Maggie and Me By Damian Barr. A review by John Cook

Maggie

Without the presence of Maggie Thatcher in the mix, this would be a very good memoir of a severely underprivileged bright gay boy growing up in a dysfunctional family environment and a social environment coming under the most severe strain. What makes it different is the fact of Maggie Thatcher and her surprisingly hot/cold, love/hate relationship with the growing Damian.

 

There are a lot of elements in this mix of his young life. There are constants like the Catholic/Protestant divide, the Scots/English divide, the social class divide, the weedy emerging gay gayboy/brutish normalcy divide: and all of these are explored. At the same time, there are constant flashes of wit and insight sometimes attributed to the young Damian, others perhaps the fruits of later contemplation. A good example of this is an almost lyrical description of the two sunsets caused by the daily closing down of the steel works that has been the life force of the community and Damian’s Dad’s existence.

 

This brings us to the central issue for Damian. He clearly loves at least some of what he grew up with but was keenly aware that he was always in a defensive mode when dealing with the larger world. He didn’t want to see the local industries close with the hurt and devastation that was inevitable. But this was change and change is inevitable. Certainly he wants change in what is possible for him and wants rid the wildly dysfunctional world that his close family represents.

 

The two strongest voices in his world are his grandmother who represents what was worthwhile in the enduring tradition and elements of what he hears/reads of what Maggie had to say. He hears messages that tell him that he has to have faith in himself and strive to get beyond what he finds limiting and repressive, something few others are saying quite so clearly and strongly. As a consequence, as an adult, he feels he has escaped and realised some of his potential and symbolically is living in the gay ghetto of Brighton where Maggie had one of her memorable public experiences of dealing with calamity and from which he also new nurture when returning from a Young Entrepreneur clutching is copies of ‘Tales of the City’

 

There is much that is darkly rich in his tale of struggle and finding his enduring friends Heather and Mark. It is quite surprising that he can maintain a tone that is flat enough to be a young boy reciting the regular tumult of his days larded with flashes of wit, insight and 80’s colour. There were times when it felt overly flat but those variations and improved attention to what the author was trying to impart through pacing improved my appreciation.

 

Though it is presented almost as an object lesson of those who did not appreciate and seize upon what Maggie was offering, I found the emergence of Mark’s tale profoundly sad and I can understand why some readers have had difficulties with the triumphal tone of the conclusion.

 

 

 

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