DAMIAN Barr may be an acclaimed writer but his first passion was at the other end of the cultural spectrum — soap operas.
“Dallas and Dynasty were about grown ups and wealth,” enthuses Barr, who was raised in Lanarkshire, south of Glasgow, in the 1980s as Margaret Thatcher rose to power to become one of the UK’s most iconic and controversial prime ministers.
Antipodean soaps were also essential after-school viewing for Barr, who is visiting Australia for the annual Sydney Writers Festival.
“For me it started with Neighbours and Prisoner and were you hot for Scott or hot for Mike the mechanic,” he says.
“I thought Mike was very hot but then my friend Mark and I decided that we would be in love with Kylie. We decided we weren’t gay because we were in love with Kylie.
“I mean how gay is that? Delusional.”
There were other reasons why he found the soaps so enjoyable.
“The Australian soaps were much more about teenagers and were quiet, safe and suburban and I liked them because I didn’t have much safety and my family was very much fucked up,” Barr says.
His challenging childhood is the subject of his second novel, the touching and darkly comic Maggie and Me.
The books opens with a bang — on the same night in 1984 that Barr’s mother rips off her wedding ring, Thatcher survives a bomb planted by the IRA at Brighton’s Grand Hotel.
“It think the symbolism of it was huge,” says Barr.
“The fact of this big white building and it was straight to the heart of the establishment and it was done with such planning and such great loss of life.”
The memoir covers his journey through a town in decline following Thatcher’s economic reforms, the abuse meted out by his mother’s boyfriend and Barr’s first footsteps onto Glasgow’s gay scene.
Yet despite the bombing, Barr would be inexorably drawn towards Brighton, a city known for its large LGBTI population.
Did a young Barr ever look upon Sydney with such longing?
“I think every part of the world has its designated ‘other’ space,” he says.
“In the United States, it’s New York or San Francisco and in this hemisphere it’s Sydney or Hong Kong.
“Sydney is a place that I’ve always been excited to go to because we watch Mardi Gras and because of Priscilla, we do think this looks like an incredibly welcoming place.”
While at the festival, Barr will be discussing dysfunctional childhoods with award-winning gay actor Alan Cumming and holding a literary salon with Australian author Tom Kenneally.
He will also be directing a memoir master class which “because so often, particularly when it’s a difficult story, we’re told you should be ashamed and my course is about inspiring people that they have a right to tell their story”.
Barr says he is not surprised marriage equality passed in the UK under a Conservative prime minister: “When David Cameron proposed it he said it was because marriage is a conservative value not in spite of being a conservative value.”
However, he says politicians on the other side of the house did much of the hard yards on the debate and it shouldn’t be assumed the Tories are now the “gays’ best friend”.
“We must be cautious they’re not using it as a way of distracting from other iniquitous and vile actions,” he says.
So how does he compare the current crop of Tories with Maggie?
“They’re a different beast now.” Barr says.
“Margaret Thatcher was a conviction politician; the current government is not ideologically distinct at all now.
“They’re driven by making a small number of people rich and more powerful.
“I won’t be writing David and Me, put it that way.”
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The Sydney Writers’ Festival runs from 18 – 24 May. Full details can be found at the festival website.