Bloomsbury £14.99. Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Maggie & Me. By Damian Barr

A wry autobiography, set in 1980s Scotland, reveals an admirably balanced attitude to Maggie, memoir, and the wisdom of Granny Mac

The story of a gay boy growing up in the 1980s in a village in Lanarkshire perhaps doesn’t sound like a page-turner but it would be a mistake to overlook this superb memoir by the journalist Damian Barr. By turns funny, tender, and heartbreaking, it is also a useful primer for anyone too young to remember what life was like in the industrial areas of Britain enduring the changes wrought by Thatcherism.

Damian Barr is the son of a Catholic mother and Protestant father – a bold union in a part of Scotland blighted by sectarianism – who separate in 1984, the night Margaret Thatcher survives the IRA’s bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton.  The little boy is immediately impressed by the blonde woman with a man’s voice calmly rising from the rubble and taking command of the situation. Barr’s mother is less impressed: “Shit disnae burn, Maggie won’t.” Barr and his sister, Teenie, go to live with his mother and her new boyfriend, Logan, and the eight-year-old finds himself at the mercy of a man who physically and psychologically abuses him. With Damian’s mother in hospital recovering from a brain haemorrhage, Logan is free to persecute the boy. It is harrowing to read about an adult being so vicious and spiteful towards a child but Barr refuses to indulge in self pity. His calm, factual recounting of the abuse means it is all the more compelling and his restraint is commendable. 

Barr displays an endearingly dry wit, and throughout his trials and tribulations he never fails to see the funny side of even the most appalling situations.  His father’s new girlfriend, a Dolly Parton wannabe, is known as Mary the Canary, while his favourite school teacher who sports a pudding bowl haircut is known as Rayson the Basin. Barr himself does not evade nick-names and at school, thanks to the casual cruelty of children, is called Gaymian, Dame Barr and Barbie. He tries to keep his head down and vows to do what the helmet-haired Maggie exhorts; work hard and escape to a better life.

Barr’s realisation that he is gay only serves to make him feel even more an outsider in an aggressively straight community where mining and the Ravenscraig steel plant are the main sources of employment. His loneliness is assuaged when he discovers that he is not the only gay boy at school and there is a touching naivety about his first sexual experiences. However it is a school trip to Brighton that opens his eyes to the possibilities of a lifestyle he could never have imagined, where being gay is not something to be hidden or ashamed of.

Barr is a gifted storyteller, weaving skilfully back and forth through time, and his unfussy prose flows delightfully. He does not forget his roots and introduces some local sayings, many from his devoutly Catholic Granny Mac. She has a maxim for every situation – including the warning: “Fly wi the craws ye get shot wi the craws” – and this vibrant language roots his story firmly in a west of Scotland, working class community. Barr manages to find beauty in the harsh industrial landscape that surrounds him. His description of the second “sunset” at the Ravenscraig steelworks where his father toils brings lyricism to a prosaic industrial process.

A nostalgic trawl through 1980s pop culture, referencing much-loved toys, games, and music, reveals Barr’s inspiration for his later career, the crime-fighting journalist Mrs Hart from the American television series Hart to Hart. Barr also discovers Bennetts, the legendary gay disco in nearby Glasgow, where he finds a sense of camaraderie as he observes the gay scene.

Each chapter is headed by a quote from Margaret Thatcher, some hilariously at odds with what follows, some ironic, and some chillingly harsh. Barr’s relationship with Maggie, the one constant in his chaotic childhood, is complex. In her he recognises another outsider, a survivor, and this encourages him to work hard and make a better life for himself. But she is also a hate figure who closes down the steelworks where his father works, crushes the striking miners, and supports the introduction of Clause 28. For the most part Barr keeps his ambivalence hidden in order to fit into a staunchly Labour neighbourhood, but it is his admiration combined with hatred for Maggie that helps to fuel his desire to escape. While Maggie may have encouraged Barr to live life on his own terms it is clear he owes his success to his own courage, humour and steely determination. Most of all, what shines through Barr’s splendid memoir is his unswerving love and loyalty to those he holds dear, including his loving but neglectful mother, his adored little sister, his close friend Mark, and his faithful “girlfriend” Heather.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn