In Praise of Andrew O’Hagen

Margaret Barnes

This week, Margaret Barnes has some recommended reading for us in the books of one of her favourite authors, Andrew O’Hagen.

“Carol Ann Duffy describes his latest book Mayflies as one of those novels to press into the hands of friends. I understand why. The novel is beautifully written and, as she says, is funny, poetic, alert to time, place and the ordinary life. My reaction was that it was both joyous and heart breaking at the same time.

I have been puzzled that O’Hagen is not better known. He was born in Glasgow and grew up in Ayrshire. He has been nominated for the Booker three times and is editor-at-large of the London Review of Books.

I first met him at the Dartington Ways With Words Festival in 2007 when I heard him speak about his book Be Near Me. I had chosen his talk because the book touches on the subject of paedophilia, something about which I had some knowledge from my career as a barrister. The story is about an English priest who takes over a small Scottish parish. Not everyone is prepared to accept him and he makes friends with two local youths, Mark and Lisa. What happens challenges some of the preconceptions about paedophiles promoted by the tabloid press. Beautifully written, intelligent; providing a nuanced treatment of a sad and simple story.

In 2010 O’Hagen was again at the Dartington Festival and speaking about his book The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe. Maf the dog, was given to her by Frank Sinatra in November 1960 and he lived with Marilyn for the last two years of her life. During his talk, O’Hagen read a piece from the book which described so accurately the way a dog can behave, I was reminded of my own dog. I bought a copy of the book at the festival and queued to get it signed. I said my own dog behaved very similarly and he asked me what my dog was called. I told him and instead of putting my name he signed it for Rudi. I found the story very funny. O’Hagen has great powers of observation and describes Maf’s behaviour realistically. Apparently the dog’s license and photographs were sold at auction along with Marilyn’s other personal effects.

I have read two more of his books; The Missing and The Illuminations. The Missing is non-fiction, partly autobiographical and partly about the victims of serial killers – the missing and the unmissed. Candia McWilliam, writing about this book in The Independent on Sunday, says of O’Hagen: “he looks at myths and lazy thoughts and images clear in the face and scrubs them down to what he calls ‘a truthful inelegance’.”

The Illuminations tells the story of Anne Quirk who, as a young woman, was the creator of groundbreaking documentary photographs. When her grandson, Luke, a captain in the British Army, returns from Afghanistan he begins to look into his family’s stories. In an attempt to unravel a mystery from her past they set out for Blackpool and the story is finally illuminated.

To return to Mayflies: during a magical weekend in Manchester a group of school leavers, including James and Tully, form friendships based on music, films and high spirits. Like most young people they want to do things differently. The story then jumps thirty years and they are faced with the reality of what living and dying mean.

Andrew O’Hagen’s books can be read and reread as they look at life in Britain as it is, warts and all. He wants to shake us out of our complacency and make us look at those who struggle with the complexities of their lives. Do read them.
If you are a writer then read them not just for the stories they tell but to learn from the elegance of his prose. His website can be found here.”

Margaret Barnes

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