Between the lines: Sir Ian Rankin interviews Damian Barr
Watch two luminaries of the literary world in an insightful and thought-provoking conversation.
Please note transcripts are automatically generated, so may feature errors.
IAN: You don’t normally get that at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
IAN: Let me say. [Laughter]
DAMIAN: That’s the first ‘whoop’ in hundreds of years that’s happened.
IAN: You know, possibly since Sir Walter Scott. Welcome, Damian.
DAMIAN: Thank you.
IAN: Welcome, welcome to Edinburgh. I know you’re a West Coast boy, so we should maybe get out the way first.
DAMIAN: I was in a taxi on the way to the train station earlier, and he said, he was dropping me off at Queens Street and he said, “Where are you going?” and I said “Edinburgh” and he said, “You can’t have it all”. [Laughter] But it is lovely to be here. So, thank you all very much for coming out tonight.
IAN: I remember when I lived in London, I worked on a hi-fi music magazine and I was sent up to Glasgow, to interview Ivor Tiefenbrun, who was the head of Linn Products. Made fantastic high-end stereo equipment. And he said, “Ian, you should come back to Scotland”. And I said, “Well yeah, I probably will move back to Edinburgh at some point” he went, “That’s not Scotland”. [Laughter] So you know where you stand, you know where you stand. But this is a long way in all kinds of ways, from where you grew up and how you grew up. So, I just want you to take us back to the beginning a little bit and talk about your background.
DAMIAN: Well, it’s a funny day for it because this morning the Royal Society or… The National Theatre of Scotland announced that they’re making a play of Maggie & Me, so… [Applause] And I mean, I have known about that for some years. I have been writing it… [Laughter] It’s not news to me, but I’ve been co-writing it with a wonderful writer called James Ley, and it’s been, you know, extraordinary, is probably the easiest single word to use to describe the process of revisiting that childhood and revisiting that life to make it into to make into a play. Because when you’re writing a memoir, you go through all the same questions that you go through with fiction, which is, you know, what’s my story? What am I going to put in? What am I going to take out? Who am I going to leave out? Which of my many aunts and uncles and cousins and stuff like that and, you know, houses and all that. So, and then you get to a play and you know this because you’ve written plays as well where you know, a book that’s 90,000 words has to become a play that’s 30,000 words. So, you’re taking, you’re taking more away, But you’ve also got to add lots of stuff. And so, yeah, it was weird. I was in Carfin Grotto last week, which is where I spent a lot of time as a wee boy. And Carfin Grotto was and is a sort of strangely magical place to me. It’s a sort of sanctuary and I was always safe in Carfin Grotto, and the statues are still there that were there. Some of them have changed. The Jesus that I used to think was quite handsome is now completely golden. He’s a sort of Disco Jesus, which is, which is quite exciting. The Virgin Mary’s had a touch up. She’s looking a bit fresher. But it’s evolved and grown in a way as the community around it’s changed and, so it was really, being back there last week and not, I mean, I’ve been back since, but going back there to take photographs to talk about the play of, you know, the life that I had then, which is a very different life to the life that I have now, was, it was a kind of miracle. I kind of, could see that wee boy and it was really yeah… I’m going to start crying already, but it was really, really emotional. It was really emotional; it was really emotional being back there.
IAN: Can we dig down a wee bit deeper into what sort of household it was when you were growing up? Was it a bookish household, were your parents intellectuals?
DAMIAN: Well, I mean in their way actually. My mum read a lot. And she was always reading a Mills & Boon. And there’s a reason that they’re one of the most successful imprints in the world. They know what they’re doing, and she loved them and that was sort of how she taught me to learn to read and I could read before I got to school. So, I was instantly very bored by Peter and Jane and their dog. And I was like, oh come on, there’s got to be more. And so, she had taught me to read by the time I got to school but, but my dad was never, never a reader. And I think up until the point that my parents divorced, there were books in the house, but you know, it wasn’t like literature. But I was taken to the library and the library was really important to me and our library was really important. And the school library was really important. Because I could get anything I wanted. It was amazing to me that you could go to a library and take books away and not have to give them money. And then go back and get more. It was just extraordinary. But my mum had a brain haemorrhage when I was really little and actually, and I don’t talk about this very often, I went to a conference recently to, of people who had survived brain injury and I met lots and lots and lots of psychologists and neurologists and therapists of all kinds and they had said, you know, we’d like you to, they had read the book and they said, we’d like you to come and talk about your mother’s brain injury and it was not something I’d ever done before. And I realised when I was doing it that, that although my mum had survived that and she’s an extraordinary person, my mum is extraordinary she wasn’t the same mum, she was not the same mum. I couldn’t rely on her in the way that I could, you know, before she went to hospital and she was away for so long I couldn’t rely on her, she couldn’t do numbers, she couldn’t do facts, she couldn’t do times. And as a child you need that constant, you know, and, and I didn’t have that anymore. So, I did have to grow up like, very quickly, you know, sort of taking the money out of her purse, you know, to pay for things and stuff like that. And much later, you know, doing bills and, you know, and all of those things. And she should have had much more support than she did. But what was really interesting about that conference was that I discovered that I was not alone in this. You know, there were lots of other people who had had survived brain injuries, and there was, there’s now much more knowledge about it. So, for example, many of the women who are in prison have experienced brain injury, and are there as a result of, as a result of brain injury. So, a big connection between that and literacy and health and all sorts of things, so… So I actually helped my mum to learn to read after that because she had to learn to read again and walk and talk and to all of all of those things and I think it was when my mum was away in the hospital and as a child I was not allowed to go and visit her, My sister wasn’t either, we weren’t supposed…
IAN: You weren’t allowed, or it just wasn’t expected that you would?
DAMIAN: No, I wanted to. We were explicitly not allowed. We were told we weren’t allowed to go because it was bad for her or bad for us. It was somehow thought that we, you know, we shouldn’t. And yet at the same time, at the same age, I remember going to funerals of people in my family. So, you were expected to go to a funeral, but you couldn’t go to a hospital. And so, I didn’t see her until she came back out. And I remember that the council came and fitted a handrail, and that was how I knew she was home. Because this was a change. And so, she was back. But she was different. And I mean I wouldn’t change her for all the world, she’s amazing. But that did mean I got a different mum back at the end of it and because she was away, she left us with her partner who she had trusted to look after us. And he didn’t do that, you know.
DAMIAN: He did the opposite of that
IAN: Did the community rally round? I mean, what sort of community are we talking about?
DAMIAN: So, the community. My mum’s still there. She’s not in the same place that she was, but she’s in the house that we…If you’ve read Maggie & Me, she’s in the house that we ended up in at the end of Maggie & Me she’ll be out of that house in a box, as she’s very fond of saying to people.
IAN: I said that to some house removers just today. [Laughter]
DAMIAN: They were like, “it can be arranged”. [Laughter]
IAN: They moved me into the flat I’m in now and they said, “are you thinking of moving again? “I went, “No, the next time you see me, I’ll be in a box”. Anyway, keep going.
DAMIAN: And did you mean it?
IAN: Yeah, I’m not going to move until I’m, well…Right. Go on, your mum.
DAMIAN: But no, no… When we got that house we were …This is so unbelievable. We went to view, “view” the house. It’s like, you know, my mum wanted her own front and back door, you know, and we turned up and literally they were having the wake for the occupant who is on her way out and her coffin was in the living room – Mrs. Gibson. And I was like, “Oh…” Right, and my mum was like measuring up.[Laughter]And it was great. Anyway, you know, she didn’t need it anymore. So yeah, so she’s still in that house, but the community, you know, did absolutely rally around at that point and has done since she’s had health…you know she’s continued to have health problems and you know she’s never, you know, she has a new partner there. They have a very good relationship. She has a much calmer life than she used to have in lots of ways, but not always. And she’s visited constantly by you know, by people and she’s constantly visiting people, I mean, the thing about her is that she never really accepted that she was ill she never really thought she was. So she continued to do things like, you know, run jumble sales for people that need money raising for them or, go and visit somebody because they were not well, not really realising maybe what a toll it was taking on her to do all these things but she’s always been that kind of person. And that totally takes after my Granny was my mum’s mum who had a personal relationship very personal relationship with God and the Pope and, and who was you know like and we see, you know, when you see, you know, movies where the guy has like watches she’s like that, she’d be like that holy medals.[Laughter]And she just, she, she had them all and it was great and I loved all her, her stories about it.
IAN: Bet as a kid that would have been irresistible. All those little medals.
DAMIAN: I loved the medals. I loved the medals.
IAN: Like collecting cigarette cards or bubble gum cards.
DAMIAN: Maybe a little bit more spiritually significant than that, Ian. But no, not really. No. And no, it was great.it was like when, you know, the sticker albums, you know, you’ve got to ,or Pokémon now, you’ve got to get them all got to get all the saints and the Grotto had a really good gift shop and I used to go in there and just, a lovely lady who worked there would get the, open the big velvet drawers and there were all the medals and all the…and I just completely loved it all so I loved all those stories of, of the saints and my husband who is like English and very not-religious at all just does not understand any of it. And I’ll occasionally appeal to a saint in the house and he’s like, “What are you doing?”, like you left your keys there, you know. [Laughter]
IAN: Saint came good.
DAMIAN: Yeah, exactly. See? Yeah, he’s Saint Michael.
IAN: So where did it all go wrong? Because you ended up going to university in England.
DAMIAN: In England. Well, I did have a year at university…it’s funny enough, I was talking this morning about this to my therapist. [Laughter]So I’ll just burden you with that now. But she, she was saying, well, you know, we’ve never really talked about that year, and I did have a year in Edinburgh, I did have my year at Napier University in Edinburgh and, I think…Were you the first in your family to go to university?
IAN: Mm-hmm. So, like…the talk of university and what happens when you go to university and the processes of matriculation. What is matriculation? What happens? And you know, the structures, the expectations, support, all of that was completely unknown to me. I didn’t know any of it. And so, my focus as a boy, because I was a boy, was on getting away from home. I had to get away from, you know, I had to get away from abuse. And I had to get away from a place where, you know, I was totally convinced somebody was going to try and kill me for being gay and so I, you know, my focus was on getting to university, I did not think very much about what I would do once I got there. And it was not a good year for me. I was a spectacularly bad student for the first time in my whole life because I think I probably had PTSD and I don’t really think I knew that. And I don’t think anybody was looking out for me. You know, I’d left school. The teachers who looked out for me and my friends who looked out for me, they were all gone. So I was in Edinburgh on my own…Yeah, it was, and the journalism course that I was on, which is very hard to get on was run by a series of like old goats essentially who, you know, who had very fixed ideas about what news might be and what a story might be and what your role in gathering that would be. And I did not agree. And they moved the campus out toto the former institution, out by…somebody here will know where it is.
DAMIAN: No, no.
DAMIAN: We had another name for Sighthill.
DAMIAN: Not Craiglockhart. Was it Craiglockhart?
DAMIAN: Craighouse. Craighouse. That’s right, that’s right. Craighouse. And that was lethal because all the buildings were all on really high hills and the frost was horrendous. And you had to like, basically risk your life to get to class. And it was sort of, we did it out there, so and I did have a year and I must say, you know, there were some good teachers there too at Napier and there were some great students in the year above actually who were really helpful and inspiring but I didn’t, I didn’t, I can’t say that I succeeded. I didn’t. I failed lots of courses, and I just was not coping very well at that point in my life. And that’s when, Edinburgh – I found overwhelming. I felt like I didn’t fit this narrative of what Edinburgh was. I’d grown up reading about Edinburgh and so it’s extraordinary in a way to be here and, you know, to be a fellow of the society and sitting here talking about it because I just felt like I felt really outside of Edinburgh in that year that I was here. And so, so I did, I dropped out and I left. I went to stay with friends. My girlfriend at the time, which tells you how long ago it was. [Laughter] went to university in Lancaster and I was like, she’s the person that I love most in the world. She’s my best friend as well. Whatever else, I’ll go there and be with her. And so that’s really the, that and the fact that Lancaster took me through clearing were the only reasons that I went.
IAN: And was that journalism as well?
DAMIAN: No, it was English literature and sociology. And I was so poor that you had to have a photograph for your student ID, and I couldn’t afford to go and get a photo taken in the photo booth. And so, I can laugh about it now, because it is quite funny. I found, we’d been to a family wedding and it was a family wedding picture and I just cut my picture out of the wedding. [Laughter]It was like some sort of symbolic divorcing of myself from my family. Now that I look back at it actually. But anyway, and I took that along to the nice ladies in Lancaster’s Collegiate and I took it along to the college secretaries and they were so unbelievably nice to me about it. I can now see that they totally clocked me when I arrived and they were like, “Oh, was that a nice wedding?” And they chatted to me and all throughout my degree there Lancaster was incredible. And all through my undergraduate degree, they always made sure that, you know, if I was behind on my rent or I was having to because I had to work like several jobs and they always there was always some hardship fund, or something made available for me. So they were, you know, they really did get me through university and I’m very grateful to them for that. And then partway through my degree, I ended up going to Texas. I end up going to the University of Texas, Austin. Hook ’em Horns! If there’s anybody here. There’s nobody, that’s fine.[Laughter]And, you know, and again, I didn’t have the money for it. I had a scholarship for the fees.
IAN: If Edinburgh felt like a culture shock coming from the West, I can’t imagine what Austin must have felt like.
DAMIAN: Do you know what though, that weird thing of like, Edinburgh close enough to be strange. Texas was so far away; it was like another world. I remember, like my first week there, thinking, I’m going to go to this place. And I looked at it on a map and I started to walk. The police pulled me over about 45 minutes later and put me in the back of a car and took me right back to where I was going. I thought you could at least take me the other way. And they were like, “we’re not a taxi you know, it’s not a cab”, SoSo no, it was. But that was an amazing year. And that really, I got so much confidence that year, about my writing. I did proper journalism for the first time there for the city newspaper, The Austin American-Statesman, and a brilliant journalist called Michael Barnes. A really very esteemed arts journalist. And he was great, and I remember the first piece that I gave to him, and, late that this my first mistake. Second mistake. It was far too long. And he came back to me and said, “I’m going to tell you all the way that this is wrong and we’re going to make it better together”. And so, what he did was he drove me, we drove from Austin to Dallas to go and see an opera, and it was Carmen. And we drove, and all the way in the car, on the way up, it was like, this is what’s wrong with it, and all the way in the car on the way back was like, this is how you make it better. And I learned so much on that car journey. And I also did a class, a writing class there called E325M ‘Advanced Expository Writing’ with Professor John Trimble and he was a loon. And it was sort of like something from the secret history and he was just this charismatic, charming man and it was like writing boot camp. If you got in, you had to live for that class and socialise with the other students and write and read each other’s work the whole time. And I did that for a semester and then hung out with all the students afterwards.
IAN: And was the plan always to be a journalist at the back of your mind was it the notion of writing longer form non-fiction or fiction?
DAMIAN: I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t think it was a job, you know, I didn’t think it was a job. I didn’t think that you could do it. I didn’t. I mean, Liz Lochhead is from my village and she’s amazing. But I also thought she was dead because we were taught her. [Laughter]We were taught her in higher English and everybody else was dead. So I just assumed that she was dead.[Laughter]And then imagine my shock when she turned up and I was like,[Laughter]She was like, “I’m Liz Lochhead”, and I’m like, “Aye, so you are ”“I’m Liz Lochhead”[Laughter]“Oh, you really are Liz Lochhead”[Laughter]So I didn’t honestly think that it was possible. So, I thought journalism was the best. And I love being a journalist, and it’s a great facility that you can always call on when you need to do something really quickly. You know, somebody phones you 10 o’clock “We need a thousand words by 2”, you know that you can do it. But actually, it is entirely counterproductive to writing prose, I find anyway. I find it is a different gear. And so I did, I did when I started at The Times, which was my first job out of university, and I would meet these writers who were alive and talk to them about their books and you begin to think maybe, not, “this is something I can do” as in, like have the skills or the craft, but there are people who do this. How do you then get to do this? It was my love of books that made me start my literary salon, which is how I got to then interview lots of writers and talk to lots of writers. And it was what made me think, well, actually, nobody’s ever going to say “I think you should sit down and write a book. “You know, you have to want to. You have to want to do it. You have to want to abscond from your real life and you have to want to have to accept that it means you’re not going to do all the things you want to do, but it has to be the most important thing. And so, I did you know, I started to write what became Maggie & Me. I had wanted to write a novel. I didn’t want to write a memoir, because I got sent a lot of novels that to me should just have been memoirs because it’s like, “Come on, really, David”, You know, blah, you’ve changed one name on the front cover or whatever it is or something like that. And so, and I, but of course, what happened was started writing a novel and it was like a very thinly disguised memoir. And I thought I might as well just do a memoir. And then, of course, came all the attendant anxieties of that.
IAN: Yeah. I mean, the thing about writing a novel is you can hide behind it.
DAMIAN: In plain sight.
IAN: Yeah. Whereas with a memoir, the people you’re writing about are going to be there reading it at some point and know that it’s them that you’re writing about. Yeah, as opposed to fictional characters. So that’s quite a that’s something you’ve got to take on board when you start the project.
DAMIAN: Yes. And I wish I’d thought more about that [Laughter]when I started. Thank you, Ian. That’s great advice. [Laughter]If anybody’s listening out there and you’re thinking of starting a memoir. But no, but I mean, I instantly heard my Granny Mac being like, you know, you know, you’ll be the talk of the steam and the talk of the wash house, and, shut up and don’t. And then of course I also heard my step father who told me nobody would believe me about what was being done to me at home. And if I told them, you know, other things would be done to me and to the people I cared about. So it was very hard to think, “Oh, I’m going to write, I’m going to write all this down”, and I knew there are people in the audience that who have written memoirs, who are writing memoirs, and, you know, there’s this sense that people think it’s sort of self-indulgent somehow or that it’s narcissistic and it’s absolutely not it’s like, performing surgery on yourself without an anaesthetic in public, you know? And it is. But it is also that you do have, because having done a novel since then, the engagement, the relationship you have with readers is different with a novel think that in a memoir you put something of yourself on the line that, as you said, you don’t do with a novel you don’t do, or maybe you do, but people don’t know that you’re doing it because there’s loads of stuff in my novel that really is just stuff from my memoir that I didn’t and I gave to another character and like, nobody’s clocked it and I’m like, “Great, we’ll do that again with the next one”. There’s more stuff, so I think fiction does give you a sort of shield, whereas memoir, memoir doesn’t. But there’s different risks and rewards.
IAN: I mean, let’s jump to the fiction, because I think it was probably a surprise to many of your readers, your fans, people who knew you. The obvious thing to write about would have been a novel set in Scotland.
IAN: But no, you went you went in a completely different direction.
DAMIAN: Yeah. IAN: Why? Why that story?
DAMIAN: It’s so interesting. Because it was the story that I had to write at that point in my life. And I knew that people expected me to write like maybe a Scottish story or a gay Scottish story or something like that. And I just, I feel like, why should I do what you want me to do? A)and B)this was the story had to tell because the boy that is the central character in You Will Be Safe Here is inspired by a real life boy, and this real life boy was murdered in South Africa, horrifically, sent by his mum to a camp which promised to make, you know, men out of boys, run by white extremists. Terrifying place. I’ve been there and it was a tragic, awful story. Perhaps the most tragic and awful thing about itis that it disappeared like that because there’s so much violence in that part of the world. And I just was so obsessed with the story of that boy. And I did initially think would write non-fiction about it because I sort of thought, my God, there’s this network of these camps through all these places. This is a legacy of empire. It’s so clear that there’s a relationship between the past and the present. And actually what I felt was that and it was a really clear, strong, strong feelings that this has to be a novel because I cannot answer all these questions. And also I cannot take anybody’s side in this. I have to be free to join these dots and also leave space in the book for the reader to do some work and make up their own mind and challenge them a bit. Because the history of empire is when I was at school was not a history that was taught. I mean, certainly the Boer War, which was which had a huge impact on the economy of this country and the politics of this country and the whole of the United Kingdom and of Europe. You know, the European press depicted Britannia as this brutal mistress and the British bulldog is savaging children. And it was absolutely terrible. You know, we knew what was happening in those camps, those concentration camps that we built, where tens of thousands of women and children…
IAN: We basically invented the concentration camps.
DAMIAN: Well we more or less did. And, you know, there’s, you know, Hitler cites that the British concentration camps and the American experiences with indigenous people as inspirations, but and of course, in neighbouring Namibia, Germany then went on to do very even more terrible things. So for me, I was just, I was discovering this history. I didn’t know this history. I felt stupid. I was like, why don’t I know this? This is a big thing about, you know, so many Scottish people went there and were involved at a very senior level and in the administration of those camps. And so I wanted to tell this history that I didn’t know about, and I also wanted to, you know, the story of the boy. The book opens with the boy and the bookends with the boy, because I feel like what happens to him in that book really is the result of 100 years of history, really, kind of stuff that happened a hundred years before. Put him where, put him where he was. So it’s not the real life boy, but it’s, it’s inspired by him. And I went and spent time with his mother then I went to those camps. I went to those places. But yeah, you’re right. I mean, I don’t think it’s what people expected. And it’s not, it’s not what I expected. But it’s what I had to do.
IAN: It has extraordinary resonances with what we’re going through just now in politics, I think, with immigration, with asylum seekers
IAN: and with difference.
IAN: With people who are different being locked up, trying to change them, you know, etc, etc.
DAMIAN: I mean, this notion of Rwanda is fascinating to me because, you know what Britain did, the United Kingdom did then was we took men, it was mostly men and boys, very young boys away from their families what would become South Africa. And we shipped them all over the world. So we’ve been doing this for a really long time. We sent them to St Helena. All these islands which still have now, population of Boer, of Afrikaans-speaking people. And we did that, we did that then. Then we were like, right, okay, we’re going to break this movement up we’re going to break the spirit of these people. We’re going to do this. I’m not saying that you know that was right, those people were wrong, but that is something that happened that people don’t people have no awareness of, I think, that we did that then. And, so this is not a new idea for us.
IAN: Yeah. I think, since we’re in this place and we’re in this city, we should maybe point out that, I think I’m right in saying, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got his knighthood, not for his Sherlock Holmes stories, but for his propaganda work during the Boer War. And his support of the government during the Boer War.
IAN: We’re sitting here. We’re in a place that is known for its scientific endeavours. It’s full of scientists and people working at the very fore front of new ideas and new technologies.
IAN: We write stories.
DAMIAN: I know.
IAN: What are we doing here? What can we add to this august institution, do you think?
DAMIAN: I feel like they’ll come and rumble us at any moment. I think the thing is that, I have a friend, Dr Simon Lock, he works in the Public Understanding of Science, which has the unfortunate acronym of PUS.[Laughter]
IAN: Surely we could change that to CPUnS, somehow.
DAMIAN: CPUnS, exactly, What’s been interesting observing his work is that of course science is filled with stories already, you know you know artificial intelligence we were talking about earlier.it reflects the biases and prejudices that the humans who make it have. So science is not without stories and not without humanity. You know, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And I think when we, once we sort of accept that it isn’t neutral, then we accept that there are sides and arguments and stories already in that. So I think there’s a really interesting interface where writers can problematise some of the truths that scientists have or seek. And I’m really interested in hearing from them about, you know, like how, how wild is quantum mechanics, like, sentences you didn’t think you’d hear tonight from me, but there we are. But like, you know, an object existing in two different places at the same time, there’s a story, like an incredible plot, like, you know, right there so, I think that’s what we have hopefully that’s what we have to bring to this is aa desire to problematise the accepted truths of science but also to have them maybe hold a wee mirror up to us as well. I mean, I wanted to be a doctor. That’s the terrifying thing. I’d wanted to be a medical doctor because of what happened to my mom and so I grew up doing sciences at school.
IAN: I was going to say, was there any pressure on you as the clever kid in your house to…I mean with me, I was supposed to become an accountant.
IAN: The notion if you’re working class is, you go to university,
IAN: To get a trade.
DAMIAN: Do something useful. That’s right.
IAN: So that you can keep your parents in a lifestyle to which they would like to become accustomed in later life. And I was going to do accountancy until it turned out I wasn’t much good at economics.
DAMIAN: Right. Hasn’t stopped lots of economists, but…[Laughter]
IAN: Also storytellers in different ways.[Laughter]So I had to explain to my parents what I really was interested in was literature and that I wanted to come to Edinburgh and study literature, and they went, “What kind of job you’re going to get with that? “I said, “I’ll come back to Cowdenbeath and be a teacher”. That was what they did. You went off to uni, you did English, then you went to Teacher Training College, then you went back to your hometown, more or less.
IAN: And you taught, because that was the job you could get.
DAMIAN: And you taught the children of people you knew.
IAN: Yeah. We had a lot of that in our school, it was fantastic. So that thing about, you know, so you saying, “I’m going to go and do journalism”, were people scratching their heads?
DAMIAN: Well, no, because I think they knew that I was nosey. And that seems a logical place for me to be put in. But I mean, they also knew I wasn’t going to go and do medicine, but I did tell my mum that I was going to do it for ages and ages and ages But I have since done my PhD, so I am now Dr. Barr. And I think that’s given her some, you know, reassurances. Like, you know, “I can, really close, read that text for you, mum”. If there’s an emergency text, I can, I can absolutely handle that for you, so but yeah, there was, there was a sort of expectation that being a journalist would be useful. But I mean, I did actually get a job in journalism and do it for a long time. But I think journalism’s changed so much. I mean, journalism is now very much not as accessible as it was, though there was more local press. As a working class person, you could progress and now you’re sort of expected to be able to intern for free forever. I mean, there are, there are places resisting that and changing that and stuff. But definitely, you know, when I got my job at The Times, I was like the only person from a council house there. But there was, it was, there was a, there was a way. There was a pathway.
IAN: You must have been after Harry Rich’s time then.
DAMIAN: Well, I didn’t meet Harry.
IAN: No, because Harry was Deputy Literary Editor and he was he was definitely, he’s a Raith Rovers fan like me. He’s definitely working class.
DAMIAN: He wasn’t, I don’t remember.
IAN: No, he must’ve moved on.
IAN: He must have moved on.
DAMIAN: He must have. But yeah, I mean, there were definitely people with castles and stuff.
IAN: Yeah, yeah.[Laughter]That’s how you tend to get in and get up the greasy pole, for sure. I mean you’ve touched on it earlier, but I mean, can you see any positives for the creative industries, as we must horribly call them, from things like A.I.? Or is it all negative? It just seems like doom, doom, doom at the moment.
DAMIAN: I mean, that’s what I said earlier, it’s how people use it. Like, it could be so useful. Like, right now I’m researching a lot of stuff about 1933and it would be really great if there was a friendly wee A.I. programme where I could be like, “Tell me what people ate in Glasgow in 1933”and it could get me like, recipes that would be lovely pictures or something like that, so I think it could be a really useful research tool. And we know that in science it is already so we know that artificial intelligence is able to predict certain cancers and heart attacks, I mean it’s progressing every day, I feel like we’re learning stuff there. I think that in the arts or in the creative industries, we have to be really clear that, you know, people are trained, they’re talented, their jobs need to be protected for them, but also for us. We benefit from their genius, their talent, their insight, their humanity and we can’t divorce people from their humanity, it’s dehumanising for them and I think it’s dehumanising for us, and I would hate to see that. And I think things that, things like, you know, having your book jacket not designed by A.I. not having your voice taken for, you know, to be used to narrate audio books and things like that. So I feel, I do feel quite, as you can tell, I feel quite strongly about it. We both had our novels pilfered by ChatGPT for books three. So yeah, I’m not thrilled about it.
IAN: Yeah, they’re scraping people’s books so that they can produce new books that they don’t have to pay the author to write.
DAMIAN: Yeah. And they’re already for sale on Amazon. You can go onto Amazon and buy books written by, you know, you and me that aren’t written by us and yeah, I just would hate, you know, to think that A)they were better than me and B)that somebody was sort of making money somewhere along the line from that. I don’t like that idea. So I do think it has great potential but it’s like all new technologies. It has to be, it has to have a humanity maintained within it. Otherwise it won’t be good for us at all.
IAN: I’ve always liked you, Damian, because you’re a huge supporter of books and writers and always have been. The literary salon that Damian used to run, it ran for many years in London. It would bring authors along and just introduce them to a live audience, sometimes for the first time to the, latterly, The Great Scottish Book Club, which puts unknown poets on with best sellers from all around the world and gives them a stage, gives them a voice, and gives them a new readership.
DAMIAN: Yeah, Yeah. It really does.
IAN: I just, I just think that’s an extraordinary thing. I mean, how important do you think it is that writers present themselves to the, you know, not just sit in their garret
IAN: but actually get out there and do stuff in front of an audience?
DAMIAN: Well, I mean, I think it’s interesting. We sort of have this idea, don’t we, that it’s an expectation or an obligation that you have to do now, and there’s, you know there’s nothing worse than a writer who’s been forced onto social media. Bless them. They just look tragic on Instagram going, “I’m here! Buy my book”. It’s like, oh, no, just stop.
IAN: And the unboxing video.
DAMIAN: Yes, the unboxing video. Where they take all their new books out of the box.
DAMIAN: Oh, it’s a wee shame.
IAN: And you’re going, “But you got sent one earlier in an envelope, you’ve seen it before. It’s not the first time you’re seeing this book”.
DAMIAN: I know, I know. So I think obviously all of that is terrible and should be outlawed. But I think though that when we think about the role of writers as a public intellectual or as a public participant in a discourse is really interesting because, you know, Dickens made so much money touring. Oscar Wilde made so much money touring. And I think that, you know, there has always been a place for that. And I love it. I mean, I love getting to meet readers and talk to readers and hear from them. And I sometimes think, you know, you should do the book tour before the book because, very often they’ll come along and tell you things which, you know even if they’re correcting you, is useful. I was in Adelaide on tour just before the pandemic and I met a woman whose father had fought in the Boer War, like, she was in her eighties, she was they had her late and she was able to tell me about her father going away to war, what he saw, what happened to him and when he got back. And then she said, you know, in the place that we’re sitting, it’s this lovely park in Adelaide, she said “This used to be the train station ”“This is the platform where my dad left”, and I’m sitting there going like, “Oh my God, could I not have met you three years ago? “That would have been great. So, so yeah. So I think that level of, I think you know, is good if you’re good at it and you like doing it. My problem is I like doing it too much and I have to sort of say to myself, “No, I’m not going to go and get involved in that or, you know, try that recipe or go to that bar or whatever, because I’ve actually got to sit down and write my bloody book”. So that’s my temptation.
IAN: Or your play.
DAMIAN: Or our play. Yeah. That as well. Yeah. Yeah.
IAN: Tell me a little bit about that because I’m intrigued about how you can take a memoir and turn it because, I mean, I take it the play is fiction. There’s more like fiction than memoir or is it more like memoir than fiction? Is it true to the book?
DAMIAN: It’s recognisably the book for people who’ve read it. But if you’ve not read the book, you’d be able to go to the play and be in the world, so and we had to make some quite well we didn’t have to, it came about because I was working on the TV series and I was finding it so constraining, this idea of how it had to be the arc of an episode, you know, all of that sort of, that’s why telly’s enjoyable, that but it’s also, it wasn’t satisfying for me as a writer. I was like, “Oh, I’m not pushing myself in this way, I’m not pushing the material. I’m not interrogating it, I’m not being honest with myself, really”. And when I was at that point, I was doing my PhD and I thought, there are some questions here that are interesting about, what is truth? Who gets to say what’s true, who gets say what’s not, in a family in a culture, in a political party not naming any names, but so you know, that was all really interesting to me, and that’s sort of where the play came from. So, I’m trying to think how much more I’m allowed to say, I mean we have Maggie Thatcher as a character in the play. She appears on stage[Laughter]behind a bullet-proof screen[Laughter]on the West Coast, on the East Coast she’s not. She will be there. And in a weird kind of sort of narcissistic, strange, confusing moment, there are two versions of me.
IAN: Stuff you can do on a stage that you can’t necessarily do in other media.
DAMIAN: Yeah. And it’s, and so to your questions like, is that fiction, is that memoir? Well, when you read that memoir, you, the 28 year old who was writing that book, is there but he’s, it’s only happening because of him. But none of him is in there. And so I wanted to sort of tell the story of what was happening in between the lines, and that is in direct opposition to a lot of what’s happening on the page. So it’s kind of dramatizing the process, but also looking much more at that wee boy and what he wanted and needed at that time. So I mean, I’m working with James Ley, he’s a brilliant writer. He’s got a play called Love Song to Lavender Menace about a gay bookshop in Edinburgh, a famous one.
IAN: I have appeared in it.
DAMIAN: You were in it, that’s right.
DAMIAN: You were in it.
IAN: One of many writers when it did an Edinburgh run, and they’d have a writer in the audience every night who would walk onstage and say, “Have you got this book? “And you could name any book you wanted, and then they would sort of riff on that.
DAMIAN: He asked me to do that role.
IAN: Did you not do it?
DAMIAN: No, you did it instead. No, I’m joking.[Laughter]
IAN: Joe Clifford did it. Lots of us did it.
DAMIAN: I was asked to do it and I couldn’t. That’s how I met him. Because I didn’t know who he was and I had not read the play
IAN: Did you know the bookshop?
DAMIAN: I didn’t know the bookshop. It had gone when I got here.I think by then it was called Wilde’s, or something like that maybe, it was down by the Blue Moon cafe. It was great and, and yeah. Yeah, and I thought, what a great play, what a great writer. And, and so we’ve been writing together, which is also quite strange because, you know, you’re saying to this person, “I’ll write this bit”, you know, and he’ll be like, “I’ll write that bit”, and you’re sort of entrusting them with your life because it is, not your life, but your life that you’ve lived, you know, and ad so that is, that is quite a process because, of course, he sees things that I don’t see. And it’s great and I’ve learned a lot from him about that, moving from page to stage things, so And of course we’ve got a director called Suba Das, and there’s a big team of people at NTS, which I’m thrilled to say seems to be a reasonably well-funded arts organisation in the world, and full of good people.
IAN: You’ve segued nicely into my last question, before I throw it open, without you knowing it. Before I threw open to the audience. We will have a roving mic as well, so we’ll get your questions, get them ready in your head right now. It isn’t actually my question. It’s a question that was suggested by the RSE.
IAN: It’s kind of, it’s actually two questions. Is Scotland doing enough for the creative industries? What can national academies and other institutions like the RSE do for the creative industries? So it’s quite a big question. And of course, now you live in Brighton you don’t have to think too much about the Scottish angle to that, do you.
DAMIAN: Actually, no. I think about it all the time because I do spend a lot of time here. A lot of my work is here and the National Theatre of Scotland here. No, but I, it is something that I think about a lot. Because I think that in Scotland, actually more is being done for the arts in Scotland than it is in England. I think if people that I know who work across the arts, different artists, applied artists, ceramicists, painters, you know, so there’s more. There is more support than there is in England, but is there enough support? No, there is not. And my head is bowling right now trying to work out what’s happening with that 6.6 million or whatever it is in cuts that’s been reversed. It’s back. It’s back. It’s like the can-can of cuts, like, I can’t work it out. So I do think that, you know, I do think that more can be done. And I think Heather Parry, the writer who edits Extra Teeth, tweeted the other day saying something about how the city of Berlin spends many dozens of times more on arts and culture than does the country of Scotland. And so that can’t be right. It’s not right for our economy. It’s not right for our polity, for our civil life. So I think more has to be done. And there has to be certainty for arts organisations so that they can invest in people and work and new work. And we can’t just keep hearing from us and we need to hear from new people. And that has to be like, a big reflection of what Scotland does. So I do think it’s really interesting and revealing that BBC Scotland commissioned The Big Scottish Book Club and that when that happened, BBC Two then got a books show. You know. So, I feel like I feel very proud of the potential what is being done here, but I do think that more could be do think that more can be done. Like, just really simple things, and this is one of the things that I’d love to work with the RSE on with an economist who knows what they’re doing. But it’s like, you know, it is not a fair fight for bookshops, for independent bookshops. It is not a fair fight for them. And what can be done at a government level to support independent bookshops, which are anchors of high streets and support communities, not just physical communities, but, you know, notional communities, you know, identity based communities, all that kind of stuff. So I do feel like, I sound like I’m launching an election bid[Laughter]I do think that that’s something that can be done.
IAN: Bookshops and libraries are the kind of bedrock that everything else is built on.
DAMIAN: They absolutely are. And I was horrified recently when, you know, North Lanarkshire Council was announcing that, again, they were going to close that library that I described right at the beginning, where I spent so much time as a wee boy, I was like, “No, you’re not”, you know, that is not happening. It cannot happen. That library’s one of the few places that people can go in that village that is free, that is heated, that safe, that is quiet. Somebody knows them. They can do you know, they can do their benefits stuff online. There’s a great book group for kids. There’s mental health check-ins. There’s all of this stuff happening in libraries. And, you know, the notion that they are sort of dusty, lovely reserves of the middle classes is a fiction. And so they do need to be protected and they do need to be funded.
IAN: Hooray. I think we can all agree. I’m sure we all agree with that. Yes.[Applause]
IAN: Right. Audience participation. We’re going to have some audience participation. Now is there a roving mic? I can’t remember. Two roving mics, excellent. Two roving mics, one side of the room one the other side of the room. So put your hand up, I’ll direct microphone to you at your seat and if you wait tilla mic is in front of you before you ask your question. Who’s got a question for Damian Barr? Right at the front here. Can we come right down to the frontiers are coming.
GUEST: Maggie & Me is a wonderful book and I just wonder, who do you think the play will speak to, and how it’ll speak to them in a different way from the book, because they might not be able to choose not to access the book.
DAMIAN: Thank you for your nice words and thanks for your question. It is, it will hopefully reach different audience of people who haven’t read it. And I hope people who have read it don’t go, “Oh my God, the book’s better”, you know, just read the book, you know, that kind of thing. But I think that it’s think for me, I’m asking different questions with it. And so I think that that’s what’s hopefully going to help me reach different audience. I would, it’s really important to me that it’s accessible. So we’re doing our project with Colwich is the college that’s built on the site of the Ravenscraig, we’re working with the film and TV department there. They’re making a wee documentary. They’re making like, the making of Maggie & Me, how hilarious is that? And so, and I’m trying to work with Neston make sure that we’re involving as many younger people as possible in the production so that they’re actually learning about a thing that’s also about the place that they’re from, so I do not want it to be sort of, imposed like some kind of creative poll tax on the community. It is a story from a place that hasn’t been told in that way, so I think there’s something really powerful about putting a story in a book. A book makes something a thing. I think the same is also true of a stage. It gives a world a use and a way of being seen. So like, for example, one of the things I really want to happen in itis for people to see the Bing, which is like coal slag heaps and old fridges and cars and whatnot, which I’m making just sound like, nobody wants to see that do they? But actually there was a strange kind of beauty in it because there was animals there and there was plants there and it glittered and it was my childhood. And so I want to show you places like that and sort of memorialise them. And I’m hoping that people will want to come and see that. And I’m really aware that younger audiences, for them it will be history, because I regret to say that I am now living in a period drama[Laughter]that is just sad but true.
IAN: I used to love the binges around Carden Den.
DAMIAN: Oh, great.
DAMIAN: On your BMX?
IAN: They smouldered.
IAN: No I’m pre-BMX, man. We were chopper bikes.[Laughter]
IAN: But they smouldered because the coal was still alight.
DAMIAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
IAN: And then when you got to the top there was this sort of, Martian landscape. With kind of, black goo that was all barriered off so you couldn’t go in and drown in it.
DAMIAN: Yeah, and there were all the stories about the boys
DAMIAN: it was always boys who did. IAN: Yeah, I know.
IAN: But that’s all gone now. It’s all been landscaped and cleaned up and everything. And for the better.
DAMIAN: And are there houses on it now? IAN: No, no, no houses.
DAMIAN: Oh, there’s houses on my Bing. IAN: Oh my God.
DAMIAN: I know. I feel really territorial. I feel like going up and chapping somebody’s door and being like, IAN: Yeah, this is my territory.
DAMIAN: This is my Bing.
IAN: Okay, another question, please. Right at the back this time. The lady at the back. Keep your hand up and, the is coming towards you. Thank you very much.
GUEST: Thank you, Damian. I don’t want to misquote you but during Covid you put a quote on social media about us not all being all being in the same storm but in different ships.
DAMIAN: Yeah, “We’re not all in the same boat, but we are in the same storm”.
GUEST: That’s it. Thank you. I wondered if you could maybe talk about how important it is for you to use your platform to, I guess, kind of raise marginalised voices and talk about the things that people don’t often want to talk about.
DAMIAN: That was really strange moment during lockdown because basically I was really sick of people saying, “Oh, you know, we’re all in the same boat”. And I was like, “No, you’re not”. “You’re not in the same boat”. Like, you’re not a key worker who can’t afford the delivery from Waitrose, so you can try sourdough bread one more person did that. You know, it’s fine for people who can but not everybody can. So don’t make the assumption. And I was just kind of angry about it and because I know how much my own family was struggling And I knew how much we were going to struggle within a short period of time. So I did that tweet and I did not think anything about it.And it was picked up by a journalist called Peggy Noonan, who put it in her column, in, I think The Washington Post and basically just sort of went completely I don’t want to say viral on the contents of Covid, but like it was [Laughter]I have, so anyway, you know, it was there and it was in the world and it was so strange and people were like, Oprah just said, Oprah just quoted you on her podcast and George Takei and Michelle Obama. And I was just like, what is happening? This is this is too much, you know, And but what was really interesting was when it left the Anglosphere and people, because you could follow the infection waves around the world you knew that people were starting to get sick when you saw it in different scripts, in different languages and then you know, and then it would sort of start to come back to me.So, and I thought that was a moment. I thought that was the life of that. And, but interestingly, it continues to be shared by people. It’s often used by scientists. Epidemiologists use it a lot in presentations.
IAN: I believe Michelle Mone’s used it a couple of times.
DAMIAN: Oh, great. [Laughter]
DAMIAN: Nobody’s on Michelle’s boat. [Laughter]IAN: Nobody’s allowed on her boat.
DAMIAN: Nobody’s allowed on it.
DAMIAN: That’s because it’s in the jail. But no, and…
IAN: Just cut that from the recording.[Laughter]
DAMIAN: But it got me. It became a film, that quote became a film called The Same Storm. So there’s a director called Peter Hedges, who made a film that I love called What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? With Leonardo Di Caprio. And I got this email and it was from Peter Hedges and I was like that’s a funny name to have. And then and he said, “You know, I’m making a film on Zoom with all these actors who are out of work and we want to talk about the pandemic. And I was driving through New York, there was nobody there”, and a cinema had put that quote of mine up on the front in the cinema letters, and he’d seen it and he said he stopped his car and he just cried. And, and he felt like this had crystallised for him. What was happening. The inequality in America where he was, in New York State, I think it was. And anyway and so there’s this, like, amazing film with all these incredible actors in it, and none of whose names I can remember at this point. I think Judith Light is one of them. Sandra Oh, I think is in it. It’s obviously amazing and they did it all on Zoom. And it’s called The Same Storm. And it’s the story of care workers in different families and stuff like that. So it does feel really important to me.And also I’m very happy for people to use it.But what I’m not happy is that it’s often put in the context of a really bad poem that I didn’t write.[Laughter]And it’s this like, really awful poem and I don’t know who wrote the poem, but then that quote was like the last two lines. If you’re here, the person who wrote the poem,[Laughter]but like, no, that wasn’t me.
DAMIAN: So, I disavow the rest of it.
IAN: Reclaiming his copyright.
IAN: I think we have time for one, maybe two more questions. The gentleman in the second row, if we can get the mic down to him briskly. Thank you very much. We might manage to get one last one in.
DAMIAN: I’ll try and be more concise. Sorry.
IAN: Yes, try and be more concise.
IAN: Pretend you’re a poet.
GUEST: I’ve got a couple of questions, if I may. In Maggie & Me the one thing I loved was this almost at the soundtrack of the time. And will music be an important part of the play? And also, you’re working on new work. What can you tell us about that?
DAMIAN: Oh, right. So the soundtrack of Maggie & Me is…I did make a Spotify playlist. And so it’s all the sort of the TV theme tunes of the time and the music that I would be listening to. But it was also like, I put on all these like orange songs and stuff because I grew up listening to those marches and things like that. And people quite quickly were offended by some of my music choices. Like, I’m not judging them I’m just telling you what I heard I was growing up. You know? And so I took them off, but anyway the music will be a big part of it. Yes. A really big part of it, obviously I won’t be singing or anything like that because that would be criminal.
DAMIAN: But…IAN: New project. New project.
DAMIAN: It’s so not ever a project. IAN: New project.
DAMIAN: No, I remember once Cerys Matthews, being like, come on, we were doing an event together…IAN: No, what is your new project?
DAMIAN: Oh, what is the new project? [Laughter]IAN: What are you working on just now?
DAMIAN: Oh, God. [Laughter]IAN: Or tell us about Cerys Matthews.
DAMIAN: It was a tambourine, it ended badly.[Laughter]The new project is a novel and I’m and I’m doing it with Canongate Books here in Edinburgh. And I’m very pleased to be being published by them. And they’re brilliant. I’ve said before what is and I can say the same again, it’s a big, gay Scottish love story. IAN: Is that the title? DAMIAN: That should have been the title. [Laughter]
DAMIAN: In America, you know how they always want a subtitle that might just be the subtitle in America. Actually, we’ve just got that. And it’s based on some real people we’re, but I’m again taking the details and fictionalising them. So it’s sort of like a remix, but it’s some people that I’ve been obsessed by since I discovered them during lockdown and, Andi just sort of, you know, I love them. I’m having to do some strategic unloving of them right now because I realise that I’ve just made them really nice and actually they were often quite horrible. So I’m doing that just now. So the novel is on its way. I was writing it this morning.
IAN: These are people who will not be able to recognise themselves in a novel.
DAMIAN: They’re dead. [Laughter]
IAN: So I mean, who says Covid didn’t have a silver lining? [Laughter]
DAMIAN: No, they’ve been dead for a long time.
DAMIAN: They’ve been dead for a long time.
DAMIAN: I had no part in their death. [Laughter]
IAN: See, that’s exactly what you would say. [Laughter]
DAMIAN: And you, of all people, can say that that’s exactly what I would say. I played no part in the deaths of those men. IAN: All right.
IAN: Apologies. We have run out of time. We’ve not got time for any more questions. Damian, it’s Damian’s interviewed me a couple of times in person in London, and for his television show. It’s lovely to turn the tables.
IAN: Lovely to turn the tables.
DAMIAN: Thank you.
IAN: I didn’t get through any of the questions I was given by the RSE. And got through only a few of the questions I’d written up myself. So we’ll need to do it again some time.
IAN: You need to do that again some time.
IAN: But, meantime, so John, thank you for hosting tonight’s event. Thank you to the Royal Society of Edinburgh for inviting us along for putting on tonight’s event and all the staff behind the scenes doing all the hard work. And thanks to you, the audience, for coming along and showing your appreciation on a cold night in November in Edinburgh. But please, most of all, can you thank fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Damian Barr.[Applause]