In a memorable scene in Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker-winning novel, The Line of Beauty (2004), set in London in the summer of 1983, the protagonist, Nick Guest, dances with Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister of England, at a party. Compared to the rest of the dramatis personae, richly imagined and portrayed by Hollinghurst, Mrs Thatcher feels like a curiously hollow invention—a character who plays cameo role in a human drama to which she actually happens to be quite central. The Line of Beauty unfolds in the long and grim shadow of the Thatcherite era, but the Iron Lady appears in it only fleetingly. It is her spirit that remains omnipresent, hovering insidiously over the lives of the other characters and wreaking havoc over their destinies.
Something similar happens in journalist Damian Barr’s memoir, Maggie & Me, published earlier this year, fortuitously timed with Thatcher’s death. Born in 1976, in the village of North Lanarkshire in Scotland, Barr was eight when Mrs Thatcher survived the attempt on her life in Brighton in 1984. The book opens with little Barr and his mother, Lynn, staring “at the telly” in which “this blond woman rises from rubble again and again like a Cyberman off Doctor Who.” But the date 12 October, 1984 is etched in Barr’s memory for a deeply personal reason as well. It was on that day that his mother left his father and moved in with Logan, a violent and abusive man, who would change Barr’s life decisively.
Moving between personal reminiscence and political history, Maggie & Me tells a familiar story of a sensitive boy growing up in a dysfunctional family, scorned by his peers for being Protestant, poor and a “poof” to boot. The disintegration of Barr’s family life is mirrored by radical changes in the national agenda. Barr’s mother has a cerebral stroke, which leaves him exposed to the brutality of his step-father. Thatcher puts an end to the daily carton of free milk given to schoolchildren across England. Barr’s father, working for a dwindling plant in the “Steelopolis” of Lanarkshire, acquires a girlfriend who fancies herself a ballad singer. She is mockingly called “Mary the Canary” and “Pound Shop Dolly Parton” by Barr’s maternal aunt and grandmother.
At school, Barr is ridiculed as “Gaymian”, “Dame Barr”, “Barbie” or “Aidsy” for being a homosexual, a fact that he admits to himself, let alone to anyone else, much later, only after he had gone through the ritual of dating a girl, who turns into a lifelong friend. Along the way, there are the usual encounters with callow and self-serving boys, with the exception of Mark, who later meets a tragic end.
Although not a work of fiction, Maggie & Me reminded me of Philip Hensher’s mammoth novel, The Northern Clemency (2008), another document of Thatcher’s England. Both books make scathing indictments of a certain kind of political philosophy by chronicling its effect on the lives of a small group of people. Unequivocally critical of Thatcher’s policies, Barr scrupulously steers clear of self-pity, though there seems to be a peculiar lack of irony in his concluding remarks about Thatcher. A roll-call of her negative achievements ends, for instance, with a rather intriguing statement: “You also saved my life…You were different, like me, and you had to fight to be yourself.” In spite of the similarities between Barr’s and Thatcher’s working class origins, the simile seems far-fetched, if not inappropriate.
This fortnightly column, which appears on Fridays, talks about readers, writers and publishers of the past, present and future.