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Andrew O’Hagan: ‘The great chip pan fire novelist of the age’

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“There’s still any number of kinds of life being lived in Ireland and Scotland, England and Wales that have never really made it onto the page,” says Andrew O’Hagan as we meet, in the new traditional way, over Zoom video. “When Roddy Doyle published his first books, it was a voice that could have been broadcast straight out of the transistor radio in our childhood, straight into our living room, that echoed the voices in the room.”

That childhood in a working-class Scottish town is the spring of O’Hagan’s new novel Mayflies, which describes the rich friendship between two young men, Tully Dawson and Jimmy Collins. The story splits neatly in two, with the first half set in 1986 as they and their gang of mates head to a music weekend in Manchester. Then the story picks up 30 years later, when Jimmy takes a call from Tully, the call we all dread: Tully is terminally ill, and wants Jimmy’s help to die with dignity.

The story certainly has the ring of lived experience. “It came from life. My oldest friend Keith Martin, who was the great charismatic frontman of our childhood, and had been, from 13, a constant companion . . . he suddenly had oesophageal cancer in 2017, and he actually said to me, ‘Would you ever write about us?’ And I felt I could write this book straight from the heart.”

Mayflies then is a tribute to Keith – the novel is dedicated to him – but also to friendship itself.

In the first half, which is full of the joy of life, when “everything was new and everything was fresh”, the friends talk in quotes from books and films, lobbing favourite lines at one another like tennis balls. “It’s a sort of bondy book,” says O’Hagan. The books and movies Tully and Jimmy like are working-class stories: A Taste of Honey, Billy Liar, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. They are all about “getting out, or getting stuck”. In the book, Jimmy has a teacher who spots his potential and his interest in literature: “You’re a weirdo and weirdos have to get out,” she tells him.

False cliche

“That’s almost verbatim, that line!” O’Hagan laughs. “I had one of those great teachers. She said, ‘If you stay here, you’re going to be unhappy. I would come in with copies of, you know, Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself and she’d say, ‘The fuck is this?! You need to get out of here.’” Those working-class stories “were all little works of art which gave you permission to travel from your working classness, into a state of elsewhere. That wasn’t a guarantee in any of our houses. My mum was a cleaner, my dad was a joiner. It’s not a sad story – I had a great time growing up – but there wasn’t a whole number of books in the house. The cliché about working-class life is that the people who grow up working class are desperate to stay authentic to themselves, to stay what they are. That’s just false.”

In Mayflies, Tully and Jimmy’s first move toward getting out is to that music weekend in Manchester. The friends see The Smiths walking through a pub, where Morrissey “hit[s] the air like a chip pan fire” – a very 1980s simile, I point out. “I’m claiming it, the chip pan fire!” O’Hagan says. “The great chip pan fire novelist of the age!”

But then, notwithstanding the sadness in the second half of the story, Mayflies is a funny, bright-centred book, in contrast to the serious, straight-faced fiction for which O’Hagan has become celebrated and multiply awarded. “You find things about yourself as a writer as you go along,” he says. “I didn’t know I had half the comedy in me that I found for the book. I’ve always had a laugh with my friends and my family, I just hadn’t particularly tuned into that in any of the books.”

O’Hagan grew up in a Scots Catholic family with Irish blood: his father’s side of the family was from Magherafelt. He had a close friendship with Seamus Heaney: “We made these trips to Ireland and Scotland and Wales together. The next one, we were going to go to the Isle of Wight and then back to Magherafelt.” I mention the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, now well-established as a cultural centre around Heaney’s work in Bellaghy, near Magherafelt. O’Hagan smiles at a memory: “I took him to Robert Burns’s memorial birthplace in Alloway, outside Ayr. And there was a thing that said: The Tam O’Shanter Experience! And we teased Seamus and said, ‘Hey Seamus, in Bellaghy it’s going to be the Seamus Heaney Experience quite soon.’ And he said, deadpan: ‘Well, what are they going to have in there? A confessional box and an old butter churn?’”

Thatcher to Blair

The connection between Ireland and Scotland is still strong for O’Hagan. “When I’m on that Northern Irish coast, I’d feel I was in Largs or Argyll or Ayrshire. It’s made of the same stuff, the people are made of the same stuff. On the 12th of July every year in our town on the west coast of Scotland, it was the Orange walk, and we were Catholic, so we were kept in the house. My granny would throw pails of shite out of the window, or water, or just shut the blinds.”

The point, made lightly, is that O’Hagan believes keenly in fiction’s calling not just to outline the world but fill it in. “That was our moment. What happened to us was the 1980s and 1990s. You know, that journey from Thatcher through to Blair is an absolutely gobsmacking and interesting and profound period in world history, and in our corner of the world, everything changed. And I would expect novels to get into the specifics of that . . . It’s the sense of wanting novels to somehow connect with the specificity of those slightly forgotten things.”

Even, in Mayflies, a Tunnock’s teacake: “If I can get that Tunnock’s teacake onto the page just once, if I can get a chip pan fire to light up a bit of black sky in one novel, one time, I’ll be quite content.”

For Tully and Jimmy, still quoting the same films at one another 30 years on, “it’s that feeling that all human beings get to. The backward glance, the sense of midpoint, the middle of the journey-ness.” Not surprising especially now, when looking ahead has become so frightening. “There’s such a present tense-ism in the social media universe. They have a bad relationship with nostalgia because the past to them is only nostalgia, whereas I think it’s a kind of continual present.”

Speaking of social media, O’Hagan had his own experience of “cancel culture” in 2018 when he published a long essay on the fire at Grenfell Tower, London, which had killed 72 people. In it he was “disgusted that the Tory government were manipulating this fire for political purposes. I went into depth on how international companies had been able to flout British safety laws for their own profit. But those things still didn’t please my friends on the left, because I also pointed to their unfairness.” He rejected the idea that the Conservative council in whose borough the fire took place did not help the victims and their families, and he was critical of the response on the night by the London Fire Brigade and of some of the activist groups that claimed to speak for the residents of the tower block. “It was obvious,” he says of his critics, “how few of them had actually read the piece. It was 65,000 words, and within 45 minutes of it being published, thousands of people were online, quoting each other, saying I should be shot.”

‘Slack energy’

Unlike Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, JK Rowling and others, he didn’t sign the “cancel culture” letter to Harper’s magazine this year in support of free speech, but agreed with it. It was dismissed by critics as a rejection by the established and famous of accountability for what they write. “I was surprised by the reaction. I’m an old-style sort of political believer, I’ve always been one to go out on the marches, I’ve never been shy of writing a political piece. I think the world is full of incredible abuses of power at the moment and terrifying injustices, but there seems to be so much slack energy going into what I think is much smaller stuff. I thought the intention of that letter was perfectly reasonable, but the need for the letter was demonstrated by the reaction to it.”

Politics in Britain, both large-scale and personal, runs through O’Hagan’s work: his author blurb on some books describes him as a “chronicler of contemporary Britain and its place in the world”. His novels cover the decline of Scotland’s urban landscape (Our Fathers and Be Near Me), “the ravages of fame and what it does to young people’s sense of reality” (Personality) and Britain’s involvement in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan (The Illuminations). And “I’ve been working on a big social novel for years, called Caledonian Road, a thousand-page novel set in contemporary London. It’s my big book.”

But O’Hagan’s first book was non-fiction: The Missing, published in 1995, seemed to me at the time very new in its merging of reportage, history, memoir and essay: a genre-defying approach which has since become a genre in itself, indeed is now almost de rigueur in non-fiction. “To be quite honest, its newness took me by surprise,” he says now. The Missing was about children and adults who had disappeared in Britain – runaways, amnesiacs, victims of crime – and included O’Hagan’s own childhood and the disappearance of his grandfather. It’s clear when listening to him talk that this passion to capture the social life of Britain remains undimmed. “You’ve got to be a prose professional, get out of bed every morning and say, what is pressing on my nerves? You’ve got to come out of your trap every morning like you are equal to your times.”

In fact, although it was novel in Britain at the time, that genre-blending new journalism of The Missing had been established in the US already, not least by Norman Mailer, whose Advertisements for Myself had so discombobulated O’Hagan’s teacher and made her tell him to “get out”. And get out he did, along the way meeting Mailer himself, when he interviewed him for the Paris Review in 2007. “He couldn’t have been less fashionable at that point. He was 82 and had all his glories and disasters behind him,” O’Hagan recalls. “And I said, what’s the most important thing for a young writer? He said, ‘They’ve got to be willing to get their shoes on and get out the house. Go and meet the world, and stare right into it.’”

Mayflies is published by Faber & Faber

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