the rock star to TV producer story line (the idea bored me and I felt I had seen it before) that I gave it to a relative, who I don’t think has read it yet but I can’t go and steal it back off. It is the only one I feel a bit unsure about… at the moment, maybe I need to be more open minded?

Orkney – Amy Sackville

On a remote island in Orkney, a curiously-matched couple arrive on their honeymoon. He is an eminent literature professor; she was his pale, enigmatic star pupil. Alone beneath the shifting skies of this untethered landscape, the professor realises how little he knows about his new bride and yet, as the days go by and his mind turns obsessively upon the creature who has so beguiled him, she seems to slip ever further from his yearning grasp. Where does she come from? Why did she ask him to bring her north? What is it that constantly draws her to the sea?

Simon says: I definitely heard a lot about this book last year, lots and lots, which is probably what put me off it. Apparently it is a book about books and writing though so again maybe I cut my nose off to spite my face with this one too around the time it came out. Not that I had a copy, I just mean when all these people were raving on book shows I sort of switched off – oops.

Secrecy – Rupert Thomson

It is Florence, 1691. The Renaissance is long gone, and the city is a dark, repressive place, where everything is forbidden and anything is possible. The Enlightenment may be just around the corner, but knowledge is still the property of the few, and they guard it fiercely. Art, sex and power – these, as always, are the obsessions. Facing serious criminal charges, Gaetano Zummo is forced to flee his native Siracusa at the age of twenty, first to Palermo, then Naples, but always has the feeling that he is being pursued by his past, and that he will never be free of it. Zummo works an artist in wax. He is fascinated by the plague, and makes small wooden cabinets in which he places graphic, tortured models of the dead and dying. But Cosimo III, Tuscany’s penultimate Medici ruler, gives Zummo his most challenging commission yet, and as he tackles it his path entwines with that of the apothecary’s daughter Faustina, whose secret is even more explosive than his. Poignant but paranoid, sensual yet chilling, Secrecy is a novel that buzzes with intrigue and ideas. It is a love story, a murder mystery, a portrait of a famous city in an age of austerity, an exercise in concealment and revelation, but above all it is a trapdoor narrative, one story dropping unexpectedly into another, the ground always slippery, uncertain…

Simon says: Ok, this one really excites me and weirdly enough I was looking at this when I was wandering round an empty library only yesterday, and please don’t tell my new work, I don’t have membership at that library… not that you could take them out anyway. I definitely want to read this one.

What are my thoughts on the list overall? Well, thank you for asking! I am overall excited by it. I had that initial moment of ‘well, I have hardly heard of any of these’ – which is the point silly Simon – before realising that maybe I had heard of one or two. It is a diverse list which I like and with Nell Leyshon as a choice I feel already I will bloody love the others as much as I did that. We will see. I will say I was surprised by how many of the authors have won awards either with the book on the list (Govinden, Meek) and how many of the authors have been listed and indeed won awards before with other works (Lalwani, Sackville) and how many are still eligible for some of this year’s prizes ahead (Sackville again, Thomson) but maybe they haven’t been submitted, or maybe that isn’t the point. Safe to say I want to get my mitts on all of them of course.

So, I hear you ask, what happens next? Well in a nutshell nothing but all of us going off and reading a few/all of them really. One of the things that I find the most charming about it, which might sound odd from someone who has set up a book prize, is that from the list of the eight titles the judges (including the lovely Dovegreyreader) decide upon there is never a singular winner, they are all deemed winners. (That said I do think that is what any good book prize’s short and long lists should be about frankly, just saying!) Which I think makes Fiction Uncovered all the more lovely and sets it out from other prizes etc. Can you tell I am a big fan?

Now, over to you… What do you think of the initiative and the list of eight Fiction Uncovered titles this year? Which of them have you read and what did you think? Which ones have made you desperate to give them a read and uncover a fabulous story or two in the future?

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