Boyd Tonkin: The Thatcher of most writers belongs to myth. Time for a full-dress portrait?
The Week in Books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 12 April 2013
As a maxim for life or for literature, "my enemy's enemy is my friend" may serve you well – but never for long. And strange bedfellows tend to get along best when they never really share the sheets. If you grew up gay, bullied, bookish and lonely in the macho, Labour-voting West of Scotland monoculture of the 1980s, would you come to revere Mrs Thatcher as a starry amalgam of Madonna and the Blessed Virgin? "Scarecrow-skinny and speccy with join-the-dots spots", trapped in a rat's nest of drunken and boorish blokes, Damian Barr did. He writes in Maggie and Me (Bloomsbury, £14.99) that the late PM "saved my life. You were different, like me... you had to fight to be yourself."
"Be strong, Maggie told us all," in Barr's version, at least. "Get educated. Get away." He flew the soiled nest. But this timely confessional - zestfully observed, sharply written, and sprinkled with more lyricism and humour than a memoir of misery in Motherwell suggests - may win friends and enemies for quite the wrong reasons.
His affection for the faraway ogre begins aged eight in 1984, when she survives the IRA bomb in Brighton. "Shit disnae burn, Maggie won't", says his mother, voicing the general verdict both at 1 Magdalene Drive, Carfin, and right across Motherwell. But little Damian yearned to "brush the dust from her big blonde hair".
Barr neatly strings the shiny beads of a 1980s childhood (Muppets to Dynasty; Swap Shop to Dirty Dancing) along a much darker thread of family dysfunction, casual violence and reflex homophobia. So Maggie bewitches him as a myth, a mirage, a fantasy saviour: the outcast's outcast, yet "permanent and powerful, like the Queen". In truth, his Thatcher connection can seem gimmicky – extracts from her speeches preface the chapters – but this is more about legend than legislation. Barr's memoir reminds us that, politics aside, she sank deeply into the collective psyche as a figure of dream and nightmare, angel or demon. This "other mother" - an icon of absolute otherness, to that time and place - throws to Damian his "escape ladder".
The grown-up author knows perfectly well what her chief policies did to a community already harrowed by decline - notably of the "Craig": the Ravenscraig steelworks, once "a futuristic machine-city" but doomed to closure. Moreover, the torment he endures at the hands of wrecked bruisers - who inflict a booze-assisted industrial breakdown on their own bodies - runs beside high-spirited episodes of friendship, fun, and beauty. This far-from-cowed youngster enjoys the bleak splendour of the Craig, the Bing (a slag-heap with its "mountains of sparkling black diamonds") and the Sippy, a cement-works which channels "a powdered patch of the moon down here on earth".
Right-wing advocates of this book will treat it as a precious tribute wrenched from an alien tribe. Conversely, to the left Barr may count as a heretic and a renegade. But neither response fits the case. Rather, the Thatcher of Maggie and Me belongs with other subjective visions of the Iron Lady – read it, for example, with Anthony Cartwright's bittersweet novel of a tough Dudley upbringing in those years, How I Killed Margaret Thatcher. His young hero, Sean, feels loathing not longing. Yet the idol's spooky magnetism has the same aura.
Other writers have opted to paint her either in bold pop-art colours or oblique strokes - as a hyper-real caricature, or else an elusive blur of motion. From Ian McEwan's The Child in Time and Philip Hensher's Kitchen Venom to Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty and Gordon Burn's Born Yesterday, our literary Maggies tended to inhabit a realm beyond realism. Maybe, on the pattern of the "dictator" novel" about outsize leaders that thrived in Latin America, we will soon have full-dress fictionalisations of her career. Her passing may unlock some writers' inhibitions. But who will dare to open that door?
Let's celebrate Turkish writers – and those in jail
Turkey will be the country honoured at the London Book Fair (15-17 April), with a welcome spotlight on the nation's dynamic and diverse literary culture. It's also one that faces grave legal threats, with 49 editors or journalists in prison, mostly for alleged support for Kurdish terrorism (a world record, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists). On Monday, a court case re-opens against pianist Fazil Say for "anti-religious" tweets under Article 216 of the constitution. The LBF party may need a few dissonant notes as well.
The occult craft of publishing?
Around 99 per cent of bookbiz chatter now revolves around systems, kit, data and cash, not human beings. Happily, the London Book Fair gives a Lifetime Achievement Award not to a gadget or an algorithm but to a carbon-based publisher of high distinction. Past winners have included George Weidenfeld, Sonny Mehta, Antoine Gallimard and Christopher MacLehose.
This year the recipient is Michael Krüger of German independent house Hanser, who since 1968 has fashioned his hand-crafted list into a pantheon of giants – Ondaatje to Heaney, Walcott to Eco, Pamuk to Kundera. In a tribute, Italian writer-publisher Roberto Calasso notes that, paradoxically, the wisdom of great editors tends not to be written down but is "destined to remain secret or part of an oral tradition". Before the robots rule, all that occult lore surely ought to end up in – a book?
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