Children experience external forces in their lives in the most unlikely ways. The BBC’s WW2 People’s War highlighted the memories of adults whose offspring remembered bright lights in the sky, holidays that they did not know were evacuations and making a bob from salvage. The convergence of a child’s priorities during a disaster and what we know as real events can be surreal and it’s an effect felt continually throughout Damian Barr’s Maggie and Me. The ‘blitz’ in this memoir is the closure of the Ravenscraig steelworks, and although hundreds of workers left its gates for the last time in June 1992, what Barr’s book reminds us of is that the closure took over a decade. The battle for Ravenscraig was already raging when Barr was very young, and as the book opens, with the Brighton bombing of 1984, his father is already worried for his job, even though there were another eight years of decline to go.
Ravenscraig’s demise represented one of Scotland’s worst employment disasters and wasn’t just drawn out and painful; it meant the end of all such heavy industry in Scotland. In its current state, Ravenscraig, once an icon of Scotland’s industrial strength, is one of the largest derelict sites in Europe, an area equivalent to 700 football pitches, or twice the size of Monaco. Twenty-one years on, Motherwell still suffers from what the Thatcher government did there, because even if the closures were an economic necessity, the Tory administration made no attempt to repair or rebuild the local economy.
Barr’s memories are vivid: playing in the slagheaps, hearing the noise of industry and witnessing the furnaces as an orange glow in the night sky. The early moments of Maggie and Me are dominated by the steelworks, and Barr captures the community’s pride in ‘the Craig’ when he says: ‘My Dad makes the sun set twice.’ From this child’s point of view, we learn much about the protracted closure, and in the process unpick lingering questions about Thatcher’s relationship to Scotland.
In the banter of the adults, Barr focuses on the origins and impact of this economic disaster, and we get a sense of the deepening North/South divide, and the balance of power within Scottish society, and the privatisations of the era. The backdrop to Barr’s young life is therefore incredibly sad, and populated with directionless men and women. When British Steel was privatised in 1987, the new company gave an undertaking to continue production at Ravenscraig for seven years, but this did not happen. Within half that time, an area of Scotland which already had some of the highest unemployment in the country, had lost another 11,000 jobs.
Barr grew up in the Buckfast Triangle…His mother, we learn, was prescribed Buckie by her doctor when she was pregnant ‘to build her up’.
The threat to the Craig escalates quietly in the background of Maggie and Me. The young Barr calls the plant ‘Steelopolis’, and describes it fondly, with its cooling towers ‘puffing away together like old biddies at the bus stop.’ The steelworks are a ‘futuristic machine city’, with dancing sparks and men dwarfed by the majestic hugeness of the machinery. This is not the sort of romantic language typical of discourse about Ravenscraig, and it takes a degree of bravery to describe it in such terms. Yet there was a point when the plant was enchanting, with its ‘centipede vehicles’ and ‘spaghetti stacks’. There is currently a new master plan for Ravenscraig—a £1.2 billion new town that will take 20 years to build, but which will supply three and a half thousand houses, a new town centre, retail space and shopping parks. We shall see how that turns out but, as Barr says, reflecting on the homosexual exploits of his adolescence, ‘They’ll never know what went on in their foundations.’
While Ravenscraig colours the physical landscape of Maggie and Me, it isn’t the steel plant that dominates the book, but Barr’s family, and to an extent his sexuality. Whether his family’s disastrous collapse is down to the demise of the steelworks, or social ills beyond the blame of Thatcher, is a constant issue, and although the community is in a nosedive, they have more than their own share of self-inflicted problems. For example Granny Mac, Barr’s grandmother, was a Catholic and his father’s family, the Barrs, were Protestant. Thus the separation of the family seems inevitable. Moreover Barr grew up in the Buckfast Triangle, in Newharthill, ‘where countless men disappear.’ His mother, we learn, was prescribed Buckie by her doctor when she was pregnant ‘to build her up.’
Barr himself suffers a daily diet of bullying. There is a novelistic completeness to the way these stories are presented. At first it seems clear that this is simply the norm, but as we approach 1988 and the codifying of homophobia in Section 28 of the Local Government Act we begin to wonder if the population really is being led into a darker future by the Tories. In discussing privatisation and Section 28, Barr tackles two of the most unpopular landmark decisions made by the Thatcher government. He does so adroitly, becoming a champion of sexual rights simply by affirming to his teacher that he is gay. The teacher is unimpressed but, he says, ‘There’s no punishment for her to dish out.’
Barr quotes Thatcher’s disappointment that children ‘are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay,’ a sentiment that is wrong for many different reasons. But Maggie and Me is not a judgement on Thatcher. Perhaps this is because from a child’s point of view, there is no resolution to these subjects, and so hindsight and innocence share the page. We can’t expect Barr to sympathise with the community losing its jobs (and its will to live), but what kind of empathy can hindsight provide? The answer is plenty. His accounts of the trials and amusements of youth show a real talent for reportage and he is as alive to the humour of the classroom as he is to the nuances of his fast-failing family. His characters are well-drawn Guignols, presented at times in a most gruesome fashion. One is Barr’s dad’s girlfriend, ‘Mary the Canary’, a lipsticked country and western fan whose cooking exploits are hilarious. Then there’s Logan, his mother’s new bloke, who is more than just a child abuser, he’s an inventive sadist who casts an ugly shadow.
As narrator, Barr is devoid of irony and sorrow. As a child of the 1980s, what he seems to miss the most is the television. Thatcher hovers in the background and quotes from her precede each chapter, but the reader is left to judge whether she is at fault for the collective ills of the era. Descriptions of her emerging (‘like a Cyberman off Doctor Who’) from the rubble of the Grand Hotel in Brighton are dropped in to stitch the narrative together, but it’s the adults who are constantly battling her, and it’s this that Barr doesn’t understand. At one stage he half-heartedly joins in a chant of ‘Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!’ because ‘hating her just helps me fit in.’
Even though he wasn’t able to achieve a positive gay identity in Scotland, by the end he has reached the age when he can leave the place forever. Maggie and Me is not, then, a soul-searching awakening to homosexuality, and neither is it a depiction of how Thatcher’s politics took apart Scottish industry. That said, he jokes about one of the first rounds of redundancies she caused. Referring to the end of free milk for school children, Barr comments: ‘… we won’t be needing milk monitors any more. Amanda Ferguson might lose her job. We all might.’
Maggie and Me
Bloomsbury, PP245, £14.99, ISBN 978 1 4088 3806 8