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Maggie & Me author Damian Barr: 'Today's Tories are far beyond Thatcher's darkest dreams'

Today's crop of Tories are in territory their prime matriarch would fail to comprehend, argues Maggie & Me author Damian Barr

Damian Barr. Image: James Chapelard

When watching rehearsals of the new stage adaptation of his memoir Maggie & Me, Damian Barr had to resist the urge to help.

“Seeing an actor playing you being bundled by bullies into a wardrobe and then that wardrobe being pushed down a hill and exploding on stage, I wanted to run on in rehearsals and save the actors or myself,” said the author, speaking about the new stage adaptation of his memoir Maggie & Me. “And I wanted to save my mother, my brother, my sister and my father from what is about to happen.”

What is about to happen is what might be described as Maggie & Me version 2.0, a new take on Barr’s memoir mounted by the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) touring Scotland and the north of England this spring.

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The production of the award-winning story, which was published in 2013, zooms out from the harrowing narrative of the author’s childhood and places him as an adult character (played by Boiling Point’s Gary Lamont) watching his life play out through the memories of the troubles he endured as a boy growing up in Thatcher-era Lanarkshire.

Damian Barr’s personal traumas while coming of age in the double sunsets of the doomed Ravenscraig Steelworks are paralleled by the societal trauma wreaked on Scotland’s industries by her policies. 

As the furnaces cooled and were eventually blown down, the young Barr was grappling for survival amid the head-spinning tumult of physical abuse, growing up gay in a hard-handed society trammelled by tombstone Aids adverts on the telly and Section 28 in the classrooms which imposed a veil of silence, secrecy and shame on the lives of young people who thought they might be something other than straight.

It took Barr seven years to finish writing his memoir. Adapting it for stage with playwright James Ley has taken much less time. Still, watching himself being roughhoused through his tender years hasn’t been any easier than writing it was for the journalist, author, TV presenter and former Big Issue columnist.

Barr said: “I’ve had nightmares that I have not had for years. I have had to sit in meetings talking about myself in the third person. Talking about the moment when my mum’s boyfriend nearly drowned me in the bath, talking about that as a scene and something that has to work on stage, and the responsibilities that you have to other actors to make that safe.

Maggie & Me rehearsal. Image: Tommy Ga-Ken

“I’m there thinking, ‘This actually happened to me, but now it’s work.’ It’s not like the thing is happening again, but you have to go back into the burning building and come out with something different.

“I have clear boundaries about things that I don’t want to see dramatised, and things from my past that aren’t in the book. But there are also things I have put on stage that I didn’t put in the book. Things that I can handle now.”

The theatre company have provided Damian Barr with two therapists throughout the process. They’ve also given him tickets near an exit.

“It’s loads of fun,” he said. “Very exciting. I love dialogue and all the humour is expanded on. But it’s not easy.

“You’re much more vulnerable with memoir,” said the Bellshill-born author, whose first novel, You Will Be Safe Here, was published in 2019.  “It’s another level with the play, sitting with a bunch of strangers watching the most intimate moments of my life played out. I don’t know how that is going to feel. I have seats near the door so I can run if I need to.”

For Barr, who lives with his husband on the south coast of England, the distance travelled by British politics since those days of Thatcherism has taken today’s Tories into territory their prime matriarch would fail to comprehend.

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“I think people thought Margaret Thatcher was as bad as it could get. But you look at the current Conservative government at Westminster and it’s far beyond anything even in Thatcher’s darkest dreams. 

“There was a sense of conviction. She did things I didn’t agree with but they weren’t just power for the sake of power.

“I think a lot of the seeds of the bitter harvest we have today were sown then. But you have Conservative politicians invoking Thatcher now that I think even Thatcher would be repelled by.”

Maggie & Me has been followed by Booker-winner Douglas Stuart, whose novels Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo mine similar territory, and newcomer artist Juano Diaz, whose recent memoir Slum Boy tells of his rise in New York art society after a tragic start in Glasgow. I suggest to Damian Barr that he’s blazed a trail for a new genre in queer Scottish literature.

“If me writing my story can help others tell theirs then that gives me great joy,” he said. 

“Compare the number of books about Motherwell and Newarthill and Glasgow to the number about Edinburgh and London, or even specific postcodes in London, and you see there’s a need for representation.

“I went to bookshelves looking for stories about people like me when I was younger and they just weren’t there. 

“It took me ages to find my voice, to become myself in order to write that book. And that voice is the voice that you will hear in Maggie & Me on stage. 

“I hope people leave thinking that their story is worth telling, too. Everybody has a story. And stories are for everybody.”

Maggie & Me is touring Scotland 7 May-15 June.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.

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