Saturday, 10 August 2013


Where were you when Maggie died? I’d be surprised if you can find a single person this week who can’t answer that question. (I was in a hotel in Seoul, in case you’re interested, about to go to bed.) Because, unpalatable as this may be I, and everyone else born between the mid-sixties and late-seventies, are Thatcher’s Children; the generation Thatcher privatised.

Maggie. It’s such a seemingly inoffensive diminutive, for one who could most definitely not be described as inoffensive by even her most ardent admirers. She was our Iron Mother, and we were a constant source of disappointment to her. Like the teacher’s voice in Charlie Brown she was always there, in the background, admonishing, punishing, finger-wagging. If you were lucky. If you weren’t, she was in the foreground, closing the steelworks where your dad worked, waging a war you didn’t really understand over an island you’d never heard of and couldn’t find on a map, stealing your school milk.

(At this point, I have a confession to make: I hated that milk. Warm and claggy, and on the days when the milkman left it outside the school long before the teachers arrived, rank and sour, too lumpy to make its way up the skinny pink straw. The day I went to school and the milk was no more was one of the happiest of my short life, and I wasn’t alone. A generation of junior school pupils rejoiced. Little did we know what else the milk snatcher had in that big square handbag she always carried.)

Which is where Damian Barr’s brutally honest (and often just brutal) memoir, Maggie & Me comes in. Barr was three in 1979, the year Thatcher came to power, born in the shadow of the Ravenscraig steelworks to a Catholic mother and Protestant father. Then his parents split up. His new stepfather, Logan, was terrifying and abusive; his father took up with Motherwell’s answer to Dolly Parton, Mary the Canary. And life for the small boy who already knew he didn’t quite fit got a whole lot worse.

If that was all there was to Maggie & Me, it would be more than enough. For this story of growing up in small town Scotland in the shadow of AIDS as Barr tries to neither die of ignorance (“I catch AIDS in 1987. I’m not sure exactly how but I’ve definitely caught it so I’m definitely going to die: horribly and soon. I’m eleven.”) nor difference, will make mincemeat of your heart.

But this is no ordinary memoir, it is also an anatomy of an age. An age in which the UK was transformed. The eighties.

Starting in Brighton with the bombing of the Grand Hotel (“Shit disnae burn, Maggie won’t,” says Barr’s mum), it ends back there in a different world entirely, one irrevocably changed by Thatcher’s policies.

Barr begins each chapter with a quote from Thatcher. But two struck me as particularly pertinent: “I would say, let our children grow tall and some taller than others if they have the ability in them to do so. Because we must build a society in which each citizen can develop his full potential…” and “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.”

Barr is the living proof of the contradiction that lies at the heart of the children Thatcher made. He believed in his right to grow taller, to develop his own potential, in his inalienable right to be gay. He is, by his own admission, Thatcher’s child. Like it or not, we all are. 

I can’t say enough about this book. It’s Shameless meets Starter for Ten, without the cheating. And not everyone gets a happy ending. Maggie didn’t. But Barr does, and he deserves it.

Maggie & Me is published by Bloomsbury, 25th April.

(This piece was first published on Bazaar on Books blog,, 11th April 2013.)

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