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Andrew O'Hagan

(published as Faith, politics and a burr in the ear in The Canberra Times on 4 November 2006)

Carol Middleton meets British author Andrew O’Hagan, whose novel ‘Be Near Me,’ long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, aims to evoke the sort of ethical and class conflict that makes sparks fly.
When I meet Andrew O’Hagan at his hotel in Melbourne, we are immediately off on a mission – to find Chloe, the infamous nude painted by Lefebvre, which hangs in the Young & Jackson pub opposite Flinders Street Station. Once we have located the French darling of soldiers and admired her luminous alabaster skin, he is satisfied and we sit in the bar and talk about art, creativity, writing and his books.
“I feel unlocked by great books and poems, movies and art. Art gives you a tone and texture for things you want to say yourself. I could stand in front of that painting and get a paragraph out of it. If you know how to tune into art in any form, it can gift you something.” His art involves creating moral shading and he admires the great Victorian novelists, such as George Eliot and Henry James, who presented an ethical challenge to their readers. “They furnished the mind. If you get a book like that in your hands, you are giving yourself a chance to inhabit more fully not only the world you live in, but inhabit yourself.”

Be Near Me was published this year and has already become the most popular of his three novels, all of which deal with relationships and faith and politics in Scotland. He looks on it as his strongest, as a “very clear piece of music”. The premise was to bring different parts of society into close proximity and watch the sparks fly, to bring “a poshly educated priest, who went to Oxford University, knows about wine, cares about poetry and is very middle-class, into a small working-class town and be hated there.” O’Hagan loves the idea of doing justice to the different realities of his characters and allowing readers to imagine the conflict.

The tone of the novel is so intimate, I feel I am reading memoir, although the protagonist, a melancholy Catholic priest in his fifties, is obviously not a close match to this exuberant and optimistic man of thirty-eight reaching the height of his career. O’Hagan is charming and engaging, with the Scottish national sense of humour and the accent to boot. When he reads aloud from Be Near Me, he expands his cultured personality to encompass the tough Scottish spirit and its sharp vernacular. The intimacy of the author’s voice is deliberate, he says, an attempt to get something of the national temperament on to the page, where you can hear the Scottish burr in your ear.

He grew up in Scotland, the youngest of four boys and the only one who did not like sport. There was not enough contemplation in sport for him. He liked to “think and imagine, to make things up.” He has gone on to become a spokesman for the Scottish working class on Clydeside, part of the mass exodus of Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine who helped build the great industrial city of Glasgow. It took several generations of these workers to produce the level of education that spawns novelists. As O’Hagan put it: “They weren’t working in the shipyards and coming home and writing novels.”

He was the first person in the seven generations of his family to go to university. Awarded a £50 prize for obtaining the highest first class honours degree at Strathclyde University, he spent £26 of it on a ticket from Buchanan Street Station, Glasgow to London. He never went back. He landed a job with the London Review of Books, which shares the standards of excellence of the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker and where he is still a Contributing Editor. He wrote his first book The Missing at the age of twenty-five in a little flat overhanging King’s Cross station.

O’Hagan moves easily between essay, fiction and non-fiction. From the beginning, he was working in an editorial environment that allowed writers to take their time and produce work of high quality with few restrictions on word count. A reportage piece he wrote for The Guardian was 12,000 words long and involved his following a bunch of flowers from where it was grown in Israel all the way through the system until it ended up on someone’s grave in London. This took months, and at the end of it he waited an extra week to watch the flowers decay. It felt like writing a novel and no doubt gave him the confidence to embark on his fiction work and have absolute artistic control. He always brought high standards to bear on his journalism and believes “that the borderline between fiction and non-fiction is permeable.”
London was the perfect vantage point for him to gain a perspective on Scotland, and his first four books, three of them novels, have been about the country of his birth. That is how he imagined it, writing three novels about Scotland, before moving further afield. He is now contemplating writing a book about America, “given that our lives are going to be dominated by decisions made in America and the abuses of power that exist in America.” He sees the United States as our imperial Rome and half-jokingly recommends The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a set text for understanding our current situation.

O’Hagan remembers talking to Norman Mailer in America ten years ago and asking him what he thought would be the great subject for the next generation of writers. Mailer’s reply was “the clash of fundamentalisms.” O’Hagan is now ready to take on that subject, but wants to write a satire, a funny book. It sounds like a challenging project, one that fits with his ambition to “set the bar higher each time, giving readers a bigger, tougher, purer, more fantastical reading experience with each book. In the end to have created a body of work which doesn’t only talk about where I have come from but also gives an indication of where some of us might be going.”

O’Hagan’s books have received considerable critical acclaim, won many awards, and been translated into twenty languages. He is proud of the fact that he has been able to put the language of the Scottish-Irish working class people, their concerns and their politics, into his novels. “Suddenly the voices we spoke in our childhood kitchen are now there on the pages of novels for other people to read here on the other side of the world.” Not that Be Near Me reflects only the past. There are two major characters that are very much teenagers of the present day and their attitudes and speech are vividly reproduced. It is the clash between these youngsters and the priest that drives the plot and makes it universal.

Six years ago UNICEF created a post for him, Goodwill Ambassador for Literature. It started when UNICEF sent him, together with Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) and Alex Garland (author of The Beach), to the Sudan, where he wrote about child soldiers. He has just accepted the role for a further five years and the focus for raising awareness and fundraising is now on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. He sees it as a way of giving something back, after rising out of poverty to make a good living from writing. It is a way of helping children who have “a whole different level of bad childhood” from his own.

O’Hagan gives me a glimpse into his working life before he goes. He has a writing studio where everything is in perfect order. “I feel like Jack Lemmon in The Apartment. I spend ages polishing the doorknobs and lining up the books I’m using. Anything to avoid getting down to business. I am a complete lunatic. I have come all the way to Australia to confess to you about my madness.” And he is gone, for a last look at Chloe.


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