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Singular take on Maggie's impact on gay author, U.K.

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THE "Maggie" of the title is the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The "me" is author Damian Barr.

It's an unlikely intersection, but one that has yielded a fine memoir about the drama, pain and humour of growing up gay, gifted and poor.

Barr is a British journalist and playwright, and author of a previous non-fiction work, Get It Together: How to Survive Your Quarterlife Crisis (2006).

His childhood story, well-timed given Thatcher's death last month, re-creates places (Newarthill, and later nearby Carfin, Scotland, both near Glasgow) and a time (roughly concurrent with Thatcher's 1979-1990 prime-ministerial reign).

But it's also an indictment of a British welfare state that gave a sizable slice of Scottish society the inalienable right to be lazy, stupid and self-destructive -- and, worse, destructive of their children.

Part of Barr's admiration for Thatcher, whom he calls "Maggie" throughout, stems from her ceaselessly chiding Brits to stop depending on, and indulging in, the benefits of a nanny state and to take responsibility for their own lives and futures.

Even as a child he saw evidence of the downward spiral of British society in his own family and neighbourhood, so her declarations resonated with him from an early age.

Each chapter begins with a quote from a Thatcher speech, interview or memoir that illustrates her will, or her arch-conservative credo.

Maggie functioned as the lodestone of a possibility of a better life.

Odd, on two counts, for a kid like Barr.

First, he was working class in Labour Party-dominated industrial towns whose money-bleeding mills Tory Maggie closed. Second, he was gay, and Maggie wasn't persuaded homosexuality was anything other than an aberrant lifestyle choice.

Barr's mother loved him, and wanted the best for him. But she had genuine health problems, greatly exacerbated by alcoholism and a penchant for taking up with feckless and abusive men.

Early on she abandoned the only good and steadfast man in young Damian's life, his birth father, for a closet child abuser (albeit not sexually). During Barr's adolescence she took up with a man who had a talent for manic drinking and rampant vandalism, and little else.

The only thing that redeems certain incidents from being appalling, or appallingly sad, is Barr's writerly chops.

He has an uncanny ability to employ wit to flip you from a wince to a smile -- and sometimes right back again.

When need be, he conveys maximum visceral impact, like a Scottish Frank McCourt of Angela's Ashes fame. You can smell the booze, the rot and the stench, feel the cold and the damp, sense the grit and filth of a blasted urban-industrial landscape.

The memoir details Barr's life from childhood through adolescence, grinding to a halt as he completes high school. A superb student despite his family environment, he won scholarships that enabled him to attend university and flee his chastened existence.

Only the next to last chapter isn't sequential. It's an elegiac visit to the places that shaped him 20 years after he has left.

It's also a hymn of gratitude to the prime minister who earned, and latterly appreciated, the moniker "the Iron Lady."

"Be strong, Maggie told us all," he writes. "Get educated. Get away. That's what she said. I listened."

Like the rest of Barr's memoir, it's a singular take on the changes he wrought for himself. And Maggie wrought for Britain.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

Maggie & Me

By Damian Barr

Anansi, 256 pages, $23

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 J9

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