Reviewed: Maggie & Me by Damian Barr

Iron age.

Maggie & Me
Damian Barr
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

Though you might not think so, given the specialised nature of the genre, the British “high-concept” 1970s or 1980s coming-of age memoir is a crowded field. It can’t be easy to elbow your way to the front with a new conceit. Most of the good ones are already gone – football (Nick Hornby), camping (Emma Kennedy), food (Nigel Slater), music (everyone) – and it can’t be long before the “growing up a vegetarian skinhead on Sark during the three-day week” memoir or some such tome hoves into view. Damian Barr, the author of this one, is even running a pricey course in how to write them, so we have a right to expect much. What he has given us manages to deliver and short-change simultaneously.

Barr is perhaps best known for his Shoreditch House Literary Salons, in which you can sip a Gibson Martini while listening to the likes of Diana Athill, Maggie O’Farrell and Joanne Harris, all of whom have loyally provided handsome cover recommendations here. Barr has not always moved in such chichi circles, as Maggie & Me bracingly makes clear. While she was at war in the South Atlantic or battling the unions, he – gay, asthmatic, geeky – was dealing with all manner of bullies and tribulations on a rundown Scottish council housing scheme, most notably in the shape of his mum’s implausibly monstrous boyfriend, Logan.

Thus far, this is fairly standard for what is known in the trade as a “misery memoir”. But, perhaps because he was aware of this, what Barr seeks to do – when he remembers – is to plot the course of his turbulent, working- class adolescence against the imperious, battleship-like progress of Maggie through her years of influence. John O’Farrell has done this kind of thing with Labour politics as a backdrop but no one, to my knowledge, has done what Barr has done –or if they have, they haven’t done it with such sensational timing. My copy of Maggie & Me arrived about an hour before the titular heroine bowed out for the last time. I’m not suggesting that anyone connected with the book would “rejoice at that good news” but it will probably not do sales any harm – however, it could mean that some might (wrongly) see it as a speedy cash-in.

Though we do get the obligatory set dressing of pop groups and TV shows – there is a coy, lengthy riff on Hart to Hart – and though the period detail is ladled on like Ski yoghurt, unlike most volumes of this kind, Maggie & Me is short on jokes and long on raw, pungent atmosphere. Barr has a keen eye for wincingly evocative detail: the wooden tongs used to fish items out of the drum of the tumble dryer; the new, clear-plastic asthma inhaler that is the “latest in weedy boy technology”. On the wall of his childhood home hangs a free calendar given away by the local Chinese takeaway. All of this rings true and is expressed with a kind of grim lyricism.

Elsewhere, the touch is less sure and sometimes there’s an unconvincing neatness to some of the episodes. The vivid recollection of a teacher’s classroom speech about the ending of free school milk seems too good to be true. Though his mother’s description of his dad’s brassy new amour as a “pound shop Dolly Parton” is lovely, there were no pound shops in the mid-1980s. Would a parent really use Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver as a touchstone reference in conversation with primary-school-age kids? There are many examples of this false-memory syndrome and whether they’re the products of forgetfulness or fabrication, they harden the heart against the book.

Stylistically, Barr is a capable writer, if prone to lapses. Writing of the iconic Caledonian snack the Tunnocks Teacake, he mentions two different women using their nails to “crack the chocolate dome” without harming the mallow beneath twice in the space of a few chapters, which suggests either that he’s inordinately pleased with this image or that the book could have done with a keener edit. The ghastliness is somewhat unrelenting, as is the casual violence. Usually. Expressed. In. Staccato. Sentences. Like. This. Ultimately, what’s most deflating about the book is the transparent fraudulence of the whole Maggie angle. Mrs T is not so much shoehorned in as cheaply welded on in the form of a brief quotation at the beginning of each chapter and a hasty, muddled eulogy at the end. In Barr’s drama, Maggie doesn’t even have a bit part. She’s a voice-off. Very, very far off.

Barr writes of Thatcher: “I love her and hate her in equal measure.” Maggie & Me doesn’t plunge you into the grip of emotions quite so strong – but it may leave you just as conflicted.

Stuart Maconie presents “Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone” on BBC Radio 6 Music. His most recent book is “Hope and Glory: a People’s History of Modern Britain” (Ebury Press, £7.99)

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem