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Mid-life memoir

Filed under: Non-fiction

Crispin Jackson reviews The Cosmo Davenport-Hines Memorial Meeting, Mid-life memoir, featuring Damian Barr and Tracey Thorn, chaired by Susannah Clapp at Somerset House on Wednesday 8th May 2013.

Way back in the summer of 1984, I turned on the radio and heard something that you didn’t often come across in the era of Shakin’ Stevens and Wham!: a great song. It was called Each and Every One, and married warm Latin rhythms to ice-cold lyrics like ‘So don’t brag how you have changed, when everything’s been rearranged’. I didn’t know the singer, but the group’s name, Everything But The Girl – borrowed, as it turned out, from a clothes shop in Hull – was hard to forget. I bought the record (so helping it to reach a pitiful number 28 in the charts) and spent many happy moments listening to it in my Edinburgh student garret.

About the same time, just a few miles down the M8, a fresh-faced young Glaswegian called Damian Barr was finding that everything in his life was being rearranged following the divorce of his parents: gay, caught between a brutal stepfather and Mrs Thatcher as the fires of the nearby Ravenscraig Steelworks dimmed then spluttered out forever, he endured a grim childhood straight out of Caledonian folk myth.

Spool forward nearly 30 years and Barr is sitting opposite EBTG’s singer, Tracey Thorn, in the Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre swapping anecdotes as if they were old friends. Both have recently published autobiographies – Barr’s named in honour of his wicked godmother, Maggie and Me; Thorn’s more predictably Bedsit Disco Queen – and have been brought together to discuss the mid-life memoir at the RSL’s Cosmo Davenport-Hines Memorial Meeting.

The discussion, skillfully chaired by Susannah Clapp, ranged widely. Tracey Thorn recalled her childhood (idyllic compared to Barr’s) in the badlands of Potters Bar, her love of Anthony Powelland Beckett (she has a First in English from Hull and an MA from Birkbeck), and her disdain for rock-and-roll cliché: ‘The thing I most wanted to aim for was subtlety’. Barr trawled breezily through the horrors of his childhood, which included being pushed down a slagheap in a wardrobe and nearly being drowned in the bath by his loathsome stepfather. The only time his voice cracked with emotion was when he recalled the infernal Ravenscraig ‘before Margaret Thatcher took it away’. Not surprisingly, he has not shown his book to either of his parents.

I suspect that it will be some years before Thorn sits down to write another memoir – ‘Bedsit Disco Queen got me back into making music again,’ she revealed – but Barr surely has more to tell us about his life and times. ‘Writing this book,’ he notes at the end of Maggie and Me, ‘has been an extension of living – and reliving – my life.’ There is no reason why that process should not continue; and, ending his book with Margaret Thatcher’s downfall, before his own move to the place where she almost lost her life, sunny Brighton, he has left himself with plenty of material to draw on: ‘Damian was very clever,’ says Thorn enviously, ‘because he stopped a bit earlier’ – surely the only piece of advice that an aspiring memoirist needs to hear.

Crispin Jackson is a writer and rare-books specialist.