Maggie & Me – Damian Barr

maggieMembers of our group found this book ‘believable’, ‘thoroughly enjoyed’, ‘one of the best for a long time’, one was moved to tears. One, about the same age as the author, thought it to be realistic’.

However, another found the prose to be flat, typical of journalist who has to produce so many words to a deadline: this happened, then that happened etc.

Another thought that there was an abrupt change from the time he was ‘in that awful house to his going clubbing and having money.

Colour in normal life is evoked against a cold war background: We’re still in our uniforms — mine the burgundy and sky-blue of Keir Hardie Memorial Pri­mary School, his the dour brown of St Theresa’s Primary School. In summer the sun never really sets here — you’re further north than you think. There’s always a patch of snow-wash denim blue in the indigo of the night. We know the Soviets are pointing nuclear missiles at us because Glasgow, as Mr Baker points out on the multicoloured globe one day, is on the same latitude as Moscow. The mention of two sunsets (the second being the factory) was evocative.

The author is bullied – never out your faith in those trust exercises done in PSHE lessons: JUMP?! Some pal! I can’t believe this — my best pal in the whole world is offering me up to them. I feel like Aslan on the stone table….. At the end of the Lord’s Prayer I say a quick one in my head asking God to kill Logan and make me like girls so I won’t burn in hell, Amen.

He reads some Aleister Crowley and imagines a spell that would kill his enemies.

Like most children, the author imagines accident or death and the grim satisfaction of supposed reactions of others, especially those who have bullied him: jump I’ll end up one of those pissy-smelling kids in a wheelchair that everybody hates. On the upside, I’ll get loads of sympathy and I’ll never have to do gym again….. I feel them all round me pushing. For a second nothing happens. Then there is only air above and below. We don’t spin or topple, the wardrobe and me. In total darkness we drop like a stone . . . straight down for what seems like for ever and I brace myself, careful not to put my tongue between my teeth because I remember Mr Baker telling us not to in gym. Cool calm floods my veins like the antifreeze in my dad’s Escort. I take deep breaths and think of my mum and my wee sister and my dad and hope they all cry for me…. and I delight in the trouble he’ll be in if I do get run over.

At secondary school: The second years are the meanest, pulling at hair and spitting at us, maybe because they were us so recently. Third years and fourth years are more interested in each other but you’ve still got to be careful. We’re completely beneath the notice of the occasional fifth and sixth years. Sharks don’t eat minnows.

Homophobic bulling by name calling never leaves him: ‘Barbie’, ‘Gay Barr’ and the startlingly original `Gaymian’.

The Christian Union is a respite from bullies and from an unhappy home: At the first assembly she takes, Mrs Rayson announces she’ll be holding a meeting in the gym every Wednesday after school for pupils who want to find out more about Jesus. I need more stories and I’m desperate to go anywhere but home so I head along. ….`Welcome to Scripture Union,’ says Mrs Rayson, smiling. `Jesus said to St Mark: I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. Through Scripture Union you will understand the word of the Lord and come to know Him and love Him just as He loves all of you.’ A huge fart vibrates through the floor before reeking through the air and the perpetrator takes a beamer. ‘Even you, David Dawson: says Mrs Rayson, her kindness stretched but not snapped.

We start off singing ‘The ink is black, the page is white; together we learn to read and write,’ which has a ploddingly pleasing ‘da dum dum dum’. It’s about how we’re all the same inside. I think I’m different inside. This doesn’t have much to do with Jesus and neither does the one about hammering in the morning and the evening. … The right answer produces a Black Jack from her miraculously bottomless handbag. Loaves and fishes. Soon my tongue is swot-black. We learn that how we act in this life decides where we go next. Up or down. We must always speak the truth. If we’re good we’ll go up to heaven and if we’re bad we’ll go down to hell. (Not very good theology) ….. I started coming as an excuse to avoid home but I really do love it now: none of the boys or girls who call me names come here, you don’t have to run or catch a ball and the stories are great. (He tells his father that it meets daily.)

School days are well described: It’s now December and the unpromising bulbs are blooming. Every. Single. One. For reasons only he knows, Mr Baker has lined them all up on the boiling cast-iron radiators. It’s nearly playtime and the flowers, like the pupils, are drooping. We all need watering.

We’re doing decimals and they’re so boring I want to die. They seem pointless. The blackboard has been rolled round from the bit with lines on, which promises letters and words, to the bit with squares on, which threatens numbers and sums. The week we went from familiar fractions to decimals I was off with an asthma attack….). School milk is not rich and cold and creamy. It is watery and slightly grey and too warm. But you have to drink your milk. The older I get the quicker I drain my carton. At the end of the day spare milks, undrunk by absent pupils, are given out as prizes for answering general knowledge questions fired out by Mr Baker. I usually win extra milk this way. Sometimes I take that milk home for my mum’s tea.

As are adults: Mr Baker has a black moustache which grows out of his nose. Maybe it’s all just his nose hair and not an actual mous­tache made of face hair like my dad’s. When he throws his head back to make a point I see right up his nostrils. His specs grip his nose trying hard to hold on.

His family was poor: man we’ve no central heating, none of the flats have. At night in bed your breath clouds above you like dreams. Sometimes I sleep with my school uniform on and try not to move so I don’t get it creased. In the morning Jack Frost’s long thin fingers have scratched inside the windows…. That week there’s no money so me and Teenie have to walk the three miles each way to Keir Hardie.

Council houses are so hard to get that they view one with the dead body of its previous owner still in its coffin in the parlour.

Urban blight is exemplified in a nearby stream: In places it’s three feet deep and it’s where Asda trolleys go to die.

However, television serves as the opium of the people against the grim realities of the Thatcher era. This lad loves Dynasty as the highlight of his week.

Emotions surrounding his parents’ separation surface: But this is my home!’

‘No, it’s not. Not any more. C’mon, son, stop yer greetin’.’ I’m trying to stop, to be brave…. I just stand there. I can’t leave, I won’t leave. So he car­ries me out to our car, a red Ford Escort with black spoiler, even though I am eight and embarrassed to be carried….. You’re the man of the house now: he says. ‘Not long and you’ll have yer own motor! (Putting this pressure3 on a boy may make adults feel happier, along with telling them that ‘Big boys don’t dry’, oblivious to the emotional damage that this causes.) …. the chapel that I used to sneak in with my mum who’s barred because she’s divorced. ‘Jesus disnae care about a daft bit of paper,’ she’d say, bowing her head to cross herself before kneeling at the back.

What a curse is asthma: My mum thinks I’m having an asthma I attack and runs for my ‘puffer’. My inhaler is the very latest in weedy boy technology: it’s a rigid see-through plastic bottle like the cocktail shaker in the James Bond films I watch with my dad at Christmas.

Playground lore, as written up by Iona and Peter Opie, traces children’s games back into history. In this case, we get an example of the tripundium, a medieval dance step to which Christmas carols were set: I walk back from Keir Hardie Memorial Primary School in baby-steps heel-­to-toe and for every three forward I take one back.

We all wondered what secondary school would be like: After the holidays Key starts at Brannock High School, which they’ve not long finished building across the road from Keir Hardie. It’s five floors high – the biggest thing around, except for the Craig. High school pupils use pens instead of pencils and walk between specialised classrooms carrying different-coloured folders for each subject. They sit exams instead of tests. Their bell rings at 3.30 p.m. – a whole extra half-hour of learning, of not being at home.

Once he gets to secondary school, he goes through the once-familiar process of names being called out to see whose form you were in, separation from his best friend who joined a different form and the fact that the bells were louder than at his previous school.

It seems like a world apart but they were using BBC computers back then and BASIC programming.

Like many young readers he doesn’t understand Ex Libris: But they’re not library books, we don’t have to give I them back.

I always wondered what Irn-Bru was and discovered that it was a Scottish carbonated soft drink, and I was amazed, given its strength, that pregnant women were advised to drink Buckfast tonic wine.

There was some debate about the merits of British Summer and Winter time: Now it’s nearly summer there’s no danger of anybody getting run over. The mornings are light and even the night shines through my horrible porridge-coloured curtains well after bedtime.

The book provoked a long discussion about Thatcher. Presumably the author refers to her as he sees himself as a survivor, like her. He’s far too optimistic about Thatcher – seeing her as essentially well-meaning (quotations from her head every chapter and shows how out of touch she was, including the infamous, ‘`Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.’ and the odd, even scary ‘`Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul.’): They all blame Maggie like she’s personally going to come and flick a big switch to OFF. I don’t think she will. I don’t think she’s as bad as they say and if she knew how hard my dad worked she’d keep it open for ever. At school we sign petitions and write letters to our local MR ‘They can’t put all those men out a job,’ says Jane in the gift shop at the Grotto. I feel guilty about not visiting her so much but I’ve got Mark now My dad says the Craig makes more steel than any other plant in the world so it will never shut. We will always have two sunsets, maybe if Maggie saw them? If it did close I wouldn’t have to worry about my dad any more – a boy at school told me his uncle pulled a man with no legs left out the furnace and he kept burning away even in the hospital until there was nothing left to bury but his screaming mouth. Better to be pushed under.

The kids sometimes play in a graveyard but are also afraid of it: there’s no such thing as vampire this graveyard is full of crucifix-shaped tombstones, aren’t all graveyards? You’d think Dracula would find a less stressful place to sleep.

Owing to poor or non-existent sex education, the author thinks he has AIDS as a result of a bit of ‘experimenting’ with other boys and sees an article in a Sunday paper: about Tom Jones being a sex addict who cleans his cock with Listerine to stop AIDS after all-night romps. Minutes later I’m in my granny’s bathroom feeding my cock into her mouthwash.

There some loose ends – his mother failed to pick him up after school one day but we never find out why.

All in all, an upbeat, positive story told nonchalantly.

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