Andrew O’Hagan: ‘If you are honest, you never stop being who you were’

O'Hagan at home

 ‘I have deliberately made this place cocoonish’: novelist Andrew O’Hagan photographed at home in Primrose Hill, London. The writer’s new novel, Mayflies, is an elegy to a teenage friend. Here he talks about growing up in working-class Ayrshire, going against the grain and the spirit of 80s post-punk

by Tim Adams in THE GUARDIAN

Every teenager, or every teenager who is lucky, has a Keith. Keith is the friend who jokes and dresses with more swagger than anyone else, who looks out for misfits and makes them feel understood, who is the scourge of bullies and bigots and the master of revels, who can conjure laughs from thin air on nights when you are bored and skint.

Andrew O’Hagan met his Keith – Keith Martin – on the council estate near Irvine new town, on the coast of Ayrshire, 20 miles from Glasgow, where they both grew up. In the 1980s they went on CND protests and miners’ marches together, they were a wayward double-act chatting up girls, and while O’Hagan was still at school and Martin was working as a lathe-turner in a local factory, they formed a band. Thirty years later, with none of that history forgotten, it was O’Hagan who Keith Martin first called with the news no one wants to share; that he had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and that they had at best only four months of friendship left.

The second half of the novel begins in another place entirely – O’Hagan’s own current London literary world – with Jimmy coming home to his house in Primrose Hill from the book launch of a dissident Hungarian novelist in Eaton Square. It is there, armed only with a glass of scotch, that he gets the call from Tully with the fateful news.

When novelists write books that are intimately close to home, they tend to lean on the clause that it’s all made up; O’Hagan is keener to stress that this one – much more than his previous five novels – is nearly all true. The death of his oldest friend gave him no choice, he says, but to put aside the fiction he had been writing for several years – a big Dickensian-sounding novel, set in the present-day divisions of Islington’s Caledonian Road – to make some emotional sense of those last months. As Jimmy observes, when Tully was not around, the rest of the gang always unravelled too: “That’s teenage love isn’t it? When the party is less fun because your mate is the party.”

You can see some of that lost love in the photos that O’Hagan has kept of their band, which had a name for the ages, the Big Gun. Martin was spike-haired on vocals, O’Hagan shoehorned in as percussionist “shaking a tambourine and trying to look cool”. Despite a brilliant writing career that has included international prizes and visiting professorships, O’Hagan says no accolade has come close to matching the excitement he felt on hearing the Big Gun’s one and only single played on John Peel’s Radio 1 show in 1986.

“The five of us were all gathered round the radio in Irvine with our quiffs when the record came on,” he recalls. “At the end Peel said, and I quote: ‘Melody arrives unheralded into the programme, that’s the Big Gun from Ayrshire. I must say I like that immoderately.’ The five of us were punching the air, and wondering what ‘immoderately’ meant.”

Andrew O’Hagan with Edna O’Brien at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Picture by Bill Heaney

Smash Hits magazine said the track “was the kind of single that made England great”. (O’Hagan wrote in immediately, of course: “Dear Smash Hits, we come from Scotland, so fuck you.”) The Big Gun went on a mini-tour that took in gigs in Carlisle and at a pub on London’s Seven Sisters Road, but that was the end of it. “The boys all worked in factories, we didn’t have any more tunes, and I went off to university at Strathclyde,” O’Hagan says. Still, the band had briefly done what bands used to do: it had made anything seem possible, not least the chance of escape from the bitterness of unemployed fathers and fractured families and uncertain futures, the process that O’Hagan and Martin used to dream of as “deliverance”.

I’ve known O’Hagan a little for 25 years or so – we started out working on literary journals at about the same time, he at the London Review of Books, I at Granta, and drank with some of the same friends. Sitting chatting about his book a couple of weeks ago around the dining table in his beautiful house in Primrose Hill, hidden in an enclave of 19th-century artists’ studios, we talked first about male friendship.

The sleeve of the Big Gun’s single, which John Peel liked ‘immoderately’.
 The sleeve of the Big Gun’s single, which John Peel liked ‘immoderately’.

We are both of that generation that came of age between national service and social media. “Our fathers may have found their friendships in the army or in a factory,” O’Hagan says. “Our children may find them online. In between was that moment when you made half your friends at bus stops with people who had the same mission as you: heading into town to buy the new Smiths record.” There was, it turns out, a lasting camaraderie in that. “Keith was the leader of our gang,” he says. “He taught us to love the Jesus and Mary Chain and Martin Scorsese, and then, fuck me, 30 years later he was teaching me how to die.”

That story is more poignant, I suggest, because their friendship already had a happy ending – they both, in different ways, had made good on their pact of deliverance. That journey, the gap between the two halves of O’Hagan’s book, is still fairytale in some ways, isn’t it?

“It is exactly that,” O’Hagan says, “and I have never taken it for granted. The most dramatic ways out of childhoods like mine were boxing, a pools win, or making it in a band. My grandfather was a boxer, who died at 34. For our generation the most reliable was music. We could watch all those brilliant scallies like, say, Echo and the Bunnymen, become genuine heroes, creative, political, articulate. They showed us that it could be done.”

In his writing over the years, O’Hagan has painted an affectionate portrait of himself as a young man. He was the boy who stowed books in a bread tin under his bed, hidden from the sneers of his dad, a violent alcoholic; the kid with more interest in “history and flowers” than Celtic FC. Having three older brothers helped him survive. “I mean I was openly expressing interest in Virginia Woolf at school – that was basically asking to be battered. But they were quite tough my brothers, so kids left me alone.”

There is a scene in this book – another true story – where O’Hagan, at 17, goes for a job interview at a yard where they make fence posts. He is given the bum’s rush halfway through explaining to the site owner why he has Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea in his jacket pocket. His eventual saviour – who assured him that there actually were places in the world where he would not seem deviant or worse for quoting Edith Sitwell – was an English teacher who persuaded him to stay on at school and try for university. A decade later, that teacher came to a reading O’Hagan gave in Glasgow from his first novel, Our Fathers, which had been shortlisted for the Booker prize. She told him afterwards”: “I always knew it about you, you were never going to settle for anything less than scandal or glory.”

In trying to locate that place where people not only shared an interest in Edith Sitwell, but also her brothers, Sacheverell and Osbert, O’Hagan got on a bus to London from Glasgow at 21, with his worldly goods of £60 in his pocket and no plan except to doss on his friend Alan’s floor in Shepherd’s Bush. A good listener as well as a good talker, he got a job with the charity St Dunstan’s taking blind veterans of the second world war out on day trips. Reading the London Review of Books on the way home from one of those outings to the South Downs, he saw an ad for an editorial assistant and applied. Three decades on, the paper remains his literary home.

I well remember the impact of O’Hagan’s first published story, at the time of the murder of James Bulger. When the whole world was calling the two-year-old’s schoolboy killers evil, O’Hagan wrote a piece recalling incidents from his own childhood that had involved situations not dissimilar to those that had ended in the child’s abduction and murder, when smaller kids would be bullied and tortured to alleviate afternoon boredom. “I had looked at the pictures of those boys leading Jamie Bulger away in the shopping centre,” he says now, “and I said to Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the LRB: ‘You know, I recognise those boys, I know something about their lives.’” Wilmers told him to take the rest of the afternoon off and try to write about that. At the time, he was the most junior member of staff, mostly opening the mail. “I sat on my bed in my shared flat at the back of King’s Cross station, and stayed up all night and wrote this thing,” he says.

The voice of that piece, confessional and smart, not only said something interesting and new about British childhoods, it marked O’Hagan out immediately as a rare talent. From the morning after it came out, he says, “my phone did not stop ringing for a year”. The Guardian picked the piece up and made it a cover story: “Confessions of a literary editor”, with a picture of O’Hagan looking young and wearing a leather jacket. “I had dozens of letters from priests and social workers,” he says, “and suddenly I realised journalism was a thing, if you could describe the world honestly in your own way.”

He had, he says, “a tremendous amount of pavement pounding energy” as a writer at the time. He slept nights under Waterloo Bridge to write about the homeless; long after the press pack had left, he kept a daily vigil outside Fred and Rosemary West’s house, to gather material for his first book, The Missing. At the Observer magazine, back then, I commissioned him to write a story about Guy’s hospital, which was earmarked for closure. The hospital wouldn’t give him any official access, so he just sat in corridors and waiting rooms for weeks on end, talking to staff and patients, trying to get a sense of what closure would mean. People came to believe he was a porter. When the story came out, a hospital executive called me to yell about the official channels, but the story O’Hagan told hit a nerve.

Insecurity has been a constant theme in his writing, the idea that everything might be taken away; The Missing was a meditation on young lives that had fallen off the map, “mispers” as the police files called them. That fear was deep-rooted in him, he says.

“I grew up in houses where you were always up against it. You were never sure how long you would stay there, the house was chaotic, my dad was never coming home, or coming home drunk, the rent was never paid, the electricity was always being cut off.”

It is one of the reasons now, he says, that he makes every effort to make his home a sanctuary. He gestures around the room with its ceiling stencilled in colours borrowed from Italian churches, and paintings by Duncan Grant and Patrick Caulfield. “I have deliberately made this place cocoonish,” he says, as an antidote to those memories of insecurity. “It is where my wife is – and my books.” (O’Hagan has been married twice, first to the columnist India Knight, and for the past two years to Lindsey Milligan, 36, a theatre stage manager. India Knight’s subsequent partner, former Labour MP Eric Joyce, was recently convicted of making a pornographic image of a very young child; O’Hagan has no wish to comment on that case in print, though he mentions that his and Knight’s daughter, Nell, 16, is living here with him and Milligan.)

The reach of his sense of home extends beyond this room. He finds time to run a cafe at the end of the street, with Sam Frears, the charismatic son of Stephen and Mary-Kay Wilmers who was born with severely disabling Riley-Day syndrome – and to be a global Unicef ambassador. “For me,” O’Hagan says at one point, “the idea of society isn’t some Henry Jamesian world of dinner parties, it is being so good at being civilised that we want to let different people waft in, whatever their beginning in life.”

Ever since I have known him, O’Hagan has had a gift for such wafting in, even in the most intellectually intimidating company. Where did that come from?

A good deal of it was to do with drink, he suggests. But partly it was a faith in that feeling he got from 80s bands: “Joy Division didn’t ask for permission to speak,” he says. “They didn’t apply to Oxbridge. The music just announced: ‘We’re here too’.” In that spirit, he says: “I’ve never been in a room in my life when I felt like the underdog. I didn’t allow myself to feel that. I made sure I had plenty to say to Lord Fuckface or whoever standing next to me, and just as importantly made sure to listen carefully to what he had to say.”

A version of that confidence also enabled him to establish friendships quickly with all manner of writerly heroes – Joan Didion, Alan Bennett, Neal Ascherson; he went on hiking holidays with Seamus Heaney. In an essay about his long friendship with the late Norman Mailer, O’Hagan wrote of the time he stayed at the American novelist’s home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the pair of them lying side by side in twin beds. “It was odd to think of it, the two of us lying there, 45 years between us, the wind and rain howling outside the house and the beams creaking like the ones in an old ship. ‘What you thinking about?’ [Norman] said. ‘Moby Dick,’ I lied.”

Most of the best advice he ever had as writer, he has said, came from Mailer. “He knew the industry could make writers soft and silly – hungry for recognition, when the real task was to enter your times and write your heart out and never settle for having the correct opinions.”

That determination to “enter his times” and follow the truth as he has discovered it rather than simply deliver “correct opinions”, has inevitably made him an occasional target in the current pathology of outrage. In 2013 O’Hagan agreed to ghostwrite the autobiography of Julian Assange, who had secured a seven-figure global book contract. He took on the job in part because he believed WikiLeaks might help to change the world for the better by making government more transparent. In his dealings with Assange over many months, however – a saga he subsequently detailed in a suitably indiscreet long essay – he found the hacker to be “entirely duplicitous and a megalomaniac, and if saying that put me on the wrong side of a culture war for some people, then so be it.”

His second experience of going against consensus came in his extraordinary report into the Grenfell Tower fire. O’Hagan rented an office in the shadow of the tower and over the course of a year interviewed hundreds of people – survivors, campaigners, firefighters, social workers, politicians – who had been involved. On the eve of the official inquiry the LRB gave over its whole edition to his 65,000 words which prompted enormous praise and vitriol at equal extremes. O’Hagan’s thoughtful and balanced conclusions were not to the taste of those activists who wanted no deviation from a party line that the tragedy was to be blamed entirely on corporate negligence and wilful callousness by the Tories on Kensington and Chelsea council.

He sees that response as a symptom of a dangerous world in which the goal of nuanced and objective reporting is itself considered an ideological failing; he was criticised even for listening to all points of view. (When I talked to some of those Grenfell activists for a story a year later, nothing made them angrier than mention of “Andrew O’Hateful”). “I have spent my life as someone who is all ears for injustice and wrongdoing,” O’Hagan says. “But accusations shouted loudly on social media are not evidence.”

O’Hagan does not believe that a social media presence should be any part of the “job of a writer”. He still uses a typewriter for most of his work; to avoid the lazier temptations of cut and paste, the piece on Grenfell was handwritten. Neither was he unsettled by the criticism. “If you have not suffered a Twitter pile-on as a journalist these days, you cannot be doing your job properly,” he says. Little deflects him from work. On the table next to us as we speak there is a brimming bowl of pencils, each sharpened to a point.

“The luckiest thing that ever happened to me as a writer is that I don’t get depressed,” he says. “It is almost a gargantuan unfairness. All my friends who are writers have suffered at one time or another with the black dog. I’ve never had that.”

Some of it has to do with counting his blessings, he suggests. More, perhaps, an unwavering drive to confront “his material” honestly on the page, to “write his heart out” as Mailer instructed; Mayflies is a case in point.

“If you are honest, you never stop being who you were,” O’Hagan says, of his efforts to do justice to his memory in the novel. “Talking to you now I can still see that kid wearing his brother’s suit who went into a fencers’ yard needing a job – if I’d got it, I may well not have been here now. I know, like you do, that there were plenty of kids who were brighter than Mark E Smith [of the Fall], funnier than Morrissey, and their lives never had the great accident of opportunity.”

O’Hagan was already thinking about the joy and loss of friendship when he received the news of Keith Martin’s terminal illness. About a year earlier he had written a characteristic piece in the New York Times about losing touch with his very first childhood friend, a boy called Mark McDonald, of whom he could find not a trace on the internet or anywhere else. “That piece was like a premonition,” he says now. “Mark was a boyhood friend, rather than a teenage one, and he just disappeared from our lives.” He concluded that story with the faith that “the only kind of loyalty that matters is to know your friends and stick with them”.

Some of the most telling passages in Mayflies are those in which O’Hagan details the ways that he and Martin – Tully and Jimmy – established that loyalty, never letting the other go under. When O’Hagan needed to escape the more chaotic extremes of home, he could always find a hot meal and a sofa at his mate’s house. Later, when he went off to university, he literally gave all his books and even his bookshelves to Martin, with the instruction to read them and follow him. “He did the work and became this magical English teacher at Eastbank academy in Glasgow, talking to kids about books and films and music just as he had talked about them to us.” In his last weeks, Martin spent some time at a caravan O’Hagan owns on the coast near West Kilbride, a place they both loved; his ashes were scattered at an appropriate spot near there, the Brither Rocks – the brother rocks.

A few days after our interview, I asked O’Hagan if he had a copy of the single he made with the Big Gun – of course he does – and he sent me over a scratchy recording of it, along with a picture of its homemade Letraset sleeve. It’s a driving and boisterous guitar track with a Buzzcocks-inspired hook. Listening to Martin’s voice across the years, with just a hint of O’Hagan’s tambourine in the background, is to understand exactly the lasting bond that informs the novel. The track is called Heard About Love. As John Peel might have observed of the friendship behind that implied question, “Immoderately”.

 Mayflies is published by Faber on 3 September (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

 Andrew O’Hagan: Heydays in the Hacienda, part of Edinburgh international book festival online, takes place 30 August (5.30pm)

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