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April 15, 2014

Book Notes - Damian Barr "Maggie & Me"

Maggie & Me: Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Damian Barr's Maggie & Me is an eloquently told and moving coming-of-age story, one of the most entertaining memoirs I have read in years.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"While it should be heartbreaking, Barr tells a wonderful story, demonstrating the remarkable resilience of a child not only surviving, but succeeding in such a grand way."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Damian Barr's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, Maggie & Me: Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland:


Ours was not a house of books, unless you count my mum's Mills & Boon paperbacks glorying in titles like A Debt Paid in Passion and She Is His. She taught me to read with these so I am perhaps unrealistically romantic. I was heartbroken when my Mum and Dad divorced. Worse, much worse, was to come with their new loves: the creepily glamorous Mary the Canary and the murderously heavy-handed Logan. My family fractured as our community was torn apart—the closing of the last coal mines, the darkening of the vast glowing steelworks where my Dad made the sun set twice every night, the end of a way of life. Everybody bonded over their hatred of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: Maggie. She got the blame for everything and when the IRA bombed her and she dared to survive they couldn't believe it—neither could I. But I was impressed by her, not a hair out of place as she rose from the smoking ruins of the Grand Hotel. We watched her on the telly—one of the few forces bringing my sprawling, brawling family together. We sat on bare floorboards ooohing and ahhing at Carrington mansions hoping for a bitch fight between Alexis and Krystle before our electricity meter ran out of money and the lights went out. I longed for the camera to linger on the square-jawed men with their oh-so-white teeth. My soundtrack reflects Scotland's affair with American culture generally especially the telly and my 1980s childhood.

Theme from Superman The Movie
The first film I remember seeing. My Dad took me leaving my wee sister at home so it was an extra treat having him all to myself. Six foot everything, with Clark Kent curls and Superman's muscles from his job at the steelworks, he lifted me up and flew me in the air as the credits rolled. I swooped through clouds of blue cigarette smoke curling in the light from the projector.

D.I.V.O.R.C.E by Dolly Parton
Mary the Canary, my Dad's new woman, was a nurse by day and country and western singer by night. We were trained to hate her but she seemed so lovely – all dolled up with big blonde hair and bubbly friendly and wanting to be liked. She sang this the first time she met us and I still don't know if she meant it or not. My Dad knocked the record off when she got to the chorus. I persist in seeing the best in people.

The Ink is Black, The Paper is White (*available on an album called Call of Freedom)
The west of Scotland is like Northern Ireland without the bombs—historically there's no love lost between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics supports Celtic Footballs Club and the Pope and Protestants Support Ranger Footballs Club and the Queen. Simple. Except my Mum is Catholic and my Dad is Protestant. A critical factor in my outsiderness and just another reason to hate football. Caught in the middle, I went to technically non-denominational schools where we learnt hymns like this.

Chronicles of Narnia Theme by Geoffrey Burgon
Every time we moved house—and we moved a lot—I would run into the big bedroom and climb in the wardrobe hoping to find Narnia. I haven't found it—yet. These books gave me an escape into a world where good would always triumph over evil. I really thought I was the only child to work out that Aslan was supposed to be Jesus which didn't help my early evangelical tendencies. The BBC TV adaption was brilliant.

Dynasty Theme
The trilling flutes, the swooping strings, the helicopter flying in over Denver, Colorado (the most glamorous place in the world to me then). The good blonde, the bad brunette, the shoulder-pads. The limousines with some of the very first mobile phones—bullion-sized handsets for billionaires. The affairs, divorces and fights all seemed familiar but overlaid with sequins. The Colbys was never as good and Falcon Crest was almost laughable but still we watched. Even in this corner of Thatcher's Britain we were learning to want more.

I've Had the Time of My Life
Dirty Dancing was a major obsession. My best/boy friend Mark and I traded roles as Johnny and Baby and we even found a place to re-enact the famous river. This song has always made me think that everything will be alright, not just alright but amazing.

Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat
"Pushed around and kicked around I was a lonely boy…” It was years before I realised the singer was a man. Anyway, I remember hearing it on the radio when we still huddled round on a Sunday to listen to the charts. I tried taping it but didn't rewind fast enough so only caught a bit. In 1984 me and Mark wanted to run away from our small town—this became our secret anthem.

I Should Be So Lucky by Kylie Minogue
Stock, Aitken and Waterman made all the records that made our 1980s: Kyle Minogue, Jason Donovan and even Stefan Dennis. Basically, anyone who appeared on the Australian soap Neighbours, which we all watched after school, released an album. As bouncy as the spiral perm favoured by all girls and some boys. Despite everything, I have always felt lucky. This song works a charm. Only Kylie survives.

Shipbuilding by Elvis Costello
Even if, like me, you viewed some of Thatcher's evil as necessary, you couldn't ignore the impact. My Dad lost his job at the Ravenscraig Steelworks despite doing everything Maggie demanded. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost across the country—whole communities were destroyed. Some have never recovered. Some will never forgive.

The Rhythm of the Night by Corona
Seguing smoothly from 1980s to 1990s, when me and my friend Mark and our best pal Heather found Glasgow's only gay club and danced and danced and danced. We were too young to drive so we caught the train in and got changed in the toilets. Nobody knew where we were going or what we were up to and we loved imagining their faces IF ONLY THEY KNEW.

Ding Dong the Witch is Dead
Maggie united my community and divided the nation like no leader before or since. My own feelings are complex and often contradictory—she was strong, yes, but that strength became weakness. She was different, like me, and glamorous, like I wanted to be. She inspired me to become an individual. Yet I wouldn't be the man I am without all the other individuals who helped me on the way: Mark, Heather, my Mum, my Dad, my beloved teachers, Kylie even. A campaign to get this song to number one in the week after Thatcher's death—almost exactly a year ago—failed. Which just about says it all.


Damian Barr and Maggie & Me: Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

GQ UK review
Guardian review
Independent review
Kirkus review
Sunday Times review

Public Radio International's The World interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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