Sally Hodgkinson talks with the award-winning Scottish writer about class, sexuality, moving to Austin, and growing up gay in Thatcher’s Britain.
Photo by Jonathan Ring
Damian Barr’s memoir, Maggie & Me, is a surprising and often funny story of surviving a dismal childhood in a Scottish mining town whilst Britain was being rearranged by the ferocious privatization and union-busting crusades of Margaret Thatcher. Yet while Thatcherism dealt relentless blows to his community in the 1980s, it was also Thatcher who fueled Barr’s boyhood determination to escape to a better life. He felt sorry for her, he believed her, and he liked her hair.
The unlikelihood of Thatcher’s positive influence on Barr as a child should not be underestimated. Disgust for the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century covered the left-wing community of Barr’s childhood like a thick layer of dust. Barr is clearly not a Tory, but he boldly relates to Thatcher in a deeply personal way—as an outsider rather than as a politician. He privately thrived on her strength while he and everyone he knew suffered under her policies.
At school he was the son of a proud steel miner as Thatcher shut down the mines; a Catholic in a protestant community; a loving brother amongst “angry men”; and a homosexual boy in a time and place where serious discussion in schools about homosexuality was made illegal under The Iron Lady’s infamous “Clause 28.”
I interviewed Barr at Shoreditch House in East London. He asked me almost as many questions as I asked him. He was charming and enthusiastic and very tall; it is hard to imagine him as the vulnerable, tormented boy in the book.
Thatcher died just weeks before Maggie & Me hit shelves in the UK, offering a timely, yet morbid, boost to its release. The memoir became a bestseller and is now being published in the U.S. The uncanny, almost Karmic, timing of events was not lost on Barr. “That’s market forces in action,” he wrote in The Guardian. “Profit-in-loss. It’s what she would have wanted, isn’t it?”
—Sally Hodgkinson for Guernica
Eventually the fear of not doing it becomes greater than the fear of doing it.
Guernica: I understand you were encouraged to turn Maggie & Me into a novel. Tell me about the decision to stick with writing a memoir.
Damian Barr: I started writing when I was a journalist. But every time I sat down to write a novel or a story, I ended up writing about myself, which was incredibly annoying and self-involved. I accumulated lots of fragments and bits of stuff. I read one of Diana Athill’s memoirs, and her mother tells her something like “you’re not the only pebble on the beach.” It was that idea that you have to privilege yourself to tell your own story—and that there is a certain arrogance to telling your story. So I decided that if what I was doing was tell my own story, then I would commit to that rather than write a thinly veiled first novel. It’s about my life growing up in Scotland under Thatcher. It’s about a real time and place and a way of life that is gone. I wanted to capture that.
Guernica: In the Acknowledgements, you write about how you felt you needed to relive your life in order to rediscover your story, rather than remember it.
Damian Barr: Yes, memory implies that there is some static time and place you can go back to, whereas if you relive it by trying to put yourself back in that context, its more nuanced, less black and white. More traumatic, but also more exciting. When I knew I had to write about things that would be painful, I put off doing it for ages. But then eventually the fear of not doing it becomes greater than the fear of doing it. The hardest bits of my book to read were the easiest bits to write because they were the most immediate. Probably because I had never stopped thinking about them on some level. Those bits I was just channelling and those were the most exciting writing days. It felt was like an episode of Murder She Wrote on speed. The bits I found harder were the bits that happen in between, you know, the rest of living. There were whole years, whole houses, that I just got rid of.
Guernica: The book describes with great frankness a great deal of physical and emotional abuse that you suffered at the hands of your step-father and also your peers. Was it cathartic to speak out on the page?
I was incredibly poor at a time of great prosperity—at least, there was prosperity on the television.
Damian Barr: Yes. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are very often not really what happened. And as I started to write stuff down, I started to challenge what I thought I knew about myself, my culture, my family, all of it. It was a huge, destroying process that completely took over my life. I just wasn’t here, I mean I was physically present, but I wasn’t here, I was back in the 1980s. You don’t realise how much you’re holding onto until you start to let go of it. I had had loads of therapy and thought I had come to terms with who I am, but there’s something in the process of writing that unlocks other experiences, other emotions and you have to be prepared for that.
Guernica: What kind of effect did that discovery have on you?
Damian Barr: Because I work at other things, whenever I get a chance to write I feel grateful for it. But I learned that sometimes, I couldn’t do anything else and I shouldn’t plan to do anything that night or the next day. There were times when I was writing something difficult for days or weeks and when I’d finish, I would get up and go out of my shed into the garden and be sick. I had terrible migraines.
Guernica: Maggie & Me is wrapped in the words and actions of Thatcher’s Britain, but it remains a very personal account of your childhood. How did you decide on the ‘Maggie’ framework?
Damian Barr: I had all these fragments. When I came to write, I found she was there all the time. The title came to me very early on. I didn’t have a lot of constants in my life, I moved a lot, my family wasn’t a constant. Maggie was constant. She was everywhere. Maybe not always in my face, but always present on the television, in the papers. She was part of the culture in a way that I think no other politician could be again. I found her conviction and certainty attractive as a child. She was blamed for everything in my community. When the last 50 pence would go out on the meter, it was always, “Fucking Maggie.” Everyone hated her. And I slightly felt like everyone hated me. She was an outsider. And I felt like an outsider. I felt sorry for her. And that sympathy was the place from which to explore my relationship with her.
Guernica: You mentioned having lots of fragments. How did you decide what to include and leave out in the end?
Damian Barr: I cut a lot of cringy sex stuff and a lot of stuff I thought was too personal. I think secret gardens are very special. I think we all have to have them. I think the secret of memoirs is keeping those parts of yourself off the page, which makes what you do share more valuable.
Guernica: Does the humor in the book reflect how you dealt with things growing up? The harsh truths of the book are padded with humor, but it doesn’t, I don’t think, mask the pain or severity of your experiences.
Damian Barr: Nor should it. But it did in early drafts. There was a lot of “funny” to distract you from the actual horror. I went through in the edits and cut tons of stuff that was “funny” because if it wasn’t funny at the time, so it shouldn’t be funny now. It’s about having that unity of experience. You have to try and take away your hindsight knowledge of a situation. I had to do things to myself on the page that had been done to me in real life. I had to try and drown myself in the bath. You have to do that. And the impulse is to rescue yourself and to spare the reader, but I can’t rescue myself. And why should I spare the reader when nobody spared me? It’s telling people what happened.
Guernica: You refer a number of times to wanting to be a journalist growing up—a figure like Mrs. Hart from the 80s American TV show Hart to Hart. And you have and do still write for a number of major British broadsheets. Did your experience as a journalist help or hinder how you told your own story?
Damian Barr: I think in the beginning it hindered me a lot because I kept trying to include facts, about the elections or privatisation, but I hadn’t known those facts at the time, I didn’t have Google.
Guernica: Your book came out in the UK about a year ago, just weeks before Thatcher died. How has it been received?
It was only when I went to study in Texas and saw the amount of my scholarship—$30,000 or whatever it was—that I understood that the creation of a market for education is the creation of a massive under-educated class and a tiny privileged elite.
Damian Barr: I felt like the reactions were predictably polarised from the left and the right. I got called a “class traitor” and was accused of having some sort of “internalised homophobia”. And I was even called an “Uncle Tom” on the advocate websites in the U.S., which was really hurtful. I mean, we are allowed to have different views …
Guernica: But you’ve also received a lot of praise for the book, including the Sunday Times Memoir of the Year 2013 Award and the Stonewall Writer of the Year Award.
Damian Barr: Yes, and I just won an award for humour and satire too, so I am now officially a funny memoir writer and officially a gay writer.
Yes, the vast majority of people have been incredibly positive and open. My best feedback from readers has been when they say, “I thought I was going to hate this book,” but found they enjoyed it. I think it’s interesting that the paperback doesn’t have Thatcher on the cover. In part that’s for all those people who don’t want to be seen reading a Maggie Thatcher book. And that’s why I think the book has done well on Kindle—there is a sort of shame.
Guernica: You’re involved in all sorts of projects like your Reading Weekends in the countryside, bringing drive-in cinema to urbanites in London, and running your famed Literary Salons featuring major authors like Brett Easton Ellis, David Nicholls and Diana Athill, among many others. Do you find it difficult to settle on one project?
Damian Barr: I could never do just one thing, but everything I do is in the direction of stories. Sometimes writing them, sometimes showcasing them, sometimes letting people see them. We are hosting a Literary Salon in Toronto at the end of April, which I am excited about. I only choose what I love. The salons are always a mixture of established and emerging authors. If I don’t like it, I can’t feature it.
Guernica: Do you consider yourself to be Scottish before British?
Damian Barr: Definitely. I am a product of Scottish values.
Guernica: Can you describe, in that case, your need to escape your hometown? You now live in Brighton, England.
Damian Barr: Brighton was like the Emerald City. It’s the same as for someone who maybe grew up in small town Ohio and dreamed of getting to New York City. I grew up in the most left-wing place in the country. I went to a school named after the founder of the Labour party during the time when we had the most right-wing government in living history. So the contrast couldn’t have been greater. I was incredibly poor at a time of great prosperity—at least, there was prosperity on the television. But I have never been a miserable person. I always knew I was going to get away.
Guernica: Do you support Scottish Independence?
Damian Barr: Scotland has always been independent. We have our own legal system, our own culture; I don’t see the issue. We are different and I think we should celebrate those differences within the union. I can see what would be lost, but don’t necessarily see what would be gained by breaking away. What does upset me is that I can’t vote in Scotland.
Guernica:Why is that?
Damian Barr: If you are a Scot living outside of Scotland but still in the UK, you are not allowed to vote in the referendum. This leaves over a million of loyal, proud Scots disenfranchised. It gives me the rage.
I wanted to get far far away. If I could have gone to the moon, I would have.
Guernica: There is a bit in the book where your father warns you about becoming a yuppy because you’d told him you planned to go to university. Did that sort of reverse snobbery inspire you to work even harder?
Damian Barr: Yes. When I joined The Times [in London] I found very few colleagues that had not gone to public [i.e. fee-paying] school. And I was lucky in that I was in the last year before tuition fees came into effect at universities. You only paid for your living expenses because, you know, education is a right and not a privilege and we used to understand that in the UK. It was only when I went to study in Texas and saw the amount of my scholarship—$30,000 or whatever it was—that I understood that the creation of a market for education is the creation of a massive under-educated class and a tiny privileged elite.
Guernica: You accepted a scholarship to UT-Austin from your English university without even knowing where the city was on a map. Why did you want to study in America?
Damian Barr: I wanted to get far far away. If I could have gone to the moon, I would have. And I defy you not to love Austin. Austin is like a diamond formed by the pressure from all the insane bigotry that surrounds it. That’s where I really started to do journalism, on the Austin American-Statesman. In a weird way it’s where the book started, because it was where I started therapy.
Guernica: It must have felt like it cost the same as going to the moon too. But in addition to your scholarship, you had some anonymous help?
Damian Barr: I had a mysterious benefactor that paid for my living expenses.
Guernica: It is a great story in the book about you being summoned back to your old school to meet with this mysterious benefactor’s lawyer, who asks you how much money you think you’ll need and then writes the check for twice the amount you propose. It’s the stuff of dreams, especially for an eighteen-year-old trying to escape. Have you ever discovered who the anonymous benefactor was?
Damian Barr: No. I thought it might have been the lawyer himself, or my teachers, but it wasn’t. I have no idea who gave me the money. I would love to. The only stipulation was that I write letters to him every year while I was away to say what I was up to, but it fact, I have never stopped writing to him. He may be really bored, thinking, “Can you leave me alone please?”
For a long time I truly thought to be a writer you had to be dead.
Guernica: After having so many hardships growing up, it must have felt like extraordinary generosity.
Damian Barr: Yeah, I mean, aside from being life-saving, it showed me that random good things could happen as well as random bad things. I’ve set up a scholarship at my old school to support troubled gay kids—especially if they want to get away. And I am becoming a Patron of the charity Ministry of Stories in the UK to help kids access reading and writing. Stories saved my life, they really did. I didn’t think I could be a writer when I was growing up. For a long time I truly thought to be a writer you had to be dead. Because all the writers were dead, so that didn’t seem like a very attractive career option …
Guernica: It’s an incongruous time for gay rights globally right now. Russia’s anti-gay policies are even worse than Thatcher’s Clause 28. But at the same time gay marriage has just been legalised in Britain. Do you feel the need to be politically active on behalf of the LGBT community?
Damian Barr: I did a literary salon in Moscow a couple of years ago and there was a gay guy there who told us not to go on Grinder or any of the social media apps in Moscow because people would hunt us. That was absolutely terrifying, but then at the same time I was also invited to a gay, naturist dinner party in the Kremlin by a woman who said, “well of course we’ll need women there, just in case anyone arrives to explain why there are naked men.”
I do feel a responsibility. It’s a privilege to be able to speak about it, but I don’t speak for all gay people. I was asked to do a column once called Gay About Town and I turned it down. It just seemed so totalizing. I am a gay writer, but I am also a Scottish writer and some days a lazy writer, or a funny writer. Being gay is just a part of who I am.