Andrew O’Hagan (2008) The Atlantic Ocean. Essays on Britain and America.

‘Make death proud to take you.’ A quote from a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, but also a starting point and end point for O’Hagan’s bestselling book, Mayflies. The tragedy of making America proud to take us is they already have, with the rise and lies of Brexit and market solutions to every aspect of life. O’Hagan’s essays were written before the rise or the moron’s moron and 42nd American President. But in an essay on dim-witted Cowboy George (Bush Junior) who really did steal an election, but written in September 2003, he tilts his hat to Bedtime for Bonzo, director John Ford, and how Presidents mimic ham actors from Westerns, hanging tough and taking down the bad guys.

‘If you want to understand the early history of American liberalism don’t look at the experience of the parents, the immigrants, but the aspirations of the children, the ones for whom America offered a tricky answer to the problem of belonging. The parents wanted a better life, they got on a boat. The children have a better life; they can’t find a boat that will take them back to themselves. American patriotism isn’t quite like any other patriotism: it’s born of hysteria and Ford’s cowboy films map the violence of unbelonging.’

Hurricane Katrina, an essay written in October 2005 shows how this plays out. The author takes a road trip with two good old blue-collar workers from North Carolina. They load up a van and go to help. The back of their truck carries a generator, a chainsaw and a toolbox. Two black men on the road. Determined to be would-be heroes and help some of the poorest in American society, mostly also black men, women and children. But they don’t know that. It’s the heroics they like. Maybe they’ll get a pussy along the way. It’s an adventure they’ve bought into. When they get there, the National Guard is deployed. Not to help, but to hinder and shoot mythical would-be looters, who ransack stores for water and rancid food. Helicopters fly overhead, but nobody knows what to do, or takes charge. President Bush drops in and flies away again. Our two heroes turn around and go home. They did the right thing, while achieving nothing more than stories they can tell their numerous kids.

England and The Beatles, May 2004, has shades of George Orwell’s essays about England.  

‘There’s something very English in the marriage of boredom and catastrophe, and the English that existed after the Second World War appears to have carried that manner rather well…’

John Lennon’s remark that the all-conquering Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ met a predicable response in America. In Memphis, for example, threats to shoot them and setting fire crackers off outside their concert venues. The Ku Klux Klan burning Beatles records. Crewcut kids joining in and standing proud and patriotic with the KKK.

The Glasgow Sludge Boat, September 1995, is a misnomer. This is my turf. It should read The Clydebank Sludge Boat. Or The Dalmuir Sludge Boat. He went with pensioners from a parish just up the road from me Our Holy Redeemers (the chapel my da attended as a kid, now dilapidated with most of its parishioners gone) on the Garroch Head. A ship, with no sense of irony, named after the underwater dump ground, where the eight hatches are opened and Glasgow’s waste lets it all hang out ninety fathoms down, half way between Bute and Arran. It carried 3500 tons of sludge five days a week. Their sisters ship the Dalmarnock, 3000 tons. In 1998, a directive from the EEC, made this practice of dumping millions of tons of human waste unlawful. Interfering busybodies. Too many regulations. They also made, for example, slopping out in Barlinnie unlawful. What seemed like a solution to human waste ended. I remember the stink of the sewerage works, and woman in Dalmuir hanging out their washing, but taking it back in again. Now you can hardly smell a thing. Progress indeed.     

Write what you know. In his 23 essays, ranging from Poetry as Self Help to 7/7 and On Hating Football, the boy born 25th May 1968,  just across the water, near Saltcoats, in deindustrialised Scotland, learned a lot about looking over the next horizon. This shows in his novels. He always returns to his roots. Read on.      

Andrew O’Hagan (2020) Mayflies.

I’ve seen the film, now I’ve read the book. Yeh, I know that’s the wrong order. Books are better. But I got there in the end. That gives me a pivot to spin on and talk about endings being beginnings. When you’re young, you never think you’ll get old. And when you’re old you never think about dying, until you have to. ‘Make death proud to take you.’

I’ve hung that out there. A quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  Noodles is the man for quotes. But Tully Dawson is the man for living it. They all are. The gang of 1986 that went to Manchester to listen to music and take on the world.

‘The Manufacture of Nostalgia’. We all do it. But it becomes more poignant. A necessity even when we get to the end of our lives. Tully’s fifty-seven and dying, terminal cancer, but not quickly enough. His wedding to Anna a promise and affirmation of life. But ‘he was making room for death’.

Death has its reckoning not in death but in life. Anna wants him to fight it, to find more time.

‘He wanted places perched on the lips of a good time, places safe from the pity or the evil of the chemo, and he wanted to pretend he said that the pain was only a state of mind. The treatment had given him months.’

Noodles is the narrator. He admits, ‘I needed his kindness once.’ Tully Dawson gave him a sense of family and belonging, and helped him escape from the Ayrshire coast to a different life. One of the themes is what do we owe each other? Should kindness be called in like a bad debt? What right has Tully to ask Noodles to help him die, especially when he’s got a wife and got a life?

‘The say you know nothing at eighteen. But there are things at eighteen you know that you’ll never know.’

Does Tully know more at 57, or he is just pretending he does (as we all do)? Saying is not doing. Matteo and Digitalis in Switzerland are as far enough away as the cool girl Noodles tried to date after they’d bumped into Morrissey in Manchester all those years ago. Was Limbo then on that fast track to drink and drugs and death in his thirties? Could they have done more? Would they have done more? Probably not. We all know somebody like that. When it’s family there’s no escaping.

What do friends, best friends, owe to each other? Honesty and kindness that’s a good start and a good ending. Read on.