Maggie and Me
By Damian Barr
Barr discovered Margaret Thatcher in 1984, the night his parents split up. He was eight, in a strange new home, curled into the curve of his mother’s arm and dreading the moment she would go to join her boyfriend in bed. On TV was coverage of the IRA bombing in Brighton, at the hotel where Thatcher was staying. Barr marvelled at the indomitable blond woman, her remarkable calm as bloodied bodies were pulled from the rubble. At the moment, his own life seemed to be falling apart, Barr cleaved to the Iron Lady’s strength.
Since Thatcher’s recent death, reviews of her legacy have noted the acrimony her policies bred in small-town Scotland, where Barr grew up. His father worked at the Ravenscraig steel mill (closed by Thatcher’s administration), which would turn the sky orange on the nights he helped pour out tons of liquid steel. These second sunsets, as Barr thought of them, helped him stay connected to his dad, but they couldn’t protect him from his abusive stepfather, the stigma of being gay or, later, the shame of living in a council house where the adults blew their disability cheques on weekly drunken bashes. Barr took solace from Thatcher’s gospel of hard work and responsibility, and pushed himself at school.
Barr has pegged this memoir to the woman he calls his “other mother,” but its biggest strength is the heart with which he depicts his own family. Rather than focusing on the suffering caused by his mother’s alcoholism and poor choice in men, Barr writes about her warmth and loyalty. And feistiness—the way she smiled sunnily at her ex-husband’s girlfriend, then shouted “Hoor!” in her face. Best of all is the poignant humour with which Barr remembers his younger self—his annotations in The Catcher in the Rye: “OXYMORONIC!”; his calls to random numbers in which he’d utter “Help me,” then hang up. It’s too bad Maggie didn’t live to read this book. She’d have been proud of Barr’s resilience—and his generosity of spirit.