“UNEMBARRASSED (PLASTIC?) HALF-JOCK”
Maggie & Me
This is a sort-of autobiography of a man in his mid-thirties, of (religiously) mixed parents in industrial Scotland. Such things matter in the central belt of Scotland, but it is more a matter of ethnic origin than religious feeling. The vast majority of RCs in Scotland are of Irish origin, and that mark (of Cain?) can stretch well beyond the fifth generation. Damian Barr’s ‘Catholic’ parent was his mother who was religiously indifferent, if not somewhat hostile to the church, on the grounds that she was divorced. ‘Damian’ is definitely a ‘Catholic’ name, it became popular in the twentieth century due to a Belgian priest who ministered to lepers in Molokai a south Pacific island. He (Mr. Barr) may, given his age, have been named for the central character in a Hollywood horror movie. Given that that character was the Devil, no less, in disguise, that notion may be inaccurate. But there were an awful lot of ‘Damian’s’ so named in the late 1970s an early ’80s. The Belgian missionary’s surname was rendered ‘Damien’.
Damian Barr was sent to State schools rather than semi-independent Catholic ones. Despite the ‘Taig’ name he wasn’t given too much hassle. That, in ever-increasing quantities, was brought on by the fact that he was deemed to be queer quite early in his schooldays. ‘Gay Barr’, ‘Gaymian’ and other more brutal nicknames followed him from primary to secondary school. That he was very tall and willowy from his very early teens didn’t help, nor that he was the smartest in his class. His first encounter with genuine disappointment was not getting a big prize in his secondary (the Scottish equivalent of a Grammar) school for being an all-round brilliant pupil. He was half way out of his seat before another boy’s name was called, and he was surprised at how angry and disappointed he was. Despite that, he tended to win every other prize worth having, including one to study in Cambridge. He had been expecting to go to Strathclyde. He wasn’t snooty about that eventuality, but Cambridge was a usefully long way away from prying family, neighbours and ‘friends’.
It really isn’t much of a ‘story’ but it is very well written and he tells us about his intimate friendship with a handsome fair haired boy, “Mark”, who decides in their very early teens that there is something wrong with the relationship. He (Mark) become heavily involved with girls, a large plurality of them. He doesn’t get forced into marriage because the girls, mostly, insist on condoms being used. Mark acknowledges Damian when the latter returns to the isolated housing estate (called ‘schemes’ in Scotland) on the periphery of Glasgow they lived in. Some ‘schemes’ are enormous, the ‘planners’ forgot to include amenities, like shops, much less social spaces like club premises; churches and church halls weren’t even an afterthought. Public transport was heavily used for shopping (women had to travel into Glasgow, up to twenty miles away, to get basics. Entrepreneurship in these matters was entirely in Indian hands. The grocer’s son encountered in school was called ‘Ahmed’.
Damian eventually discovers the deeply closeted Gay life of his school, his scheme, and later the ‘Gay Scene’ in central Glasgow where he had happy times in the pubs and discos. He was earning money working part time and weekends in shops mostly, and had something like genuine privacy because none of his elders were particularly interested in him, or his younger sister. They were quite enthusiastic about pointing out that she was more masculine than he was. This tomboy eventually settled down, and trained as a nurse, after Damian made good his escape to Cambridge, then London. (His family were quite proud of the fact that he got to university, especially one of the few they could name.)
This is a fairly well-trodden path in terms of queer autobiography, except for its straightforward approach to his sexuality. He writes at one point “I was gay” a simple, slightly relieved, acknowledgement of a fact. There are no dramatics, melo-, or otherwise. There are a number of comic interludes in this narrative from his schooldays to disastrous job interviews. Towering over teachers, school bullies, and interviewers isn’t always useful, it can provoke some into pointless aggression, Pointless, because Damian Barr could probably pick such people up and give them a good shake. He also encounters men he has made contact with through advertisements in a magazine made up of adverts for, mostly, unwanted hardware. They are mostly middle-aged and not quite the Adonai they implied in their ads.
Most readers will probably enjoy this well-told tale, and find an awful lot of points in common with his progress through his adolescence. And if you try the internet you might get this treat for pennies (not that one begrudges Damian a good return on the work he put into this text).
PS Thatcher doesn’t loom large, or small, in this text – quotes from the good Lady preface each chapter – in the manner of uplifting Victorian books.