As Damian Barr works on a TV adaptation of ‘Maggie & Me’, his memoir of a working class childhood under the shadow of Thatcherism, Stephen Boylan quizzes him about growing up gay in the eighties.
It may be a miserable, grey day outside, but Wynn’s Hotel in central Dublin is buzzing. The lobby is decked out in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Cumann na mBan, the women-only paramilitary organisation founded to help advance the cause of Irish liberty. As the founding place of pioneers of the political sphere, it seems an appropriate place to meet Damian Barr, author of Maggie & Me, given that his brilliant memoir is shadowed by one of the most formidable female political figures of our time.
The book is a hard-hitting, upsetting, but ultimately uplifting look at the author’s life growing up gay in the tough Forgewood housing estate, just outside Motherwell. Barr examines his childhood in parallel to the rise and rise of Margaret Thatcher, each chapter opening with an iconic quote from the Iron Lady herself. (He confides that he had to pay a fortune to reproduce the snippets in the book, which indeed is in keeping with Tatcherism itself.) Barr hadn’t intended to write his memoir this early, regarding that as a job for “old people”.
We should be glad he did. Despite a childhood largely marked by abuse and bullying, the book is surprisingly lacking in self-pity and is often hilarious, infused as it is with countless pop culture references that will resonate with gays of a certain age (Hart to Hart, anyone?) The coming out story itself is brilliantly told; the heady excitement of heading to a gay club with a fake date of birth, the personal ads, the music, and, of course, discovering the hidden delights of Channel 4.
Barr’s physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend are difficult to read, and are written with a heartbreaking poignancy; at one point, when he climbs into bed, his ear lobe ripped open and bloody, his first thought is for the newly-changed bedclothes for Christmas. Equally tough are the scenes were Barr goes to visit his father, only to be blocked by his new girlfriend, a club singer his family nicknamed Mary the Canary.
Although he was the only person in his family to have his own bedroom, Barr’s life was constantly invaded with the Buckfast-fuelled parties that continued to the wee hours. How did he cope with the noise? “Not very well,” he admits. “I had two sanctuaries, two places of quiet, where nobody was trying to kill me – the library and the local church”. Although religion is a large part of the book in its early stages (he was a member of a prayer group), it’s not something that has come with him into his adult life, although he remains fascinated by churches as places to visit.
His love of books has remained however, and are a hugely important part of the narrative – he would gather with his friend Mark to read the latest James Herbert, Stephen King or Dean Koontz novel, while Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series have been hugely influential. One aspect of the book that often hasn’t been drawn out in reviews is that Maggie & Me is fundamentally a book about poverty.
Childhood poverty is known to have a profound legacy into adulthood – does Barr think he has been affected into later life? Does he feel guilty over money, or does he now just buy something if he wants it? “Even when I don’t have very much money, I still don’t feel poor,” he says.
“The one thing I do treat myself to is clothes. Sometimes I didn’t have enough clothes to go to school in, and I was often taunted as ‘half-mast’ because I was tall and had grown out of my trousers.” Barr says he no longer gets self-conscious walking into large rooms of people, which is just as well. He runs a hugely successful literary salon in London with up to 500 people attending each event, and is currently working on the television adaptation of the book, which will help bring Maggie & Me to a whole new audience
In the meantime, it remains essential reading, not only for those of us who remember Kylie in her first incarnation, but for those of us who may still be struggling to find acceptance in locker-lined school.
Maggie & Me by Damian Barr is available here and in all good bookshops.
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