Andrew O’Hagan’s Booker nominated 2006 novel Be Near Me tackles themes which are common in modern Scottish literature, but in a manner which is very much of his own styling. Religion, politics, bigotry, class, nationality and sexuality are explored in the novel but with a more considered eye than many of his contemporaries. There is also the overriding idea throughout the novel concerning what it means to ‘belong’.
‘Be Near Me’ by Andrew O’Hagan
Setting the novel in the (just about) fictional town of ‘Dalgarnock’ in the West of Scotland, O’Hagan seems to be criticising ‘small town mentality’, and, by extension aspects of Scotland’s mentality, if we can talk about such a thing. But the novel is much more complex than that. Although such criticisms exist in the novel, no one escapes O’Hagan’s searching view and all the characters are examined as individuals rather than reducing them to generic stereotypes. This is never truer than with Be Near Me’s narrator.
A wiser man than me once said that a major difference between Scottish Literature and other nation’s literatures is that whereas most have the outsider or the damaged character on the peripheries of the story, as either warnings or figures of fun and/or pity, Scots writers often make these characters the heroes of the piece, the narrators of the story.
All the narrators in Trainspotting, Rilke from Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room, Hannah Luckraft from A.L. Kennedy’s Paradise and even Morvern from last month’s novel, Morvern Callar; these are just a few examples that support such a theory, and there are plenty of others. All are seriously flawed but are our (main) guides through the stories. Andrew O’Hagan sticks to this pattern, but again in a surprising way. His central character of Father David Anderton in Be Near Me turns out to be as flawed as any of the above, but the individual reader’s attitude to who he is; his life, work, and actions may mean that they condemn him for very different ‘crimes’.
Born in Scotland, but raised and educated in England, David is a priest who is hiding from the life he feels he could have had. He has condemned himself to live a number of lies and be content with a comfortable life filled with fine wines, food and classical music. This was the life he aspired to as a young man at Balliol College before he fell in love and it is the life he retreats into after losing that love. Ironically it is the possibility of love, or even the possibility of the possibility, that brings this world crashing down. Here is a man who comes into a world about which he knows nothing except his own prejudices, and it is the relationship between the people of Dalgarnock and David that allows O’Hagan to explore beyond the individual characters.
There are no easy answers in Be Near Me, especially where David is concerned. An educated, apparently intelligent, man, he lets himself get into situations that can only lead to his downfall. Nothing about David is what it seems. O’Hagan manages to pull off that difficult trick of making the reader care for a man who is at times portrayed as a pompous snob, a hypocrite, and possibly much worse.
I believe that David Anderton is one of the great fictional figures of recent times. Complex, kind and idealistic but also proud, stubborn, pretentious and weak; he is beautifully nuanced and subtly drawn when in less successful hands he could have been monstrous or stereotyped. Or a monstrous stereotype.
Instead we have a largely sympathetic portrayal of a man who is accused of paedophilia and of abusing his position. It is one thing to tackle such a subject, but it is a brave writer in the extreme who tries to keep the reader on the side of the accused. O’Hagan has never shied away from uncovering the less palatable aspects of society and holding them up for inspection. That the reader wants to read on instead of turn away is testament to the writer’s skill.
O’Hagan creates characters that the reader can care about without shying away from portraying their flaws. The supporting cast in Be Near Me are as well defined as David Anderton. His housekeeper Mrs Poole, who has a very realistic and warm relationship with her employer, is a wonderful character. But it is the portrayals of the teenagers Mark and Lisa, and their doomed relationship with David, that could have been unbelievable, and that would have reduced the impact of what is to follow. O’Hagan deals with subject matter that other writers would sensationalise, and does so in a humane, personal and subtle way which is vital to the novel’s success. In the end this is a novel about humanity, or perhaps its absence, so it is crucial that we believe in those involved.
Andrew O’Hagan is a real craftsman who, unlike many Scottish writers, is not afraid to criticise Scotland while still remembering his roots. This applies to his work as a columnist and essayist as well, (his book of essays The Atlantic Ocean comes highly recommended). Of course journalism is looking for different truths than those the novelist does, and there is an element of journalism which infiltrates his fiction; 2003’s Celebrity for instance is unashamedly based on the tragic story of Lena Zavoroni, and Be Near Me may have its roots in real life events in the West Coast of Scotland. His journalist’s eye for detail can be a positive, but sometimes means that the details of the character’s surroundings can over power the story, and can sidetrack the reader.
But even this criticism was turned into a positive when Be Near Me was adapted for the theatre by the National Theatre of Scotland, starring Iain McDiarmid, Blythe Duff and with a couple of great performances from Richard Maddon and Helen Mallon as Mark and Lisa. The detailed set-pieces of the novel, such as on Ailsa Craig, or the dinner party at David’s house, worked fantastically well on stage:
I’ve concentrated on the character of David in this column as it is his voice that guides us through the novel, and therefore how the people and place are viewed. It is this view that I am most interested in, and am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on. As I mentioned at the top of the page, Be Near Me stands apart from most recent Scottish fiction, as does Andrew O’Hagan. I believe that the critics who have said that this novel attacks small town life are fundamentally mistaken. The novel is about small minds, wherever they are to be found. As with his earlier fiction O’Hagan struggles between love for Scotland, and his despair at some of the problems that come along with such a love. As with any love you must often accept the good with the bad, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the latter to justify our feelings.
Like James Kelman and Iain Banks, O’Hagan holds a mirror up to modern Scotland not to entertain or amuse, but to criticise and provoke thought. His writing shuns the idea of moral certainties to deal in uncertainty, and he is constantly questioning and asking his readers to do likewise. How do Scots deal with class, with religion, with their children and with their neighbours? It sometimes an uncomfortable view, but it is vital not to look away.
Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae
Next month’s novel: Kill Your Friends by John Niven (Vintage 2009)
I can’t think of another novel written in the last ten years that will appeal to the Dear Scotland community more than Niven’s 2008 debut. John Niven was an A&R man for London Records and Independiente in the 1990s (he was responsible for Mike Flower’s version of Wonderwall don’t you know) and it is in this world that the novel is set.
Kill Your Friends is a no holds barred look at that life, with barely disguised portrayals of some of the 90’s more high profile artists. I would describe it as a cross between High Fidelity, American Psycho and Iain Banks’ Dead Air. Hopefully that sounds like a full recommendation, because it’s supposed to be. I would say it’s a must for any music lover, with the proviso that it contains sex, drugs, violence and some of the poorest behaviour imaginable. I look forward to hearing what you think. Buy it here.
It has struck me that it may be nice to forewarn readers of the novels under discussion in the coming months. This will hopefully allow those interested plenty of time to get a hold of the books, and to read them at your own leisure. It also means that you can pick and choose the ones you wish to read. In order they will be:
1. John Niven Kill Your Friends (Feb)
2. Janice Galloway The Trick is to Keep Breathing (March)
3. Irvine Welsh Trainspotting (April)
4. Louise Welsh The Cutting Room (May)
5. Gordon Legge The Shoe (Jun)
I’ll keep this list updated every month so that as one gets ticked off, the next will appear. At least that’s the plan.