As leaves turn and the English air grows crisp, authors wither and decline; even those who haven’t a novel entered for the Booker Prize feel quite ill when its season comes around. It’s expectations and effects devastate UK publishing each fall. Rumors of judges’ feuds and unofficial long-lists seep like poisoned water through the books pages. This year J.M. Coetzee carried off the prize, for Disgrace. It was his second win, leaving Andrew O’Hagan, a first novelist, one of the disappointed shortlist.
The final moments of the drama are televised each year. There is a clatter of cutlery from the Guildhall dinner, a glimpse of the judges in evening dress: a scanning shot of a table of dry-mouthed, fish-eyed authors, and a close-up of the chairman of the judges as he dallies over many a platitude and finally lets slip the name of the winner. It is an old British folk custom to intensify the hysteria by convening a guest panel of authors in the TV studio, to trash and mangle the shortlisted entries. But this year, Channel Four decided to replace them with a “People’s Panel,” a gaggle of amateurs who would trash and mangle in a less practiced, less articulate way. “Bleak” was the word the People’s Panel used of Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Our Fathers: “bleak,” and “bleak” again. “It’s not a story,” one woman objected.
What is a story, then? Is it an effortful twisting of reality, into surprising shapes? Is it a fixing, a manipulation, a trick played on the imagination? One panelist held up a copy of a modish gang-wars novel which begins with a red-hot poker held to a man’s face. That was what she liked, she said. “It takes you right there.”
The reader who treads the road with O’Hagan will take a less direct path, away from the memory of pain and toward the promise of it. “Our fathers were made for grief…,” his narrator says. “And all our lives we waited for sadness to happen.” His first book, The Missing, was an imaginative work of nonfiction, in which he explored a theme which has haunted him since his own Scottish childhood.
There are all sorts of missing. The world is full of missing persons, and their numbers increase all the time. The space they occupy lies somewhere between what we know about the ways of being alive and what we hear about the ways of being dead.
How can it be that our society, so subject to surveillance, is yet so lacking in cohesion that individuals, both adults and children, can come unstuck, go adrift, vanish without trace? Are they dead, or have they remade themselves? And what does personal identity mean, if it can be shrugged off in this way? What is family, what is society, if our bonds can be slipped so easily?
Our Fathers has much in common with the earlier book. There is an air of brooding melancholy, arresting descriptions of landscape and cityscape, and fresh and convincing evocations of childhood. O’Hagan is a political writer, not in a narrow or partisan sense, but in the sense that he is concerned with the structures which hold us together, or fail to. How does it accommodate sectarian difference? He is also concerned with the question of Scottish identity, how it was made and how it has evolved. Is it a matter of how language is used? Is it a question of political systems? He is exercised by family myths and national myths, both of which are often maintained by the rigorous exclusion of facts, but which still define and shape the individual’s experience within his society. His skill is to assimilate these complicated questions into his story, without lecturing his reader: to make his reader feel, at every turn, that these issues are alive and urgent in the personal experience of the characters he will present to us. Just as a nation’s resentments shape-shift in a Celtic mist, so grievances pass from father to son and change in the telling; misunderstandings multiply as memories fade, and the unforgiven dead haunt the living, who judge them on evidence grown more cloudy as the years pass.
A young man carries O’Hagan’s story, but an old and dying man is at the heart of it. He is Hugh Bawn, socialist and visionary, one of the men who changed the face of postwar Scotland. Working within Glasgow’s housing development agency, Hugh was a prodigy of selfless energy. He believed passionately in a high-rise future, in the tower blocks which took families out of their damp and primitive tenements and housed them in the clouds. “This modern housing will not only change the way we live; it will change who we are. Let us reach upward.” To his son he is “a selfish, crazy bastard.” To his grandson, the narrator Jamie, he is a savior. Jamie ran away from home at the age of thirteen, and took refuge with his grandparents, in their public housing apartment up on the eighteenth floor. Unlike most architects and developers, Hugh Bawn lived in one of his own creations.
O’Hagan tells us the grown-up Jamie returns from England, from his own career and preoccupations, to attend his grandfather’s deathbed. Hugh Bawn is dying like a public man, like a man on show, still unable to admit to pain or fear. His life’s work is now a landscape of ruin. The tower blocks, in which he still believes, are being demolished. Built too quickly, of inferior materials, they have to be knocked down before they fall down. And his own grandson Jamie is one of the demolition experts. Who better to knock a building down than a man who knows exactly how and why it was put up? Tracing Jamie’s memories, O’Hagan takes us back into the past that shaped him, shaped his own father, and shaped Hugh Bawn himself.
The Bawns’ ancestors lie in Ireland, in the common graves of the starved. Hugh’s grandfather was a failed Ayrshire farmer—like Robert Burns, with whom he draws the proud comparison. The Bawn family removed to Glasgow, where during the war of 1914-1918 women organized a rent strike against landlords who were evicting poor families while their breadwinners were fighting at the front. Hugh’s mother was a prime mover in this strike, and later became a city councilor and Labour Party activist. Hugh himself began his working life as a laborer on the city payroll. He studied hard, married, kept sober. He kept his vision pure, and worked out how to implement it. “One day he emerged as the person in charge of everything.”
O’Hagan describes the thinking of Hugh and his wife:
A sense of betrayal lay deep in both Hugh and Margaret; it was an important part of who they were. Way behind both of them, or behind the words they spoke, lay thousands of acres of emptied land—bogs, glens—places filled with the sound of sheep and lost voices, where once their ancestors had thrived and raged. Margaret had taught me the names of her people, those men of the old Highlands, whose houses were burnt, whose land was cleared. They were men hanged on apple trees grown by their own fathers; they were women beaten with ash truncheons; they were starving children, sent under white sails to Canada, torn from the land they loved, their dark tartans turned into shrouds.
With such an inheritance, it is important to wrest control of the future. This is what Hugh tried to do: reshape it, elevate it, make it shine. What has brought Jamie to his expertise in demolition? Will he ever build a life of his own? His early years are a catalog of abandonment and devaluation. His father is an alcoholic, and his mother colludes with his violence. As a child Jamie thinks that she is in need of rescue, and capable of an easy, ordinary sort of happiness, but later he sees that she is one of those women “enlarged by drama and trouble.” She will not leave her husband to save her child.
A teacher, Mr. Buie, who wears “pitted shoes the colour of mud,” feeds Jamie’s generation a diet of nationalist cant. He cannot understand the children’s lack of taste for “abstract resentments.” But for them, leading their tiny lives, it is not the English who are the oppressors. They have to negotiate with the people who “snored in the room right next to ours, or dwelled long and nasty in a parallel street.” A temporary teacher who takes charge of them suggests that Scotland is, after all, part of a wider world, and that the preservation of a distinct form of speech, which Buie advocates, is not the only factor in self-definition. Upon his return, Buie wipes her words from the blackboard. Next,
He gave us a lecture on the meaning of Utopia. He said it was a word that meant everything in Scotland…. It was a place with a government. A place without wars. A land where we all lived equal. Bring on the future, he said. Bring us ourselves, only better.
Our Fathers is a novel of only three hundred pages, but it seems longer on first reading. There are times when the author does not seem to trust the power of the images he has created, and reduplicates his effects with lengthy accounts of what is going on inside his characters’ heads. Yet O’Hagan is a keen observer, affecting but never sentimental. Occasionally his tone wanders toward the fey, but his integrity and seriousness of purpose are beyond doubt. In describing the world that breeds Jamie, he attends to the topography of childhood with brilliant poetic intensity.
The boy lives not in the regenerated inner city but on virgin land, in a new community created in green fields, where all the streets are named after dead socialists; the heroes of postwar Scotland are commemorated not in ballads but in the grid plan of streets of small houses, each one of which encloses a story. The children are aware of the stories beneath the soil, of an older, more nebulous, but more complex reality. The pond near the new, hangar-like Japanese car factory is called by them Mulligan’s Pool, for an Irishman who once drowned himself there, and who they believe haunts its waters. Jamie’s family are Roman Catholics, and there are Irishmen swimming through their psyche; drunken Irishmen like Mulligan, and fighting Irishmen of legend, who unlike their Scottish descendants have not waited for the gentlemen from London to confer freedom on them. The pious conceits of the past are not really susceptible to challenge; their power resides with the archetype, far back beyond quotidian logic. Jamie understands that the place where you are brought up is “a mythic address, not chosen by you.”
Hugh Bawn’s generation of ideologues recognized that a people must progress beyond the art of elegy: beyond the sound of the lament, however well-composed. But by the time he is an old man, his version of the future is long superseded. His tower blocks have become known as “the blight of Glasgow.” They are damp, crime-ridden, and vandalized. The asbestos in their walls is poisoning their inhabitants. They have failed, both as buildings and as communities, and Hugh—who was always a man in a hurry—is accused of cutting corners and making mistakes, of playing fast and loose with public funds. Jamie is convinced that, if the old man was wrongheaded, he was never corrupt. He tells a seedy local reporter, “Even his greatest mistakes came from a better place than your truths.” Jamie thinks of his grandfather as a dying clan chieftain, a man who has outlived his time, “going down now to a place where his certainties would finally be honoured.” And as Hugh lies dying, his grandson overhears a witless radio phone-in on the subject of “The Scottish Nation: Why Have We Made Such an Arse of It?” He turns it off. He doesn’t need to be told that the problem with Scotland is that condoms are too freely available, or that its footballers aren’t good enough to win the World Cup. He might not agree with the talk-show host that “the problem with this country is there’s too few people with brains.” Maybe his grandfather would say there are too few people with vision. Have their chances—personal and political—slipped away? Jamie manages, if not to forgive his father, at least to see that “he was trying to live his life, as we all were.” So far, he has never wanted a child of his own. He tells his girlfriend Karen, “Let us have no more of families.” But he will change his mind on this point. The past may be a chronicle of waste and damage, but, as his grandmother tells him, “Nothing that’s happened should make you afraid.”
The socialist ideals which made it possible for Hugh Bawn to dream his dreams and make his vast, costly, and public mistakes are now the province of historians. Britain’s present Labour government has no competences and no vision that Hugh Bawn’s generation would recognize. The postwar generation needed simple things: milk for babies, a roof over their heads. Progress could be measured and costed out. At the century’s end, there is no consensus on what might be a better life, a better way of doing things. There is only a vague and restless feeling of disconnection, of promises unkept, of something missing.
In Britain, the salient image of the last decade is the photograph that provided the cover for O’Hagan’s earlier book. It is the blurred video-still of James Bulger, a baby of two and a half, led away from a shopping mall by two older boys who would shortly murder him. This image, so often reproduced, is not a clear image. It is unspecific, an arrangement of shapes: an arm upraised, a shoulder turned to camera. Both victim and killers are recognizably human, and recognizably children, but they have their backs to us. Perhaps it is ourselves we see, somewhere in the picture: murdering possibility, stifling our potential with no clear sense of why we do so. Individuals struggle, O’Hagan tells us, in the serpent toils of their particular inheritance; their collective identity is a blur to them, like a shifting cloud, like the shifting skies and weather that Hugh Bawn sees from his tower. Our Fathers operates in that territory of cloud and blur and shade. It sees the individual pain; it sees the collective grief, and the collective hope. Jamie’s gradual progress from weakness to strength, from resentment to comprehension, invites us to pick a path forward. It’s not a story, said the young woman from the “People’s Panel.” In fact it’s the only story. Give us ourselves, only better.
December 16, 1999