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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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad