Most Sincerely, Folks

Michael Wood

  • Personality by Andrew O’Hagan
    Faber, 328 pp, £16.99, May 2003, ISBN 0 571 19501 6

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 moment, since he thinks we are going to be surprised at the surprise he is describing. He is telling us that people who moved from Glasgow to the Scottish New Towns springing up in the 1960s hadn’t expected to take so much of the old city with them: ‘the older habits, the darker tints’. Why hadn’t they? Because they didn’t want to. Because they believed in new things, and thought they could get a severance from the old.

There can be no underestimating just how much hope and high expectation was invested in what must seem like an ordinary local move . . . It seemed, to parents like mine, like a gigantic step into the unknown, away from all their familiar haunts, free of all that was troubling and dark. It was a step towards some sort of light, and such moves, even in small countries, can seem monumental.

The moves seem monumental, but they are radically incomplete. Two truisms stare at each other like twins: you can’t go home again but you can’t entirely leave home, either. The narrator of O’Hagan’s first novel, Our Fathers, hopes to move to his own metaphorical New Town, ‘the world of all possible lights’, but he also writes: ‘The child you have been will never desert you.’ To which both that novel and the new one seem to wish to add: and the parents we have had will never let us go. Or will they?

The notion of missing persons helps us here, although in O’Hagan’s work it is, appropriately, rather elusive at first. There are ‘all sorts’ of missing persons, he tells us, and he gives us a haunting account of many vanishings, especially of children. ‘The space they occupy lies somewhere between what we know about the ways of being alive and what we hear about the ways of being dead . . . The person missing cannot be brought into focus.’ But then it turns out that for O’Hagan the worst, in many cases, is not to be missing. The worst is to be found, the grisly end of the mystery, ‘the dark, worst, last thing’. He doesn’t simply mean that death, the finally identified corpse, is the end of everyone’s hope. He means that death repeals the whole implied adventure of being missing, and a certain tantalising ambiguity enters the picture. This is where he says: ‘I’ve been looking for missing persons, in my own head, for as long as I can remember.’ In context, the sentence confesses a fear that many children have, and take with them into adult life: that they could be among the missing, or perhaps already are. Taken more broadly, though, it’s not a bad description of what novelists do. They look in their own heads for a special class of missing persons: people who can’t be found because they don’t exist and so can’t die. In The Missing, the emphasis is on the sudden and distressing absence of real people, the failure of focus. O’Hagan’s novels concentrate on the temptation of flight, of going missing from your old life, and the virtue of fiction in such an inquiry is that it allows us to shadow the missing persons, even eavesdrop on their minds, without quite finding them. The novels, unlike the first book, insist on the incompleteness of most disappearances, and this is where we meet the all too faithful children and the all too persistent parents.

The theme of Our Fathers looks grim at first, a national allegory of anger and defeat. ‘Our fathers were made for grief’ is a phrase which becomes a refrain; and that grief often takes the form of hatred and violence between the generations. ‘In my father’s anger there was something of the nation,’ O’Hagan’s narrator says, hinting perhaps too firmly at where he wants us to go. The grandfather, ambitious orchestrator of high-rise housing for Glasgow, despises his son for caring only for football; that son in turn, once grown, tries to drink himself to death, and brutalises his own bookish son, our narrator. The grandfather is dying and the novel consists essentially of the grandson’s memories and meditations around this death. The grandson, seeking to make a new life through immersion in the past rather than escape from it, is engaged in tearing down the tower blocks his grandfather helped to build: a natty image of the criss-crossing imperatives I’ve already evoked. The blocks, once emblems of progress and modernity, are now scarred and peeling relics, identified mainly with lurking delinquents and dying elevators.

Time passes badly, and there is tremendous sorrow in this novel, mitigated only by the extraordinary lyricism of the writing. The style is not going to be to everyone’s taste (‘His voice was pure, and moist was his throat, for the singing, and for the talking’; ‘And all in the end went bending to the sea’), but if you’re going to do it, you can’t do it better than this. Besides, there are other things than sorrow in the book, and time passes decently, too. It heals those who heal themselves, and both the narrator’s beaten mother and his drunken father manage to find new lives, much to their son’s surprise. Understanding that they were not after all stuck in his family drama, that they were not condemned to be his abandoned parents and nothing more, is part of the narrator’s getting a new start for himself, and he writes of his father, in a wonderful phrase, that he ‘survived himself’, adding that he had ‘survived his father’, too. This is a tough proposition, and doesn’t retract the claim that our fathers (and our mothers) were made for grief. It does suggest that grief may one day release them and release us at the same time. We could go missing from what looked like our destiny, and that would be a more propitious adventure.

The community in Our Fathers is Scottish-Irish and Catholic. In Personality the community is Scottish-Italian and Catholic, and the scene has moved from Ayrshire to the Isle of Bute, mainly Rothesay. This is a seaside resort, fading a little by 1977, when the main story of the novel begins, but once called, the narrator tells us, the Montpellier of the North, and still a place of soft air and palm trees. One of the characters thinks of ‘seafronts the world over, places that held you back before the great currents, where one day, looking out, you could find you were not just looking but waiting’. This character, Lucia Tambini, already the mother of a little girl, turned out to be waiting for romance, and found it with a man who was not her husband. He was Italian, though, and working for Mussolini; the time is now 1940. Amid a massive internment of Italians in the United Kingdom, Lucia hopes to escape with her lover and daughter to Canada, where some internees are being sent. The ship is torpedoed, and sinks. Daughter and lover drown, Lucia survives, and is still alive at the end of the novel, some time in the early 1990s. The book opens with the arrival of the lover’s corpse on the beach, although we don’t yet know who he is, and it seems at certain moments as if the most urgent questions all circle around a curious verbal slip of Lucia’s. She says: ‘I came back for you but the corridors were impossible to pass.’ She is thinking of her daughter Sofia, and of the endless, identical corridors of the sinking ship, but she is looking at her granddaughter Maria, and we make the connection that other characters don’t see and that even Lucia can make only in a confused intuition: this girl is drowning, too; someone has to go back for her.

Maria is a singing sensation, 13 years old when we first meet her, the little girl with the big voice, as everyone likes to say, and in one dizzying paragraph (admittedly her agent is speaking here) she is compared to Lulu, Petula Clark, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. She appears on Opportunity Knocks (Hughie Green himself gets a soliloquy or two in this book), wins the competition time after time, makes it to the Palladium and Las Vegas, appears with Dean Martin and Les Dawson, is introduced to President Reagan. Something is amiss, though. Even Nancy Reagan notices it. ‘My word,’ she says, ‘you’re terribly thin, my dear.’ Then she adds: ‘Well, never mind. A girl can never be too thin.’ At a later show, Princess Diana spots the problem, too, and leans over to Hughie Green to ask: ‘Is that woman unwell?’ Green says: ‘She’s a trouper.’ But the Princess is not to be deterred. ‘No, Mr Green. Is she eating?’

The new novel is far more varied technically than Our Fathers, and extremely accomplished. A controlling third-person narrative is interspersed with first-person accounts from all the main characters and some minor ones; there are diaries, letters, newspaper cuttings. Dialect is both represented and dropped at well chosen times. There is so much wit in this book, so much energy and affection, especially for the members of the Scottish community Maria leaves behind when she heads south to find fame (her depressed mother, her haunted grandmother, the mother’s flamboyant boyfriend, Maria’s gay uncle, her Indian schoolfriend and a host of clients of her mother’s café), that an intriguing riddle arises. A deliberate riddle, clearly, and part of O’Hagan’s project, but a riddle all the same. How can this new novel, so much less grim in its theme and its content than its predecessor, turn out to be so much sadder?

I’m not thinking of the events of the books, which are sad and not sad in both cases, and the plot of Personality remains determinedly open-ended. For this reason I don’t want to talk about those aspects of the story where serious suspense is in play. It will be enough to say that Maria has her illness, an affectionate lover and a stalker, and that they each get their chance to take her over. The sadness of Personality stems not from what happens to anyone, although some of that is sad enough, but from everything that is evoked by Maria’s grandmother’s mistake or intuition, her momentary confusion of Maria with Sofia. To put it far more crudely than the novel ever does: if you can drown in fame as easily as in the sea, if fame is a form of drowning, then what’s the difference between success and failure? This is a question, not a rhetorical way of suggesting there is no difference. Or to rephrase the matter in the terms I was using earlier: if you can die by staying at home, as people do in this book, and also die by leaving, what does it mean to talk of getting away?

There is an interesting marker of the persistence of this question in the verbatim repetition in Personality of a phrase from Our Fathers. In the latter book, when the drunken father gives up the booze and reclaims a sort of life, he finds comfort in a series of slogans he paints on pieces of wood, which he then stains and sandpapers and hangs up in his caravan. One of these is Alcoholics Anonymous’s ‘One Day at a Time’. Here’s how the words appear in Personality. Maria has become a star, although still prey to anorexia, collapse and bouts of not working, and with a singing style that was out of date before she started – part of her charm but also part of her peril. She appears on the Terry Wogan show, and takes part in the following dialogue:

WOGAN: I must say it’s been a tremendous pleasure having you on the show, and looking so well. We wish you the best of luck. You’re going to do another number for us. What is it?

MARIA: It’s a lovely song called ‘One Day at a Time’.

The unlovely song from which O’Hagan takes his title dates, a website tells me, from 1977, the year of Maria’s first big success, and senior scholars of pop will no doubt remember it. I don’t entirely trust the website since everything about the song – its simple bounce, its artless lyric – suggests the 1950s. But then you can always look back from anywhere. The song is addressed to a person who possesses ‘personality’, repetitively defined by a set of entirely external attributes:

Cause you’ve got (personality)
Walk (personality)
Talk (personality)
Smile (personality)
Charm (personality)
Love (personality)

Well, maybe love is not an external attribute, but in this context it’s hard to tell.

Personality in this sense is what performers are always said to have, and it’s what Hughie Green says Maria has. But in another sense a personality is just what she hasn’t got. At one point she looks at herself in a mirror and decides that her body is ‘apart from her’. ‘The person with thoughts was different from the person with arms and legs, a stomach and a face.’ She is a person but she doesn’t know who she is. The epigraph to the novel reminds us that Judy Garland felt that the noise outside her, the sound of applause, protected her from ‘the noise inside’. With Maria it’s not exactly a question of noise, in fact it’s the reverse, as we shall see in a moment. But she does need the applause, real or imagined. She is a little girl who was always a performer, magnetic in the eyes of others, unformed in her own. ‘She didn’t dwell in rooms as other children did – rather, she placed herself in the middle of them as if every room was a stage, an echo-chamber built for projection and confidence.’ She vanishes into her shows, goes missing in celebrity. Here is a passage to set beside Lucia’s moment of confusion. Maria is in bed in London and has just spoken to her grandmother on the telephone:

Before she closed her eyes she looked over at the window. The glass was clear, but just before the darkness of sleep, for the briefest second, she was sure she saw the face of a small girl. The girl looked in, tapped at the glass, and disappeared.

Hughie Green gets some good lines. ‘Talent is the heart’s bid for freedom, my friends. And I mean that most sincerely, folks.’ And more deeply and darkly: ‘Talent is the fight against quietness. And yet quietness is always waiting. It waits for each of us.’ Quietness didn’t wait for Judy Garland. But it waits for everyone in Andrew O’Hagan’s work, fiction and non-fiction. It can wait as a threat or as a promise, and we have some but not much control over how it will emerge. As the song and the slogan say, ‘One Day at a Time’.