by Ian Bell

Scotland Dialling 999

October 28, 2009 | by Ian Bell

IN THE AYRSHIRE of Andrew O’Hagan’s third novel there are no happy people, not one. This is a non-trivial detail: the absence of all happiness is peculiar. The locals staring into the shifting Irish Sea, with no Tolstoyan means of support, are meanwhile unhappy in a peculiar way. God or an author has seen to that.

When these individuals do not hate themselves they hate Catholics, or Protestants, or the English: no exceptions. Their feral, affectless children are meanwhile given a double dose: Prods, Papes, the feckin English, education, humanity, themselves, and their lost, zombie parents. Let’s just say that west Scotland does not earn a good report in Be Near Me.

There are good people in the novel, but they tend to be dead, dying or rueful. One is a terminally-ill part-time domestic servant with pride and a thirst, long forgotten among the lumpen remnant of her community, for self-improvement. Another exists only in memory’s amber, a lost love, a Sixties Balliol radical extinguished for the sake of plot and Proust. A third is a widower who fills his nights phoning distant relatives and friends: Scotland dialling 999.

The faults in O’Hagan’s novel arise from what he knows for certain. The successes come, in a rising flood, from what he can feel. There is something peculiar in that, too. There are pages of mesmerising prose when we are inside the head of Father David Anderton, a priest transplanted to alien soil. There are other passages – especially those a reviewer is supposed to call ‘set-pieces’ – where transitions stall and the shifts in register sound like a rusty British gearbox being ripped apart.

The problem is one of O’Hagan’s choosing. The figure of the compromised priest – Ampleforth, Balliol, Rome, and a maternal touch of Morningside – is a contrast to “Dalgarnock” so absolute it feels like caricature. But why “Dalgarnock”? Why fictionalise when Ailsa Craig is sitting on the book’s glimpsed horizons? Would Girvan be mortified? Would Ayrshire care? Father David is a bystander in the accident of his own life, but that life is dramatised by a circumstance called Scotland, the thing above all others that O’Hagan knows he knows for certain.

Reading the novel, I wondered about conditioned reflexes. How would I have responded if Be Near Me had arrived freshly-translated from the French, the tale of a gay Parisian cure, say, set adrift in some successor to Zola’s Montsou with his memories of the 1968 events, his gentle bafflement in the face of parochial spite and racism? I would probably draw on what I think I know about France, not knowing any better, and write about the universal and the particular. My reading of the imaginary book would not be, could not be, a Frenchman’s reading. That’s life, fictional or otherwise.

I would not be able to pass judgement on descriptions of endemic religious antagonisms. It would be left for me to wonder at the ubiquitous, reflexive hatred of one national group for another. I would have to take on trust the portrait of exhausted working class communities as the preserve of feckless, snarling losers in sportswear with scarcely a single curious soul – or even an Andrew O’Hagan – among their number. Even a little research into an author assailing the “bigotry, paralysis, nullity and boredom” of his native patch wouldn’t help much. Only the texture of the prose would be reliable.

Scotland can take care of itself; O’Hagan’s artistic ambitions are perhaps another matter. He has the Boswell itch: can’t much be bothered with Caledonia, can’t leave it alone. The trouble is, most of the dramatic tension in Be Near Me depends on Father David’s relationships with Dalgarnock. Much of the novel’s meaning follows the thread of love lost, but there is no love lost, none whatever, in the lightly-fictionalised town.

For the book to work, or to satisfy its author, every named Scot in the narrative must hate “the English”, or fret at intervals over the assumed hatred of his or her compatriots. They must each be driven by pseudo-religious nonsense. They must, each and every one, be thick as shit, such being the inevitable condition of the former working class, and prone to tabloid frenzies over paedophile priests. In opposition, in perfect cock-eyed balance, there must be Anderton: Proustian parody, somewhat pretentious, decent but disconnected, afflicted by longing, and “drawn” – O’Hagan never makes the mechanism explicit – to the wild pill-chewing children, Mark and Lisa.

It’s a bit silly, in other words. In places, it approaches daft. Yet to many readers elsewhere on the island it will no doubt sound perfectly plausible. The writing of the last third of the novel, when Anderton is facing trial over a stolen kiss, nothing more, will answer most doubts. Yet Be Near Me is a fine example – and some of it is very fine – of how to cheat with talent: read, enjoy, suspend judgement. The plot depends on prejudices, several of them the author’s own, but art can cause people to swallow a lot, particularly if they possess no contrary evidence. It’s a deep-fried Mars bar of a book: myth made reality by force of defiant repetition.

Works of fiction are not, most of the time, vehicles for political debate. If a novel’s very furniture is supplied by arguments over culture and society, however, you are stuck with the quibbles. Like all former members of the vanishing working-class O’Hagan is an expert: he understands, in ways no other can ever possibly understand, what has become of his people. He possesses and despises them: the acts are connected. In Be Near Me Dalgarnock, and all the lives it contains, is an agglomeration of dismal attributes. Only Anderton and his part-time housekeeper, the beautifully-realised Mrs Poole, possess identity and personality.

‘Scotland’ is defined much as the commodity-junkie, substance-abusing proles, one giant remedial class, are defined. Again, O’Hagan arrives on the scene with the forensic expertise of one who has accumulated all the knowledge he will ever need. He has the expatriate’s unease, and then some. It ought to be simple for a talent such as his: go where you please, write as you please, be anyone. Somehow the mind drifts back to Scotland. Like a letter you forgot to post, all the reasons why absence is preferable seem urgent. A point, something personal, requires proving?

Joyce and his huff with Ireland, that sow consuming her farrow, amount to a reliable legacy for all expatriates. ‘Anglophobe’ Scots, however many or few, are then a gift, retrospective validation for quitting the dismal little nullity of a country in the first place. In a novel about love, with a Prince Myshkin of a priest, you require a good deal of hating, nevertheless. ‘Scotland’ will do. Distance lends perspective – no one ever said it made a gift of the thing – and allows the expatriate to see with certainty what no enchorial prose ever grasped. The small matter of truth will doubtless take care of itself.

So: middle-aged priest haunted by memories of a dead student lover is transferred to Ayrshire after dull years in Blackpool thanks to a friend who has made bishop. His father is long dead, his Muriel Spark parody mum writes romantic fiction. The priest has an edgy but intelligent relationship with his house-keeper, a woman less educated but vastly wiser than he. The priest thinks often and fondly of autumnal Ampleforth and the poseurs of Balliol. Then he begins an unwise, deluded, needy and unconvincing relationship with a couple of dim-witted local teenage reprobates. There is a kiss, a trial, and the indistinct glimmering of self-knowledge.

When O’Hagan published The Missing in 1995, two things were evident: first, a conspicuous prose talent, secondly a tendency to allow an idea to overwhelm the available supporting material. The book was a collection of essays, in effect, harnessed to a brilliant metaphor. Who goes missing from our world and why? Once they are erased, or self-erased, is it still possible to talk of ‘who’ and ‘why’? Allusive writing drifted in and out of focus, aptly enough, even as it invoked an unreliable reality. Some of that quality survives in Be Near Me. Anderton’s interior life loses contact repeatedly with the exterior world, shifting between past and present. He isn’t, as they might say in Dalgarnock, quite with us.

Our Fathers, shortlisted for the 1999 Booker, was a self-consciously tough novel, a thing of hard edges and stark images. If anything, it was over-organised: three men, three generations, father and son, father and son, with the eldest, Hugh Bawn, dying with his dreams in one of the tower blocks he helped to create. “Our fathers were made for grief,” observes the grandson, early in the tale. O’Hagan, in an odd way, was made for elegies. He has the trait once observed in Robert Louis Stevenson, the godfather of exiles: he anticipates nostalgia. That tone made Our Fathers near-perfect if its critiques, implicit and explicit, had not already picked a fight with the reader.

A decent little fight is no bad thing, of course, and O’Hagan has the relish. In his journalism and his fiction he has challenged readers, Scottish readers in particular, repeatedly. If you happen to emerge from Be Near Me, then, with the vague notion that Dalgarnock in a bad week would be preferable to an afternoon in Anderton’s Balliol – with its comedy tutor, its “Marcellist” Proustians and its self-selecting radicals – you have probably chosen your side of the argument. If you also finish the novel believing that cultural London remains, as ever, a gated community of the mind, the agreement to differ will be complete.

Be Near Me does not quite gel because, quite simply, the worlds of its protagonists are mutually exclusive by design: they cannot gel. Personality, O’Hagan’s last book, was more satisfying, perhaps because its horizons were broader, perhaps because its multi-textual techniques put a little distance between the reader and the writing. The novel had breathing space. Equally, the barely fictionalised tale of Maria Tambini, the tiny little Scot with the huge voice, was close indeed to the reality of the late Lena Zavaroni and her self-eradication by anorexia. O’Hagan was bound, to some extent, by what happened.

Those set-pieces in Be Near Me lack the benefit of that discipline. A rectory dinner in which three priests, their bishop, a drunken schoolmaster and a social worker kick around arguments over the Iraq war is, for example, shot through with caricature and failed satire. Here Anderton is judged yet again, at every turn, simply for a failure to be Scottish. By this point in the book we expect no less in that department, or perhaps no more.

The loving priest knows his wines and his Burgundian stews; his oafish Scottish antagonist insists on whisky – “We don’t have ice in our whisky up here. This is Scotland.” Spare me – and insists that no one drinks port in these parts. The social worker has “a frightful tendency to use the word ‘dichotomies’” but wouldn’t know her Beaujolais from her Buck-fast. Guess which characters oppose the war, with a typical Scottish self-righteousness, and which have a decent lack of certainty? Some of the scene is at Anderton’s expense, but its only real purpose is to show us What The Scots Are Like. All of them?

This doesn’t cause Be Near Me to become a bad novel. Enough of the book is more than good enough to evade that risk. The worst of it leaves you wondering, nevertheless, about the real nature of fiction. Religious barbarism and gut nationalism: in this world these are the beginning and end of Scotland. Good, important subjects they are, too, but you need the perfect clarity of O’Ha-gan’s 20-20 hindsight, and a good pair of blinkers, to depict them as the only visible features on the map. At a guess, the author knows it, too.

An old joke, variously rendered. Where would Scotland be without James Boswell? Slightly to the north of Berwick. Where would Boswell be without Scotland? London, obviously and inevitably, and still sending his letters home.

From this Issue

Irish in Denial

by James MacMillan

Kill and Be Kilt

by Hamish Whyte

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