‘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.