Andrew O’Hagan

Andrew O’Hagan is the LRB’s editor at large. His new novel, Mayflies, was published last month by Faber. It is being developed into a six-part series for television.

Short Cuts: Black Forest Thinking

Andrew O’Hagan, 22 October 2020

Iopened​ the window to let in some air. Hotel windows can’t always be opened. Some hotels don’t believe in fresh air, or they believe it’s too expensive, if the price of having it is accepting the risk of people smoking (or jumping). On the fourth floor of the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, windows open over a secret courtyard, and I could hear what sounded like an old TV...

I’m being a singer: Dandy Highwaymen

Andrew O’Hagan, 8 October 2020

Joanne Catherall and Phil Oakey of the Human League performing in 1982.

Iwas​ in Skegness the weekend Britain left the EU. It was raining, and a cold, hard breeze was blowing in from the North Sea. At Butlin’s, in a huge tent filled with burger bars and dayglo cocktails, the Brexiteers were dancing to 1980s pop music and getting excited. A number of drunk men were dressed as St...

Ifirstwalked along Brewer Street when I was 13. I was looking for a shop that sold film posters. It’s a long story, a four-hanky number, and it started in Glasgow the previous summer when I bumped into a busload of visiting Californians. I’d got talking to a woman who told me her friend had once been Marilyn Monroe’s nurse – I’m not making this up – and...

Bournemouth: The Bournemouth Set

Andrew O’Hagan, 21 May 2020

RobertLouis Stevenson was always ill, that’s what people said, and in the late summer of 1884 he decided he wouldn’t return to the South of France, where he’d spent the past year and a half in a house called La Solitude. His wife, Fanny, sought the advice of his London doctors, who recommended Davos in the Swiss mountains as being cholera-free, but Stevenson fancied...

At the Carlton Club: Maggie, Denis and Mandy

Andrew O’Hagan, 2 January 2020

We sat upstairs under a huge portrait of Disraeli. Thatcher was across from me, wearing a blue, sparkly twinset and a flowery brooch. She looked very tired, like someone who’s done too much with her life, and Denis was sitting beside her laughing at nothing and hardly eating. Deedes told a story about the jolly dinners they used to have at Number Ten and how the prime minister of Canada had sent her a battleship by way of a thank-you note at the time of the Falklands War. Meanwhile I was trying to make conversation with the elderly gentleman beside me. He had a lot to say about herbaceous borders. He was John Profumo.

My mother’s​ right hand ended in a cloth. She cleaned the local school from six a.m. and again in the evening, doing a chip shop in between. I got to know all the women. They were presided over by a series of delinquent janitors. (One of them was running guns for Ulster. Another stole video equipment. The older one was a kiddie-fiddler etc.) I used to go after school to help my mum...

Tom Wolfe​ lived round the corner from the Metropolitan Museum, at 21 East 79th Street, between Fifth and Madison. A mahogany elevator went to the sitting room of his 14th-floor apartment, much as it does to Sherman McCoy’s in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe’s ‘Master of the Universe’ – who could be Jeffrey Epstein – soon brings ignominy to his marble...

At the Grand Palais: The Lagerfeld Fandango

Andrew O’Hagan, 18 July 2019

Coco Chanel​ died in her suite at the Ritz Hotel on 10 January 1971. Her funeral, held a few days later, caused a traffic jam on the rue Royale, with throngs in front of the Madeleine desperate to catch a glimpse of the departing coffin. The church had originally been conceived as a monument to the glories of Napoleon’s army, and remains a favourite with battle-scarred artists....

Not Enough Delilahs: Lillian Ross

Andrew O’Hagan, 4 July 2019

I’ve never met anybody who hated as many people as Lillian Ross did. She would count their names off on her fingers, regularly within spitting distance of them, and her voice wasn’t quiet and she wasn’t shy. Bending back each digit and making a face, she’d offer a defining word after each name: ‘Gloria Steinem – phoney; Janet Malcolm – pretentious; Renata Adler – crackpot; Susan Sontag – nobody; Nora Ephron – liar.’ Other hand: ‘Kenneth Tynan – creep; Truman Capote – leech; George Plimpton – slick; Tom Wolfe – talentless; Philip Roth – jerk.’ It was a mercy she only had two hands.

Diary: Orders of Service

Andrew O’Hagan, 18 April 2019

If​ you are British and no longer young, the title for a brand new Philip Larkin poem is liable to enter your head at least once a day. This morning it was ‘Order of Service’. It’s not as good as ‘High Windows’ or ‘Dockery and Son’, but it has the same doleful ebb. Searching in an old folder, I found an order of service for Larkin’s memorial...

On Being Late

Andrew O’Hagan, 24 January 2019

It can be​ quite frightening, having to be somewhere by a certain time. We make it more bearable by not giving it too much thought, yet being on time is often judged, particularly by the punctual, as representing one’s ability to hit the mark as a human being. In 2017, Alex Honnold, the American free-climber, scaled El Capitan, a 3000-foot rockface in Yosemite, with no harness and no...

Lost Property

Andrew O’Hagan, 20 December 2018

I used​ to lose several items a week. It was to do with being young, part of the psychopathology of everyday life, then it stopped. Maybe you stop losing small things around the time you start losing big ones – parents, countries, friends – but I haven’t lost a bank card in ten years and I used to lose ten a year. In my twenties, I was forever dropping keys and...

The Tower

Andrew O’Hagan, 7 June 2018

It was 1.20 a.m. The fire had travelled diagonally up the building before spreading round the north face, passing from the fourth to the 14th floor in about 15 minutes. Smoke from the burning cladding entered through gaps in the new but ill-fitting windows, and the smoke travelled from there into the common areas and the stairwell. In Flat 111 on the 14th floor, Denis Murphy, 56, dialled 999 and was told to stay inside his flat and that firefighters would soon reach him. He called his brother at 1.30 and left a message saying there was black smoke everywhere. People could have made for the stairs at that point, but they were told to stay put. And it quickly became evident that some people were trapped.

Coleridge’s​ favourite novelist, John Galt, had a gift for encapsulating disgrace under pressure, and his novels of small-town Scottish life are among the early masterpieces of British political fiction. After a life of robust colonial effort, during which he founded the Canadian city of Guelph, Galt – exhausted and impoverished – came back to Greenock and died there in...

Who’s the real cunt? Dacre’s Paper

Andrew O’Hagan, 1 June 2017

The Daily Mail is like the drunken lout at a party who can’t get anyone to like him. Suddenly all the girls are sluts and all the men are poofs and he’s swinging at the chandelier before being huckled outside to vomit on the lawn. The Mail desecrates the holy places where it likes to stake its claim, and would be a laughable rag, really, were it not for our degraded political culture taking it seriously. Look at the paper itself and you see it is not the real voice of England, but a dark distortion of it, a post-truth version that shouts about decency but doesn’t exhibit any, that praises aspiration but only certain sorts.

When​ I was young it was possible to feel you’d made it as a writer simply by getting a phone call from one of four editors. When it came to ambition, very few of the writers I knew really gave a fuck about being in Who’s Who, being named an honorary fellow or having one of the queen’s gongs, or a million quid advance. What they wanted was for the phone to ring and for Bob...

Short Cuts: Hemingway the Spy

Andrew O’Hagan, 16 February 2017

If​ you enjoy the supreme comedy of literary affairs, it makes perfect sense that the Paris Review was once a blunt instrument of the CIA. Arguably, there’s only so much damage one can do with a Robert Frost interview, but that didn’t stop the late Peter Matthiessen, one of the founding editors, from now and then leaving the office, or the Himalayas, to spy on supposed enemies of...

Short Cuts: The Article 50 Hearing

Andrew O’Hagan, 5 January 2017

On the last day​ of the Article 50 hearing before the Supreme Court, Lord Kerr, one of 11 justices hearing the appeal, looked pointedly at James Eadie QC, who was responding on behalf of the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. Kerr accused Eadie of ‘building quite an edifice on the phrase “from time to time”’. It was a fair enough point, and it came...

All hail, sage lady: ‘The Crown’

Andrew O’Hagan, 15 December 2016

Recently, when the actor Matt Smith was introduced to Prince William and the prince was told Smith would soon be playing his grandfather in an epic Netflix series, The Crown, William offered only one word. ‘Legend,’ he said, as if they were talking about Dolly Parton. That is how the boys view their grandfather, as a one-off, a classic exemplar, rather than the mythic, intransigent beast of agonised loyalty known to their father.

Living the Life

Andrew O’Hagan, 6 October 2016

Being an agent isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle, and the people who are really good at it are having a wonderful life, though none of them is going to heaven. The agents at CAA sometimes got speeding tickets on the way to work, not because they were late, but because they couldn’t wait to get to the office. Every night there was a drink or a dinner or a screening or a premiere, and they earned millions of dollars a year. Agents live the whole thing 24 hours a day; their motto: ‘Shit Happens.’ And they put up with infinitely more shit than the average office worker, who lives in the expectation that nobody will ever ask them to risk their position, or justify it, or state an opinion.

Short Cuts: Ulysses v. O.J. Simpson

Andrew O’Hagan, 28 July 2016

People​ now talk about big drama serials the way they used to talk about classic novels. If there’s one you haven’t caught up with you feel embarrassed, and you might ask yourself, when the conversation swells and you chase your salad round and round, what you’ve been doing with your life. ‘Oh, I missed that’ is no longer an option, as box-sets and catch-up...

The Satoshi Affair

Andrew O’Hagan, 30 June 2016

Craig Wright seemed to get more and more frustrated. He both wanted fame and repudiated it, craving the recognition he felt was his due while claiming his only wish was to get back to his desk. ‘I have people love my secret identity and hate me,’ he wrote on 23 October 2011. ‘I have hundreds of papers. Satoshi has one. Nothing, just one bloody paper and I cannot associate myself with ME!’

I want my wings: The Last Tycoons

Andrew O’Hagan, 3 March 2016

Modern Hollywood isn’t really Hollywood – it’s Calabasas. With everyone now the David O. Selznick of his own social picture, gossip replaced with tweets, and fan magazines with selfies, the grandeur of old Hollywood can seem mythical. Like proper myths, its stories are almost exclusively about metamorphosis, self-destruction and things going wrong, but they are at least stories as opposed to advertisements. Jean Stein’s book deploys a wonderful grace in uncovering a monstrous reality – it tells brilliant stories and lets their accretion work its own magic.

From Soup to Fish: The Spender Marriage

Andrew O’Hagan, 17 December 2015

In the 1990s, when literary parties were more fun, or I was more fun, I used occasionally to see Stephen Spender: there he was, the establishment on quivering legs, queer as a chocolate orange but safely married. (When I spoke to him, I discovered he could flirt with his eyes shut.) Frank Kermode, a great friend to this paper but never knowingly unmalicious, remarked that ‘Stephen never knew where he was going but he always knew the quickest way to get there.’ To me, it seems perfectly natural to forego the gay life if you don’t really want it, but Spender protested too much.

Who’s the alpha male now, bitches?

Andrew O’Hagan, 22 October 2015

Christopher Harper-Mercer wrote that he had no life. He had no girlfriend and no job; the world was against him. He lived with his mother only a few miles from the Umpqua Community College campus in Roseburg, Oregon, and he collected guns. He shot nine people dead at the college on 1 October and injured nine others before killing himself. Harper-Mercer, aged 26, had an online account with the name Lithium_Love; he used it to upload videos about school shootings and he posted blogs about Wes Craven.

At Tottenham Court Road

Andrew O’Hagan, 24 September 2015

Samuel Pepys​ was not an easygoing commuter. In the struggle to get from Seething Lane to Whitehall, he exhibited something close to the mindset of the average London cyclist, deploying the word ‘cunt’ while slowly inflating with murderous feeling. Being Pepys, he sought to cope with the worst of the ‘traffic’, axle to axle on Ludgate Hill, by sending for a barrel of...

Short Cuts: The Other Atticus Finch

Andrew O’Hagan, 30 July 2015

I find​ it hard to believe that Harper Lee was actually in favour of publishing Go Set a Watchman, a rejected manuscript that lay among her papers for more than fifty years. Yet the book is now here and doing exactly the kind of damage that its wily author always felt it would. For a novelist, it’s one thing not to destroy a book and another thing to publish it, and the work they...

By the Gasometers

Andrew O’Hagan, 2 July 2015

In the days before Eurostar came to the area behind King’s Cross, before St Martin’s, the Guardian, Camden Council’s offices and (soon) Google UK, there existed a few cobbled streets and a couple of old railwaymen’s tenements. Battle Bridge Road, where the gasometers stood, was within a Victorian triangle formed by the two great railway stations of King’s Cross...

Short Cuts: Ageing Crims

Andrew O’Hagan, 4 June 2015

To​ the relentlessly autobiographical, a pothole in the road, no matter how dangerous to people in general, will quickly bring to mind the time their pram was nearly sent off the pavement into the way of a passing bus. A certain sort of writer, my sort, can’t help being borne ceaselessly back into their own past, so it is with apologies that I see my grandfather’s history of...

Bad Character: Saul Bellow

Andrew O’Hagan, 21 May 2015

On his deathbed, Saul Bellow asked a question of himself that he might have asked at the time of his first novel and his first marriage: ‘Was I a man or a jerk?’ You could say it’s a good question for anyone to ask, especially someone who wrote 18 books and had five wives. Next to Norman Mailer, who did equally well on the spouse-mongering front, Bellow was a worker of slow, monkish application, always tied, seldom happily, to a university department, and agonising over a book. John Updike, who had a modest two wives and wrote 63 books, was, in a way, worldlier.

Short Cuts: Meeting the Royals

Andrew O’Hagan, 19 February 2015

It was​ in Charles Dickens’s upstairs sitting room that I met the future king of England. The Duchess of Cornwall was wearing a red paisley silk coat and dress by Anna Valentine. I know that because I was peeping out of the window and heard a lady from the Daily Mail say so into her mobile phone while she stalked the pavement outside. We were about to commemorate the 200th anniversary...

The Lives of Ronald Pinn

Andrew O’Hagan, 8 January 2015

The practice of using dead children’s identities began in the Metropolitan Police Force in the 1960s. Until very recently, it was thought, in-house, to be a legitimate part of an undercover officer’s tradecraft. It involved taking a child’s name from a gravestone or a register and building what the police called a ‘legend’ around it. When I first heard about it, I wondered if the officers involved in this activity were not in fact covert novelists, giving their ‘characters’ a hinterland that suited the purpose of their present investigations.

Karl Miller Remembered

Neal Ascherson, John Lanchester and Andrew O’Hagan, 23 October 2014

People​ said things about Karl, but not often to his face. He might like the things or he might not, and that did not always depend on whether they were intended as compliments or the opposite. Personal remarks could be returned with interest, hot or cold. Whichever way, he remembered them with accuracy.

I can think of two personal remarks about Karl, in his early years, which reached him and...

Text-Inspectors: The Good Traitor

Andrew O’Hagan, 25 September 2014

Mostly he remained inconceivably calm. Even now, with the clock winding down on his freedom, Snowden still went to bed at 10.30, as he had every night during my time in Hong Kong. While I could barely catch more than two hours of restless sleep at a time, he kept consistent hours. ‘Well, I’m going to hit the hay,’ he would announce casually each night before retiring for...

Short Cuts: Kitsch and Kilts in Celtic Park

Andrew O’Hagan, 21 August 2014

The​ opening ceremony is now a familiar occasion on which state-sponsored creativity can be given an enthusiastic public airing, most often in the company of expensive fireworks, assorted pixies, the occasional high-kicking nurse, and members of the thespian community who look like the 1980s never ended. Just the other day I thought all my Christmases had come at once, or all my Brigadoons,...

Short Cuts: Have you seen their sandals?

Andrew O’Hagan, 3 July 2014

The​ male peacock has never had a free pass. ‘Of all handicrafts,’ the satirical magazine the Town said in 1838, ‘that of tailoring appears to be the most successful in the way of coining money. We might compare it to witchcraft.’ According to Bespoke: The Men’s Style of Savile Row by James Sherwood, even Queen Victoria got in on the act, writing to her son...

Ghosting: Julian Assange

Andrew O’Hagan, 6 March 2014

On 5 January 2011, at 8.30 p.m., I was messing about at home when the phone buzzed on the sofa. It was a text from Jamie Byng, the publisher of Canongate. ‘Are you about?’ it said. ‘I have a somewhat left-field idea. It’s potentially very exciting. But I need to discuss urgently.’ Canongate had bought, for £600,000, a memoir by the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. The book had also been bought for a high sum by Sonny Mehta at Knopf in New York and Jamie had sold foreign rights to a slew of big houses. He said he expected it to be published in forty languages.

Kitty still pines for his dearest Dub: Gossip

Andrew O’Hagan, 6 February 2014

The much gossiped about George Eliot absolutely hated the idea of people talking behind their hands. The year she took up with a married man was also the year Ruskin’s wife revealed her husband’s impotence during court proceedings. ‘Gossip is a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of those who diffuse it,’ Eliot wrote ironically in Daniel Deronda. But she also meant it. ‘It proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker.’ Cough, cough, splutter. But surely a bit of relief lies in the notion that one doesn’t necessarily have the last (or even the first) say on how one appears.

The Reviewer’s Song: Mailer’s Last Punch

Andrew O’Hagan, 7 November 2013

Let me issue a warning. This is not a review. And it isn’t a memoir either: it’s a memoir-as-review, or perhaps an autobiographical review, or just a moderate piece of literary egotism masquerading as scholarship, or a shotgun marriage between the handsome remnants of personal history and the pretty stuff on the public record. Let’s take the spirit of J. Michael Lennon’s ‘double life’ of Norman Mailer and offer that doubleness back as subjective criticism. Mailer, after all, gave us the non-fiction novel, Lennon gives us the pseudo-objective biography, so why can’t I offer the confessional review?

Short Cuts: ‘The Trip to Echo Spring’

Andrew O’Hagan, 12 September 2013

There was a drawer in every room of our house and in every drawer there was a white pamphlet. On the cover it said: ‘Who, Me?’ My mother had placed the pamphlets there in the hope that when my father tried to find a corkscrew or a book of matches he would see the bold question and finally ask it of himself. I don’t know whether any of my brothers remember this, but I do, or...

Boys and Girls: With the Child Jihadis

Andrew O’Hagan, 8 August 2013

At the juvenile detention centre in Kandahar there are two sets of children. The first are riotous and loud, arrested for theft and other crimes of that sort. When you give them a piece of paper and ask them to write down the reason they are in prison they simply scratch lines into the paper or scrunch it up. They can’t write. The second group are silent. But when they take the sheet of paper they begin to write the most beautiful script, their sentences full of fire and argument. These are the child jihadis and their mothers tell them they will succeed next time.

Coming over the Hollywood Hills at this time of year you drive on roads edged with blue flowers. The jacaranda is dropping like crazy and around every bend the McMansions seem to cry out their phoney perfection. You pass a mini-Tuscany and meet a little England on your way to Ventura Freeway, the 101, that leads to a valley of shopping malls and awesome haze. It’s out here that you find Calabasas, Agoura Hills and Thousand Oaks. And this is where the world’s most spoiled people come to breed and crave in an atmosphere of dieting and reality TV.

Smiles Better: Glasgow v. Edinburgh

Andrew O’Hagan, 23 May 2013

Can places, like people, have a personality, a set of things you can love or not love? Do countries speak? Do lakes and mountains offer a guide to living? Could you feel let down by a city? Can you get huffy with a conurbation or fancy the essence of a town? Can you dedicate a book to a dot – two dots – on the map?

The poet and academic Robert Crawford has a soft spot for nice...

Short Cuts: Clytemnestra du jour

Andrew O’Hagan, 21 February 2013

Where revenge ought to be slow, artful and elegant, payback is sudden and terribly crude. And when it comes to popular forms of personal justice, one is either Electra, swearing long and subtle revenge for her father’s death, or Clytemnestra, who started the whole thing off by killing Agamemnon in a moment of saliva-curdling jealousy. Some people argue that the king’s wife...

Light Entertainment: Our Paedophile Culture

Andrew O’Hagan, 8 November 2012

The BBC isn’t the Catholic Church, but it has its own ideals and traditions, which cause people to pause before naming the unwise acts that have been performed on its premises. Perhaps more than any church, the BBC continues to be a powerhouse of virtue, of intelligence and tolerance, but it is now suffering a kind of ecclesiastical terror at its own fallibility. One has to look further into the institution to see another, more obscure tradition, the one that leads to Savile and his liberty-taking. There was always an element of it waiting to be picked up. Many people I spoke to wished to make that clear, but – feeling the Chorus watching from above – they asked for anonymity.

When it comes to erotic writing, the more explicit it gets – the more heaving, the more panting – the more I want to laugh. Erotic writing is said to have a noble pedigree: the goings-on in Ovid, the whipping in Sade, the bare-arsed wrestling in Lawrence, the garter-snapping in Anaïs Nin, the wife-swapping in Updike, the arcs of semen hither and yon. But it’s so much sexier when people don’t have sex on the page.

Issues for His Prose Style: Hemingway

Andrew O’Hagan, 7 June 2012

Good reporters go hunting for nouns. They want the odd verb too, but the main thing is the nouns, especially the proper ones, the who, what and where. The thing British schoolchildren call a ‘naming word’ was, for Hemingway, a chance to reveal what he knew, an opportunity to be experienced, to discriminate, and his style depends on engorged nouns, not absent adjectives. But at times it strikes you that the cult of specificity in Hemingway is a drug you take in a cheap arcade: lights flash on the old machines and a piano plinks overhead.

Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto were described by Lucian Freud as ‘simply the most beautiful pictures in the world’. And not long ago, in an act of Alex Salmond-defying co-operation, the National Gallery of Scotland and the National Gallery of Great Britain raided their respective coffers – as well as the coffers of their respective, culturally...

Diary: At the Olympic Park

Andrew O’Hagan, 9 February 2012

Alfred Dickens, the novelist’s brother, wrote a General Board of Health report on the area soon to be occupied by the Olympic athletes, recording that ‘the cholera raged’ and there was ‘neither drainage nor paving’ – ‘in winter the streets were impassable.’ More recently it was a site of old warehouses and weedy dereliction. It smelled of the oil and paint and chemical effluent that had leached for years into the land around the Hackney Marshes. Underneath, there are stones from the Roman road that led from London to Colchester.

Short Cuts: ‘The ARRSE Guide’

Andrew O’Hagan, 1 December 2011

The day before Remembrance Sunday the people in Oxford Street told themselves to remember there were fewer than 50 shopping days until Christmas. Even in our down times, London is a formidable shopping Mecca: the people who weren’t in Oxford Street that day were possibly at the new Westfield Stratford City, a shopping mall the size of a small invadeable country, where even the security...

Short Cuts: Tweeting at an Execution

Andrew O’Hagan, 6 October 2011

Writers have seldom been strangers at the scene of an execution. As we know from his London Journal, James Boswell would think nothing of tipping up at Tyburn after a bit of the Old Peculiar on Westminster Bridge – horror was an essential part of the 18th century’s entertainment diet. The death vigil was known more recently in Britain: think of Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis, and...

Rose on the Run: Beryl Bainbridge

Andrew O’Hagan, 14 July 2011

What is the relationship between fiction and knowledge? How much can Crime and Punishment tell us about the habits of Russian pawnbrokers? Would you know how to build a raft after reading Huckleberry Finn? Could Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho be construed as a guide to sniffing cocaine and murdering your date? There’s no doubt that one learns things by reading novels –...

The Excursions

Andrew O’Hagan, 16 June 2011

‘You’d better take an interest in the earth and the air, for your own poor body will go there some day.’ That was the sort of wisdom that used to come with free school milk at my Scottish primary school. I remember the blizzard around the classroom the day Mrs Wallace said it to me, a snow-scene dense enough to make the end of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ appear like...

Short Cuts: On the Bus

Andrew O’Hagan, 28 April 2011

Harold Pinter once remarked that a writer who stops taking buses is likely to lose touch with the people’s speech. I can’t say whether this was true or not in Pinter’s case, though I was with him once in the Café Anglais when he took exception to the waiter’s way of speaking.

PINTER: I’ll have the fish toast with the parmesan custard.

WAITER: No problem.

...

Diary: Dr Macgregor’s Diagnosis

Andrew O’Hagan, 3 March 2011

Aneurin Bevan argued like someone willing to go to the wall for what he was saying. He spoke belligerently. He spoke as though to oppose what he was saying would be to offend against common decency. British politicians don’t talk that way any more, even when it matters. Take Andrew Lansley, the secretary of state for health.

In every great novelist there’s a baby, a slack-mouthed tyrant, a bawling and mewling ankle-biter, a demon chomper, a rattle-chucker, a rivalrous toad, green and pink and fat with self-concern, and we will often see this distinguished person most clearly in his letters. Saul Bellow knew the type very well and we meet one of them in the shape of Moses Herzog, the eponymous hero of Bellow’s sixth novel, a helpless, epistolary nutcase who yawps as if his nappies were as heavy as his brain. ‘As long as I was Mady’s good husband, I was a delightful person. Suddenly, because Madeleine decided that she wanted out – suddenly, I was a mad dog. The police were warned about me and there was talk of committing me to an institution. I know that my friend and Mady’s lawyer, Sandor Himmelstein, called Dr Edvig to ask whether I was crazy enough to be put in Manteno or Elgin … It must be very deep and primitive, the feeling people – women – have against a deceived husband.’

Short Cuts: The 1970s

Andrew O’Hagan, 18 November 2010

I can’t be the only person who remembers the 1970s in Britain as a prolonged downpour with a single burst of sunshine. There were 55 million people living here, but on certain days, walking between the rubbish bags that were waiting in the puddles for action from Jim Callaghan, one could feel like the world had gone awol, like Miss Trinidad and Tobago.

There were ‘decades’...

Melinda and Sandy: Oprah

Andrew O’Hagan, 4 November 2010

‘Free speech not only lives, it rocks.’ When she was growing up in Mississippi, little Oprah couldn’t have known how much she would come to hate that statement. But Kitty Kelley, giant-killer, stalker of regrets, was born to tell her. In doing so, she draws on the deep reservoirs of self-pity and victimology that Oprah has been wallowing in for 25 years. The two of them were...

Short Cuts: With the Hackerati

Andrew O’Hagan, 19 August 2010

If hackers possess a look, then Julian Assange would probably be best placed to carry it onto the runways at New York fashion week. Except that the founder of WikiLeaks – brown cargo pants, computer rucksack, and this season’s must-have, prematurely silver hair – would certainly be arrested as he attempted to cross into the land of the free. Assange has been denounced by...

Short Cuts: HBO

Andrew O’Hagan, 10 June 2010

Somewhere around the time of the second season of The Sopranos, people at dinner parties stopped gossiping about their friends’ sex lives and started talking about American television shows, later designated ‘box sets’. Nowadays, it’s all anybody ever talks about, and the quickest way to feel old or out of it is to find oneself unable to speak, in detail, about why...

Short Cuts: The Happiness Project

Andrew O’Hagan, 22 April 2010

According to the Los Angeles Times, people may have ‘a basic setting on their happiness thermostat’. So don’t blame your current depression on your ex-wife, your sullen children, your forgetful old father, poor exam results, a bad hair day or a piss-poor speech by the pope. Depressing real-life events come and go, but your general capacity to feel gladness is fixed. This is...

Diary: Jon Venables

Andrew O’Hagan, 25 March 2010

I’ve been thinking all week about Jon Venables. In some way, I find it too distressing to write down what the case means to me, when so many people believe the young man is simply a lost cause, a person in the grip of evil. The papers have been ringing asking for comment: the messages go to voicemail. Outside, buses pass in quick succession, the passengers reading their newspapers and...

Goodbye Moon: Me and the Moon

Andrew O’Hagan, 25 February 2010

Since the beginning of time – or of poetry – people have imagined the Moon is watching them. When I was a child I thought the Moon was a chum. Every boy had a torch and at night I shone mine from the bedroom window, refusing to be upstaged by the big torch in the sky. I remember asking my mother if the Moon could come on holiday with us, and she laughed, exactly the same laugh as...

Diary: Grief and the Cameras

Andrew O’Hagan, 3 December 2009

At the moment the television channel that speaks most directly to young people is ITV2. As I sit at my desk writing this diary, the channel is showing an episode of the American problems-show Sally Jessy Raphael about reckless teenagers. Jenny is 14 and is telling the audience to shut the fuck up. ‘Do you think you are someone who does the right thing in this world?’ asks Sally...

Guilt: A Memoir

Andrew O’Hagan, 5 November 2009

My grandmother’s house in Millroad Street existed to remind us that we had probably done something wrong. The Glasgow habit of calling it a house has survived with me, but it was really a tenement flat across the road from the fish shop where my grandmother worked. The flat had a plastic holy water font by the front door and the three rooms smelled of vegetable soup. I can still see the...

Khrush in America: Khrushchev in America

Andrew O’Hagan, 8 October 2009

Shirley MacLaine danced the can-can for Khrushchev and later said: ‘life is a cosmic joke.’ By the time he got to Hollywood, the Soviet premier had become an international comic hero; to many an ogre of the left, but also a character out of Dr Strangelove or one of Vonnegut’s novels. K Blows Top, a non-fiction account of Khrushchev’s trip to America in 1959, could be...

Short Cuts: Valets

Andrew O’Hagan, 10 September 2009

I don’t have many regrets in life, but the ones I do have run very deep. For instance, I find it very hard to accept that I have never had a valet. My grandfather didn’t have a valet, my father didn’t have one, and now it looks like I won’t have a valet either. That’s a helluva lot of no-valet in one family. On the other hand, it probably means I’ll hold...

A Car of One’s Own: Chariots of Desire

Andrew O’Hagan, 11 June 2009

Those who spend most of their lives being alert to the demands of others – and that’s most employees, most husbands, wives, parents, most believers – will know the rhythmic, sedative pull of the motorways as the road performs its magic, pulling you back by degrees to some forgotten individualism that the joys and vexations of community always threatened to turn into an upholstered void. Virginia Woolf was almost right: all one really needs is a car of one’s own, the funds to keep it on the road and the will to encounter oneself within. Though most of those men aren’t listening to Virginia Woolf – they’re listening to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.

Short Cuts: Susan Boyle

Andrew O’Hagan, 14 May 2009

Was there a time when people didn’t know what other people were thinking? I can vouch for the fact that there was: it lasted, roughly speaking, from the dawn of man until the launch of YouTube. In the 1970s, if you wanted to know what other people were thinking you might read a novel, but to do that you would have to make a journey to a bookshop or a library or borrow it from another...

Short Cuts: the Oscars

Andrew O’Hagan, 26 February 2009

It’s not easy to believe, but people used to think the Oscars didn’t matter. Now the hoopla takes up half a year, much longer if you take into account that many actors, writers and directors begin mugging for Oscars the moment they agree to a project. In previous times a respectable number of the nominees didn’t turn up at all, but now they would sooner be wheeled in...

Artovsky Millensky: The Misfit

Andrew O’Hagan, 1 January 2009

Even as late as the 1950s, at the height of his fame as a playwright, Arthur Miller would periodically leave his nice house to hang around the dockyards. He had worked for two years in the 1930s at a car parts warehouse, where he first encountered anti-semitism and suspicion. Reading Russian novels on his way into work, he found, when he considered it later, that the workers ‘feared his...

‘Village Politicians’

Andrew O’Hagan, 18 December 2008

When David Wilkie’s ‘Village Politicians’ first appeared at the Royal Academy in 1806 it caused a sensation. Less than ten years after the end of the French Revolution, less than ten years before Waterloo, we find a room of common Scots not only arguing the political toss but represented in a style that seeks neither to caricature them nor to elevate them. ‘Mr Wilkie...

Short Cuts: Voices from Beyond the Grave

Andrew O’Hagan, 20 November 2008

People say serious writing is akin to painting. Or music. They hardly ever say it’s like maths. Or quantity surveying. But the art form that literature most closely resembles is acting: the same fascination with character and ideas, the same obsession with voices and identities and silences. Dickens, we know, used to practise impersonating his characters in the confines of his study,...

Candle Moments: Norman Lewis’s Inventions

Andrew O’Hagan, 25 September 2008

Until recently, the art of modern biography was too little influenced by the man who invented it, James Boswell, and, even today, many of those who set out to write the lives of authors seem to be led by a suspicion that everything of interest about the subject might already have been said by the subject himself. The literary biographer is haunted by Nabokov’s stylishly defensive...

At the Movies: M. Night Shyamalan

Andrew O’Hagan, 17 July 2008

There’s a certain sort of person who will take a flashlight and go into a field of corn in the dark, but they only exist in the movies. I always think of those characters when I think of movie people in general: even in what is called real life, where people tend to have opinions and heart conditions and mortgages, film directors are largely unreal people who behave in unnatural ways....

Short Cuts: from Bethlehem

Andrew O’Hagan, 5 June 2008

One of the first words I ever heard at school was ‘Bethlehem’. For the pupils at St Winnin’s Primary in North Ayrshire it was infinitely more familiar than the word ‘Edinburgh’ or – starry heavens forfend – ‘London’. We knew all about the little town of Bethlehem and its shepherds who watched their flocks by night: it was the place where...

Short Cuts: Dinner at the Digs

Andrew O’Hagan, 20 March 2008

If you are an Inuit or a hummingbird, you are very unlikely to die of heart disease, suffer from diabetes, or be extremely fat. You are also unlikely to drive a Bentley down the Brompton Road, but that’s not what interests the world’s top foodies, who look to ruddy Eskimos and buzz-winged birds to explain the success of a diet rich in Omega-3. Foodies are responsible for thousands...

Iraq, 2 May 2005: Two Soldiers

Andrew O’Hagan, 6 March 2008

In southern Iraq, just south of Amara, the main city of Maysan province, the British military base at Camp Abu Naji was preparing for the night. Set at the northern end of the marshlands between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the camp is now abandoned and looted, but in May 2005 it was a busy centre of military operations. Amara has seen many reversals of fortune and opinion: it was once a hideout for anti-Saddam insurgents, whom he punished by draining the marshes. He also killed many of them, and buried their bodies in mass graves around the city. But by the time the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards were operating out of Camp Abu Naji, it was the British army that had become the enemy of the people. Mortar attacks on the base were just part of the general grief, a handful of dust to be thrown regularly in the face of the occupying forces.

Living It: The World of Andy McNab

Andrew O’Hagan, 24 January 2008

If you want to know what is happening in the mind of the average teenage boy you must follow the action of his thumbs

Short Cuts: Don’t panic

Andrew O’Hagan, 13 December 2007

Some years ago I went to see the coroner at St Pancras. It was a bright afternoon, and daylight poured in from the old graveyard, a place that, in those days, had no very profound connection with the mainland of Europe, unless you consider the graves of Mary Shelley’s parents (now removed) to summon the connection between France and England more congenially than the Eurotunnel. The...

Poor Hitler: Toff Humour

Andrew O’Hagan, 15 November 2007

People who are serious about the business of not taking themselves seriously can have enormous fun as writers. The world of posh writing is full of minor writers getting away with murder, as in this passage from Julian Fellowes’s recent novel Snobs:

They lived in a large flat in Elm Park Gardens, which was almost at the wrong end of Chelsea and not quite to Mrs Lavery’s taste....

Short Cuts: Telecom Rehab

Andrew O’Hagan, 4 October 2007

In the days before office life was subverted by the cult of personality, your average working stiff was always looking for ways to be out of contact. Phones were left off the hook, smokers popped down to the mailroom, phantom meetings were arranged in mystery locations across town, time-serving professionals sat alone on park benches and secretaries were regularly entreated by semaphore to...

By the time I worked out the style of our death the leaves were back on the trees. The journey in search of rubbish had taken the whole winter long and now I was here with the bins. The evening it was all over I emptied the latest rubbish onto some newspapers spread out on the kitchen floor – a cornflakes packet and old razor blades, apple cores and cotton buds. Looking through the stuff I felt how secret the story had been. I’d gone looking for the end but had always been brought back to this, the rubbish on the floor appearing grave and autobiographical. The seasons are like that and so is our trash: you examine their habits of repetition for long enough and you begin to think of lost time.

Short Cuts: malingering trolley dollies

Andrew O’Hagan, 8 February 2007

The art of throwing a sickie doesn’t get the recognition (or the funding) it deserves. Even the straitlaced and well-attending would admit that it takes panache to get away with it on a regular basis. Bupa discovered that the most common excuses used by those phoning in sick were food poisoning and flu, though it also found that the majority of managers didn’t believe them. Bupa...

Short Cuts: a journey to citizenship

Andrew O’Hagan, 16 November 2006

‘Becoming a British citizen is a significant life event,’ the former home secretary David Blunkett writes. ‘The government intends to make gaining British citizenship meaningful and celebratory rather than simply a bureaucratic process.’ The quote is not from Blunkett’s diaries but from the funniest book currently available in the English language, published by...

Nasty Lucky Genes: Fathers and Sons

Andrew O’Hagan, 21 September 2006

Elizabeth Smart was browsing one day between the wars in the bookshops of the Charing Cross Road. Young, blonde and original, unclaimed by her Ottawa upbringing or her mother’s social hopes, Smart came to lean against those London bookshelves as if they alone contained all the answers. That day, she drew her finger over a line of volumes, took one down and read the poems where she stood, deciding by the last page that the author was the man she was put on earth to marry.

Short Cuts: Scotland's hirsute folk hero

Andrew O’Hagan, 17 August 2006

Thomas Sheridan, the father of the more famous Richard Brinsley Sheridan, devoted himself in the 1760s to ‘rubbing away the roughnesses of the Scottish tongue’. His volume of Lectures on Elocution was once a great hit in Edinburgh. The other Thomas Sheridan, known as Tommy to the tabloids and to friends and enemies alike, is the former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, and...

Since being acquitted of child molestation charges last summer, Michael Jackson has been hanging out in Bahrain, enjoying the hospitality of the ruler’s poptastic son Sheikh Abdullah. Jackson is said to have become a Muslim (which is sure to please his critics on Good Morning America), but evidence would suggest he has yet to get the hang of Islamic custom. Not long after arriving in the famously tolerant state, he caused uproar when he entered the ladies’ loos at the Ibn Battutah Mall dressed in female headgear and positioned himself at the mirror to put on his make-up.

Short Cuts: the Queen

Andrew O’Hagan, 11 May 2006

The Queen once detained me as I tried to get into an ice-rink. It was one of those hot days in the summer of 1977, and the portly Mr Waddle, or Akela as we liked to call him in Jungle Book parlance, took a pack of us to the Magnum Leisure Centre. I was feeling a bit down as I only had one cub scout badge (for housekeeping) and I thought I might get another one pinned to my jumper for...

Diary: a report from Malawi

Andrew O’Hagan, 23 March 2006

Among people who care to be remembered, there can’t be many who would settle for being remembered for what was said to them as opposed to what they said themselves. David Livingstone went through hell before arriving at Lake Tanganyika in October 1871, but his stories about that journey would never enter the language the way Stanley’s would, when he caught up with him at Ujiji.

...

A Journey in the South: in New Orleans

Andrew O’Hagan, 6 October 2005

The sky over North Carolina was showing red the night Sam and Terry decided to leave for the South. The red clouds travelled to Smithfield from the western hills, the high Appalachians and the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smokies. Sam Parham is 27 years old and weighs 260 pounds. For an hour or so, right into the dark, he pulled on the starting string of an electric generator he’d borrowed from his father, until the top of his T-shirt was soaked with sweat. ‘Goddamn bitch,’ he said. ‘This muthafucker is brand new. I want the goddamn thing to work. We’re sure gonna need its ass when we get to New Orleans.’

Diary: A City of Prose

Andrew O’Hagan, 4 August 2005

“For a few days after the explosions, the atmosphere was bad on the buses. Passengers were looking into every face as they sat on a Number 30 from King’s Cross, and if the face happened to be brown, they looked to their bag or backpack. That is how fear and paranoia work: they create turbulence in your everyday passivity, and everyone was affected after the attempted bombings on 22 July in ways that won’t quickly go away. In the realm of paranoia, the second bombings were more powerful than the first, for they made it clear how very gettable we are, even in a culture of high alert. To anyone with imagination (or who knows anyone who’s ever had a second stroke) the most recent attack brings a dimension of constant threat. No one needed to die for this to take effect: 7 July showed us what death on the bus or the Tube looks like; the second attack showed that these images wouldn’t be allowed to remain just a bad memory.”

Perhaps we have to thank Watergate, even Deep Throat himself, that sussurating, parking-lot ghoul, for planting us in a world where the shriek of actuality has given way to the soft lilt of fiction. To me there is a stylistic link between that great moment for the Washington Post and the paper’s worst moment, in September 1980, when they ran a report by Janet Cooke that had everyone...

When I was young people didn’t die and they didn’t pass away. They certainly didn’t expire, or perish, though there was a woman in our street called Hazel who dabbled in spiritualism while her philandering husband went out to fix people’s Hotpoint twin-tubs, and she quite often spoke of people who had ‘crossed to the other side’. I thought that was sick....

In His Hot Head: Robert Louis Stevenson

Andrew O’Hagan, 17 February 2005

“No writer of the Victorian period has ever had more said about his appearance. Not even Oscar Wilde, who invited such remarks. We know nothing of Meredith’s complexion or the swell of Trollope’s chest; we are left innocent about the ankle-shape of Gissing, the eyes of Mrs Gaskell. Yet we are now duty bound to inspect the Stevenson corpus. We are led to see ourselves touching his clammy magician’s hands, and almost to imagine wiping the hair from his fevered brow. People have always had a very particular, not to say caricatured, image of the physical RLS, but none of them so alert as the one he presented himself. He was a sensitive Shelleyan plant, and he studiously lost himself amid the fierce greenery of his own self-image.”

Flossing: pukey poetry anthologies

Andrew O’Hagan, 4 November 2004

People have been asking for books to help them since the invention of printing. Before printing, actually, in the days of scrolls and tablets: what is the Bible if not a self-help manual? William Caxton got in on the act early enough with The Game and Play of Chess Moralised (1474), a book which aimed to make people better than they used to be, not by bringing their souls nearer to God, but...

The God Squad: Bushland

Andrew O’Hagan, 23 September 2004

“George W. Bush has boiled doublethink down to a sticky residue: ‘you’re either for us or you’re for the terrorists’ is its central flavour. But choosing New York for the convention was overweening even by Republican standards: like Woody Allen, only less humorously, they wanted the sweep of Manhattan to enlarge a panoply of private concerns, and blinded with tears and outrage, they wanted to forge a kind of unity in commemoration of the disaster.”

The Nominee: With the Democrats

Andrew O’Hagan, 19 August 2004

“More garish than a Mexican funeral, the Convention floor had swaying rows of evangelical grandmothers above an action-painting of shivering flags; tier upon tier of gleeful Democrats . . . Kerry was invisible, a force striding towards Boston to make himself new; he was a mood over the wires – hopeful, ambitious for change, well-meaning – but as the hours of tributes ran on you began to wonder if this liberal paragon was merely a liberal apparition, and even as that apparition came riding up the Charles River in the company of his Vietnam buddies, it seemed he might never step out of his own myth and become solid.”

Brief Encounters: Gielgud and Redgrave

Andrew O’Hagan, 5 August 2004

Norman Tebbit announced the other day that Tony Blair’s government had made both obesity and Aids in this country much worse by doing ‘everything it can to promote buggery’. Aside from anything else, this comment might cause us to reflect (buggerishly) on the England beloved of bigots like Tebbit and to see it as a land not only of warm beer and cricket on the village green,...

Short Cuts: myths of Marilyn

Andrew O’Hagan, 8 July 2004

‘It’s my feeling that she looked forward to her tomorrows,’ said Marilyn’s housekeeper, the last person to see her alive. But now we may be in a position to say that Marilyn Monroe’s tomorrows have stretched beyond any known horizon, becoming one of the publishing world’s core subjects. More than six hundred books have been produced about the late movie...

Disgrace under Pressure: lad mags

Andrew O’Hagan, 3 June 2004

“The British lad magazine is not about men at all or about the business of being a grown-up person; it’s fuelled by a childish notion of hedonism – pills, thrills and bellyaches – which sees politics as a mug’s game and wives as a curse. They may be right about that, but if so they are right in a fairly boring way: no man older than 21 wants to be told they’re a failure unless they live like George Best.”

“I first clapped eyes on Morrissey on 22 September 1985. It was a cold night on the West Coast of Scotland at the Magnum Leisure Centre in Irvine, and The Smiths were brewing up a humongous storm on the converted badminton courts. The audience contained a fair number of what in that part of the world are called ‘neds’ – razor-cropped hooligans with a happy average of one O-grade in woodwork between them – and I found myself surprised to see these ruffians tearing at their Fred Perry shirts before climbing up the amplifiers to drape themselves around Morrissey’s neck, while the singer went about his business with a giant bunch of gladioli, swinging them round his head and narrowing his eyes like Edith Sitwell.”

I spent the first of my teenage years living in the grounds of an approved school, a place that faced onto a ruined castle said to have given a night’s shelter to Mary Queen of Scots. The escaping Queen was never there at all, but people preferred to think she had never left: every castle in Scotland seeks to have its part in Mary’s story, and her eyes were felt to burn through the...

You Have A Mother Don’t You? Cowboy Simplicities

Andrew O’Hagan, 11 September 2003

It’s odd to think that Abraham Lincoln was killed by an actor, because most of the memorable American Presidents to follow him were actors in their blood. Eisenhower excelled in the part of the sturdy veteran who’d come home to tidy the porch, and Nixon was every part in The Godfather rolled into one. But it took Ronald Reagan to drive the matter past the point of absurdity:...

Short Cuts: Slayer Slang and Bling Bling

Andrew O’Hagan, 21 August 2003

We are told that the average household’s electricity usage goes up 100 per cent during the summer holidays, the result not of air-conditioning but of an almost total aversion among today’s nippers to the bee-loud glade, in fact to the great outdoors in general, which appears to be a place rather badly equipped to compete with video games called things like ‘Wasp Attack...

Valet of the Dolls: Sinatra

Andrew O’Hagan, 24 July 2003

There was only one other person in the life of Samuel Johnson who stood a chance of writing a biography as entertaining as Boswell’s. Francis Barber was overqualified by modern standards, and too loyal for the job in any era, but for more than thirty years he was Johnson’s (black) manservant. There in the small hours – peeling oranges, brewing tea, mending stockings, lifting...

At the Design Museum: Peter Saville

Andrew O’Hagan, 19 June 2003

I think it likely – or slightly more than likely – that Peter Saville is the only English graphic artist to have had an actor play him in a major motion picture. The film, 24 Hour Party People, was entertaining in the way that films full of intense people with good accents and daft haircuts always are, and Saville comes off quite well, the genius of the piece in fact, which is...

Diary: smile for the President

Andrew O’Hagan, 20 February 2003

Howra Station is on the quiet side at 7.38 a.m. A sheet of dust lies on the surface of Platform 13, and there, just under a sign for Horlicks (‘the Great Family Nourisher’), a pair of yellow birds peck and bounce in yesterday’s stomped chewing-gum. The people will come in a minute: the thousands of clerks on trains from the Calcutta suburbs, and dust will cover their shoes...

Still Reeling from My Loss: Lulu & Co

Andrew O’Hagan, 2 January 2003

These people’s books always tell you that they’ve got – the cars, the attention, the castle, the hotels – but all this is really just a kind of throat-clearing for the main announcement: I Have None of the Things that Normal People Have. As vanities go, this one is pretty hot.

Beast of a Nation: Scotland’s Self-Pity

Andrew O’Hagan, 31 October 2002

Scottish people respond to the idea that there is a Story of Scotland, and writers who make that story a stormy marriage of internal and external strife ñ of deep feelings and strong weather, true love and ancient rocks ñ are answering to a need that is taken for granted in Scotland.

Early cinema was full of people like that, people who could live a life much larger than anybody watching, so large, indeed, that the flouting of death was just a part of daily business. At his height (or heights), the building-scaling Harold Lloyd dropped to his non-death every other minute in his movies; Buster Keaton jumped over danger, or stood deadpanning the camera while death squeezed past him. Charlie Chaplin, a little man too big for the real world, smiled at every manner of threat, ducked it, ran from it, cheating death with a welter of small human surprises and tendernesses, and always, in the end, walking away bandy-legged from the worst the world has to offer, the screen shrinking to the size of a full-stop.

Diary: Hating Football

Andrew O’Hagan, 27 June 2002

I can tell you the exact moment when I decided to hate football for life. It was 11 June 1978 at 6.08 p.m. Scotland were playing Holland in the first stage of the World Cup Finals in Argentina. It happened to be the day of my tenth birthday party: my mother had to have the party after my actual birthday owing to a cock-up involving a cement-mixer and the police, but the party was called for...

Everything Must Go! American Beauties

Andrew O’Hagan, 13 December 2001

Today there are only second acts in American lives. No generation to find itself interestingly lost in Paris; no elegant tribe crowding the lawn with portents of disaster at Gatsby’s parties; no collective urge to write the great war novel; no second sex. To judge by the best of the new writing, the most urgent of the new films, the most-watched television, American lives are now...

The End of British Farming: British farming

Andrew O’Hagan, 22 March 2001

This last while I have carried my heart in my boots. For a minute or two I actually imagined I could be responsible for the spread of foot and mouth disease across Britain. On my first acquaintance with the hill farmers of the Lake District, on a plot high above Keswick, I had a view of the countryside for tens of miles. I thought of the fields that had passed underfoot, all the way back to...

Story: ‘Every Sodding Thing’

Andrew O’Hagan, 25 January 2001

‘In a way he was like the country he lived in, everything came too easily to him.’ Mrs McFarlane told me she heard someone say this in a movie. There was nothing in the movie that wasn’t just rubbish, she said. But the afternoon she heard those people talking on the screen it made her upset and she said it was bad for her to get upset.

It was all to do with the Living...

Self-Hugging: A Paean to Boswell

Andrew O’Hagan, 5 October 2000

One of the general effects of hero-worship is its tendency to marshal resentment in those who claim themselves no party to the admiration. A good example of this offers itself at the opening of Vanity Fair – ‘A Novel without a Hero’ – when the single-minded Becky Sharp, high in a coach bound for Russell Square, flings a copy of Johnson’s Dictionary out of the...

You gu gu and I gu gu: Vaslav Nijinsky

Andrew O’Hagan, 20 July 2000

Nijinsky began to lose his mind in a Swiss village in 1919. He was only 29 years old, still dazzling, animal-like, an Aschenbach vision on the Lido, a young man who could jump and pause in the air: but he began to spend all night in his studio scribbling the same things over and over, the doodlings of the incrementally mad. The thing he drew was eyes. Sometimes, in his little exercise books, he might draw spiders, or the many faces of Diaghilev, but mainly it was the eyes, black eyes, red eyes, and sometimes he’d go over each one so much he’d tear right through the paper.

St Marilyn: The Girl and Me

Andrew O’Hagan, 6 January 2000

New York – contrary to popular opinion and Frank Sinatra – is never a city that doesn’t sleep. It sleeps soundly in fact. You walk the streets on certain nights and suddenly you can feel quite alone under the buildings. It’s not that the place is deserted, there are things going on – taxi-cabs, homeless people, late-night walkers, the police – but they can seem to proceed at that hour like things out of step, like odd yearnings of the imagination, or unexpected items in a gasoline-smelling dream of urban ruin.’

From The Blog
11 August 2019

When guilty men kill themselves, are they acknowledging their guilt, or is it more like an act of self-pity? Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide in prison terminates a judicial process that he spent millions to disdain, but it also cancels a life in prison he was desperate to avoid.

From The Blog
31 December 2015

The average mid-life crisis ends in a red sports car, but mine landed in a caravan. I bought it during a fearful rainstorm 18 months ago and moved my fishing rod in the following day. There are two bottles of whisky here and a pot of soup on the hob; there’s a jar of pencils, an old typewriter, and a nice edition of The Mill on the Floss, which contains the best written account of a British flood that presently exists. As I write, and look out at the Clyde Firth, I fear that George Eliot’s coagulated waters might be about to overtop Ailsa Craig, the craggy rock in the middle of the sea that in my childhood was called Paddy’s Milestone.

From The Blog
28 October 2010

It takes about a year to publish a book now, what with the festivals, the hairdos, the film producers and the jetlag. At the Jaipur Literary Festival earlier this year, I was happy to see the Indian schoolchildren out in force, ready – as nowhere else – with their autograph books and stubby pencils, keen to capture a signature just in case the author turned out to be famous. The children of Jaipur seem to imagine that anyone placed before a microphone is a possible celebrity. But, more than that, they have watched the talent shows over the last few years, and they know the difference between a common clerk and a monster celebrity is merely a matter of time and a little exposure to the public vote. It was nice, though, to see how open they were to the notion that writers stood a chance, as opposed to the average Joe mangling a Whitney Houston song.

Notes on a Notebook

Andrew O’Hagan, 30 September 1999

You set out believing in a world of possible truths; you finish up in an eternity of corridors waiting for clarification. Sometimes the only truth you find is the truth of your own hunger to find. You see in a flash that nothing will come of further questions or second trips. Between the lines of your unyielding story another narrative may awaken and begin to stand up. And that will be the story you take home: the unending story of the story itself.

Story: ‘Three Women’: work in progress

Andrew O’Hagan, 10 December 1998

It was the evictions that created the Effie Bawn people still remember. She was never political before that. She had never listened to politicians. She had only listened to saints. But the Rent Strikes brought her out to the world with her small fists clenched in a white-knuckle fury.

Seventy Years in a Filthy Trade: E.S. Turner

Andrew O’Hagan, 15 October 1998

Mr Turner is my favourite Edwardian. He sits in a chair under the window. He doesn’t waste a lot of words. And when he laughs he rocks a little. The sky is busy and blue over Richmond. Every few minutes a plane goes by. They seem to enter the window-frame just about head height; each one passes through the ears of E.S. Turner, and on from there to some Spain or America. He isn’t bothered. He’s nearly ninety. He’s thinking of things to say about his life. And when he speaks he speaks in a small way. His voice seems aware of the danger it’s in.

Good Fibs: Truman Capote

Andrew O’Hagan, 2 April 1998

Never give a writer a key to your apartment. Or your office. Never let him talk to your children. If he says he wants to take a bath tell him the plumbing’s knackered. If he makes for the fridge say everybody just died of food poisoning. Don’t encourage him in any way. Never give him your mother’s phone number. Keep him back from anything sharp. Tell him nothing you wouldn’t tell your worst enemy. Hide from him in the supermarket. Avoid eye contact. Never go out to war with one; never share his drugs. And never, never kiss a writer. Never kiss one no matter what. At the hard core of American writing this century, these would appear to be the big lessons. And they all crumble down to one thing in the end: never trust a genius who even thinks he might be American.

Many Andies

Andrew O’Hagan, 16 October 1997

All his life Andy Warhol looked like death. He came into the world that way: blank, rheumy-eyed, sick as the day was long. An unmerry child with St Vitus’ Dance, the young Warhol lay twitching in his bed under a blanket of fan magazines, the source of all his imaginary friendships – with Errol Flynn and Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper and Gary Cooper – and the only thing he craved in those Pittsburgh days was the chance to be as lovable as Shirley Temple. The adult Warhol looked as much like death and lived as much by desire. A mobile presentation of 20th-century estrangement. A man in a wig in a season in hell. ‘A sphinx without a secret,’ said Truman Capote; ‘the Ecce Homo of modern exhibitionism,’ said Stephen Spender. For his own part, Warhol was intensely reasonable: ‘I just want to be a machine,’ he said.’

Two Ships

Andrew O’Hagan, 6 March 1997

The early railroads were rough maps of Victorian fancy. Trains and human hearts, in those days at least, were similar engines, chugging along on fresh steam or dank air. The Victorians cared about going forward: they meant to conquer all the worlds beyond their own, and no matter of geology, or history, or finance, was too big for their ambition, or too small for their genius. The story of the great railways is also the story of minor lives, and how they were made, or altered, or destroyed, with the coming of the new machines. People have been travelling from one great place to another forever, in their heads, but to move over the distant world – to be carried quickly on wheels, or propelled fast over water, or carried supersonically through the air, or through space, to some faraway place – must count for a lot in what it means to be modern. The carriages that carried us, the sustaining vessels, have a central role in our recent tales. We are intimate with our modes of transport. These vehicles are now close to us by nature, by desire and by design. Transport promises a future, just as it carries the remembrance of selves and places and things passed. Ours is a world of pictures coming and going at speed. Few of us now live, or would care to live, with the guarantee of being in one place for ever. But the British live with these thoughts of expansion and speed just as their empire is shrinking to nothing.

Diary: How the Homing Pigeons Lost Their Way

Andrew O’Hagan, 12 December 1996

Babies and old people have so much in common. They have similar hair and teeth for a start, and they don’t like food too hot. You can’t leave them out in the sun for long; they don’t remember big numbers; they sometimes need help into their chair; they often get sick in the car. They also have a common skill, which is to turn themselves into the image of the thing they love. Someone pointed out to me the other day that the old geezer behind the bar looked like an egg. After some pretty detailed enquiries I discovered that the gentleman was, in fact – and had been for years – a great lover of pickled eggs. There is an old lady hot dog seller in the Strand who looks just like a hot dog, with onions for ear-rings. There was the bloke I met in Durham Cathedral two months ago who looked like the stone gargoyles he professed to adore, and in Strathclyde I know any number of old folk whose faces resemble nothing so much as a full and hearty tumbler of Grouse whisky. Children are much the same. They can look like their toy rattle – all blue and bumpy – or their teddy bear. I once knew a boy who looked like his bike. His ears were like handle-bars, his nose was a saddle, his eyes turned around like wheels. He would sit on his doorstep oiling and tightening and stroking until the long day was done. And one morning he awoke to discover he looked like his Raleigh Chopper. He later joined the Royal Air Force, and now he flies over the land, quite happy it seems, with his adult nose pressed against the window of his bomber. Unfortunately, most young children expend this mimic genius in coming to look like their mothers or, even worse, their fathers, and most elderly people use it up in the act of becoming their children.’

Me First

Andrew O’Hagan, 7 March 1996

In the mid-Eighties, my family felt everything would be fine if I could just get something with a shirt and tie. My three elder brothers wore nailbags, overalls and aprons – the respective black robes of time-served apprenticeship – but even that world was going by the time it got to be my turn, and it was hoped that I might be found fit for the crisp shirt and tie of the clerical elect. I had stayed on at school, bringing home the first family O-Level, and after the celebrations were over – a bottle of Merrydown cider in the garage of an epileptic pal ready for the dole – I thought about what it might mean to start thinking about the future. We sat on blue Calor-gas bottles, not quite ourselves, doing our thinking about the future as we looked out through the garage mouth. There wasn’t a great deal to look at: cars without tyres in the car park, a load of council fencing stretching up and away. My pal Tam made a joke about the state we were in, slugged the last of the cider, then fell to the floor and started wriggling about.’

Oswaldworld

Andrew O’Hagan, 14 December 1995

When Gary Gilmore faced his executioners one cold morning in 1977, there was a serious, anxious, bearded reporter-type standing only a few feet away. Before the hood was placed over Gilmore’s head, the man walked over to the chair, and took both of the killer’s hands into his own. ‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ he said. Gilmore looked up, and replied sweetly: ‘You’re going to help me escape.’

Bebop

Andrew O’Hagan, 5 October 1995

New York in August, and inside is the only place to be. The people around me, each at his own console, were watching their chosen moments in the history of American airtime. Elvis Presley’s top half on the Ed Sullivan Show; John F. Kennedy’s live debate with a melting Richard Nixon; an early episode of I Love Lucy; a dinner-table scene from The Waltons; Neil Armstrong’s One Small Step; the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald; the pilot show of Roseanne. Each viewer wore headphones; all you could hear was the giggles and gasps. On my little TV, where the picture was jumpy at first, was Jack Kerouac. He was sitting up at a white piano, and Steve Allen tinkled away at the keys. Kerouac is very clean, very neat, but he looks nervous. Allen is smug. He’s a polyester-clad uncle sitting at the piano.

Lost Boys

Andrew O’Hagan, 8 June 1995

It was a Sunday morning, and a minister strode past me with a labrador. ‘That looks like a contented spot,’ he said, dog and dog-collar glistening. I sat in the middle of a little wood, just to the side of Kenilworth Chapel in East London, on 9 October 1994. The church looked closed and unattended. All around me, in tangles of ivy and nettles and scrub, lay hundreds of dilapidated grave-stones. They sloped every which way, and off into the distance, across a wide open ground beneath the Beckton flyover. The graveyards in English cities, especiaily in the east of those cities, are nearly always wasted and terrible. In Scotland, the tombstones are made to stand up; and the grass is most often cut and weeded. I was fairly shocked the first time I saw a London graveyard – in Walthamstow, I remember. It had nothing to do with the decorous, landscaped dead-parks of recent memory: it was a place where riot and decay ruled. It looked like a spot where time was having its way.

Thin Ayrshire

Andrew O’Hagan, 25 May 1995

David Gibson was a man stiff and parsonical; by all accounts the sort of man who got things done. You could say he was obsessed with ridding Glasgow of its slums, with turning them into something bright and high and unquestionably modern. That’s what he wanted, and he’d already made vast advances towards getting it when he became convener of Glasgow Corporation’s housing committee in 1964. We’re fond of hating his ideas nowadays, of seeing the horror of those damp flats and pointing up the stupidity of the planning. But Gibson and his allies were visionaries of a sort. They thought they could obliterate the past with new production, and they had reason to think a project like that might turn out to be for the good of everybody. It may be obvious now how wrong they were, but Gibson’s urge to remake, to deliver his own people out of the slums and into a pure, new, shock world, has plenty of wrong-headed nobility in it, and no shortage of high-mindedness.

Glaswegians

Andrew O’Hagan, 11 May 1995

The man from the Corporation was fixing the bin-cupboard by the front door; trying, I think, to rip out the hinges and put in new ones. He kept going on about Rangers and Celtic to a joiner working at the next house along. I could hear their voices from upstairs, where I sat by the fire chewing a corner of the old, purple candlewick that covered my mother’s bed. I stood up on bare feet, and walked to the boiler, a round thing wearing a furry jacket that hung in a built-in closet. They called it the immerser. I put my arms around it, and strained to make them go all the way, but even with my fingers at full stretch I couldn’t grab the wooden thing behind. There was something there; I knew there was; it had been there for ages. My right hand could just flick the edge of the thing, just about pinch a corner, but there was no grabbing it. In the end I squeezed my body halfway round, and pulled hard until the thing loosened and fell into the middle of the room with me underneath it.

Diary: The Hearing of Rosemary West

Andrew O’Hagan, 9 March 1995

On Monday morning, Dursley is full of talk. Half way down Silver Street, at the Aphrodite café, a couple of women sit bleary-eyed over mugs of coffee. The plastic seats are bendy with age, the air is freezing up, and the caramel logs are sweating in their cage on top of the counter. ‘They might not even come from around here,’ says the woman with the Alice band. Her opposite number sniffs in agreement. They are talking about a group of travelling vandals, said to reside in Dursley. Two young trees have been broken on the Innocks Estate in North Nibley; tiles were ripped from the bus shelter, and Councillor Ray Manning – hero of the moment – has removed a broken seat. I pick up a copy of the Gazette later on, and see there is more. A £300 Amaco mountain bike (‘with 21 gears, coloured purple and black’) was stolen from a garage at Clingre Farm, Stinchcombe last Saturday. The theft is mentioned on page two and again on page four.’’

The Paranoid Sublime

Andrew O’Hagan, 26 May 1994

It was getting dark one sulphurous evening in Glasgow in the winter of 1990, when a pop-eyed cultural apparatchik – almost breathlessly ripe from a Chinese paper-lantern parade she’d just led through the naked streets of Carntyne – sat down beside me in a bar to the side of the City Chambers, to gab about the glories and horrors of Glasgow’s reign as European City of Culture for that year. The city’s better writers, it seemed, would have nothing to do with it. The £50 million jamboree, led by the municipal council, set its sights on ridding the city once and for ever of its razor-slashing, wife-battering, whisky-guzzling image; all to be blown away during a year-long bonanza; of painting and singing and exotic tumbling; with street-sweeping Bolivian choristers at the crack of dawn; with face-painting schools and afternoons of community theatre on Glasgow Green; and an evening of carry-on in the company of Pavarotti at 75 quid a throw. My bar companion flushed as she coasted through the vodkas, saying how pointless and infuriating it was that the better writers – whom we may as well call James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and Tom Leonard among others – wouldn’t join in on the song. ‘It’s their loss,’ she said. ‘I mean, what do they want?’’

Gentlemen prefer dogs

Andrew O’Hagan, 10 February 1994

A relative of mine, a white-haired Capuchin friar now working on a mission in Zambia, spent the early days of his vocation at St Bonaventure’s, a strict residence a mile or so out of Cork city. There was no drinking, of course, and no cigarettes or newspapers either. When not doing the do – working and praying and partaking of the holy sacraments – the good Reverend Brother would now and then make for the flat roof of the house, from where he enjoyed a decent view of the greyhound racing taking place in a park over the way. By then, despite his local upbringing, the dogs must have seemed otherworldly to him, enticingly alien. And as those nameless, sleek bodies scampered around the track – carrying with them the variously-priced hopes of those secular specks whooping and hollering from the terraces – I can imagine him wondering, high on his priory rooftop, at what manner of life was passing, unhindered, before him.’

Walk on by

Andrew O’Hagan, 18 November 1993

George Baroli and I were soaked to the skin. We sat on a wooden bench in the rain, a green bottle of sherry sat between us. George stared straight ahead most of the time, tilting the bottle up to his mouth with both hands, getting it into position, holding it there, and breathing through his nose. I tried to roll him a cigarette inside my jacket while he spoke of Newcastle, of how he thought he’d never leave it, and then telling me stories of his life now, as a beggar in London. He tapped my arm: ‘Times’s bad,’ he said, ‘but good times is just around the corner.’

Eating Jesus

Andrew O’Hagan, 8 July 1993

When I made my First Communion, a famously bitter Catholic aunt of mine took me into a side-chapel of our church. She wrapped me up in her arms, right in the middle of all her perfumery, straightened my red sash, and told me I was ‘blessed, blessed, blessed’. Then out of her bag she handed me a wooden crucifix with a luminous lime-green Christ glued onto it. ‘It’s from The Grotto,’ she whispered. ‘Keep it beside you.’

Diary: Have You Seen David?

Andrew O’Hagan, 11 March 1993

The abduction and murder of James Bulger, a two-year-old boy from Liverpool, has caused unprecedented grief and anger. Hours before the two ten-year-old boys accused of the crime arrived at South Sefton Magistrates’ Court, a large, baying crowd had formed outside. As a pair of blue vans drew up, the crowd surged forward, bawling and screaming. A number of men tried to reach the vehicles, to get at the youths inside, and scuffles spilled onto the road. Some leapt over crash-barriers and burst through police cordons, lobbing rocks and banging on the sides of the vans. Many in the crowd – sick with condemnation – howled and spat and wept. Kenneth Clarke has promised measures to deal with ‘nasty, persistent juvenile little offenders’. Those two little offenders – if they were the offenders, the childish child-murderers from Walton – were caught on camera twice. First, on the security camera at the shopping precinct in Bootle where they lifted James, and again by the camera of a security firm on Breeze Hill, as they dragged James past – the child clearly in some distress.’

From The Blog
4 December 2009

It's nice to see Marilyn liked pot. It's so much more sociable than Nembutal, Seconal, Dalmane and Quaaludes, the stuff she took on her own. Somebody at Twentieth Century Fox told me the summer before last that she liked weed: the grips on her films were always happy to dole it out. When I heard that, I immediately pictured her sitting with her dog Maf in Forest Lawn, puffing her face off.

From The Blog
29 September 2009

A strange thing can happen to film directors with a genuine style. It doesn’t always happen, but it often does: their life begins to impersonate their films. It is more typical to think of the process happening the other way round: John Ford is a drunken Irish brawler at heart, so he makes pictures imbued with the experience of hard-nosed pugilists transplanted from the poteen-stills of County Galway. But I’m just as interested in how artists can be shaped by the things they make: Orson Welles becomes a version of Charles Foster Kane; Visconti becomes a victim of betrayal; and Werner Herzog turns year by year into a grizzly Nosferatu who is totally creepy but also cuddly. To whatever extent Roman Polanski has his own filmic style, his life has impersonated it surreally.

From The Blog
21 September 2009

People in England found it very easy to love the Queen Mother. She was, it seemed, a perfect repository of the national theme, Past Caring. She stayed in London during the Blitz, she didn't like foreigners – especially foreign women, especially Wallis Simpson – and she drank like a fish. She liked a party, loved a wheeze, adored a jape, and not far into William Shawcross's very admiring official biography, published this week, we find Elizabeth Bowes Lyon kicking up her heels in Paris in 1924. Elizabeth was assuredly a bit of a one. Apart from shopping, there was tea at the Ritz and dinner at the British Embassy. They also visited the Casino de Paris, 'where for the first time in my life I saw ladies with very little on, & somehow it was not in the least indecent'.

From The Blog
4 September 2009

The trouble with living a bizarre life is that you've got a lot to live up to when you're no longer living. In that sense, Michael Jackson has got off to quite a good start. First, he dies at home surrounded by strange medical equipment and children's toys. Second, there's a doctor standing nearby. Most people, if they're in danger of dying, wouldn't mind having a doctor to hand, but in the case of bizarre celebrities the presence of a doctor doesn't always guarantee their safety. The opposite, in fact. The doctor is very often there, allegedly, to aid the process of premature oblivion. Let's face it: Michael was never going to fall asleep one day in the TV room of the Sunshine Inn, after a few years of forgetfulness and a dinner of prunes. I always thought it more likely he would die in outer space, or underwater, in a restless bid to discover Atlantis.

From The Blog
16 May 2009

It turns out the Cold War did not end with either a bang or a whimper in Europe, but with a series of feeble melodies that come invested with the strongest doses of motherland prejudice and rivalry. Those who doubt it have not been paying attention to the Eurovision Song Contest, now in its 54th year, a competition whose chief virtue is to demonstrate the standard failure of political philosophy to rival sequins and bad music as an indicator of the moral outlook of nations. Forget Machiavelli, Edmund Burke, Voltaire, Marx, Lenin or Ortega y Gasset. The world-dominating perspectives of Italy, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia and Spain – to name but six of this year's 42 participating countries – are to be represented by assorted ragamuffins with plentiful false eyelashes and voices as dainty as a fortnight of shelling in Dubrovnik. Every year it gets madder, but 2009, which is being hosted by Russia, must surely be the biggest, campest carnival yet, with nations threatening by the half-hour to storm off or to scratch out the eyes of their neighbours, all in the name of peace, understanding and postwar unification.

Letter
Andrew O’Hagan writes: I am a great admirer of Jean Strouse’s writing on Alice James, and there is no doubt that Alice was speaking about her doctors in the remarks quoted. However, it seems to me that her remarks about those ‘great men’ carry an inference about great men generally, not excluding those in her own fam­ily. That notion, to my mind, is supported by...
Letter

The Tower

7 June 2018

Andrew O’Hagan writes: I understand Melanie Coles’s position. In a story of some 60,000 words, she appears only for a few sentences, and she wants to take them back, and right herself with the Grenfell community. It doesn’t matter that the sentences are benign, that they show her to have been a caring teacher, and that she gave us that material willingly. She now wants to censor it,...
Letter
David Thomson has high standards in film stars and he imposes rather firm rules about how they ought to twinkle, but he isn’t being fair to Marilyn Monroe (Letters, 24 May). The actress won’t be confused anytime soon with Abraham Lincoln or Abbie Hoffman, but in her own way she changed the situation, pre-1960s, by making the personal feel like something more political. Twentieth Century-Fox...
Letter

To the Malibu Hills

11 September 2003

I admire Clancy Sigal’s attempt to be fairer to John Ford on the Red-baiting front than I was (Letters, 9 October), but surely he knows that artists are likely to be more than one thing. Ford may have distinguished himself by telling Cecil B. DeMille to shut his trap, but he was not always so clear when it came to the question of Communists in Hollywood.‘While he was fighting the blacklist...

About a third of the way through his first book, The Missing, Andrew O’Hagan pauses over a perception he thinks his readers may find ‘a bit surprising’. It’s an intricate...

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