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.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution