Guilt

Andrew O’Hagan: A Memoir

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 green wallpaper in the bedroom, with its slanted rain of tiny yellow flowers. I see her spectacle case, a tumbler for the false teeth she preferred not to wear. An oval mirror hung on a chain and a black and white photograph was pressed into the frame. It was of her husband, Michael, dead for 35 years by then and sorely missed.

My education in guilt began there. It was where I first heard the words ‘the bad fire’, a place for boys who didn’t finish their soup or failed to close the door of the outside loo. I don’t think I ever saw my grandmother not wearing a plaid apron, a uniform then worn by Glasgow women of all ages, as if to show their readiness to scrub and clean and generally get on. Over in the fish shop, which was staffed entirely by women, the white tiles were bare except for a sign saying ‘no tick’ – no credit – along with a framed picture of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. My father told me that my Auntie Jeanie once pointed at the Jesus and then pointed at him. ‘Mind yersel,’ she said. ‘That’s what happened to Jesus for being good. Imagine that.’ Years later, at the time my brothers and I were growing up and looking for trouble, the picture of Jesus was still there and so was my granny’s outside toilet. Old Glasgow seemed dark, the East End in particular a place of unsettled scores splashed with vinegar.

My grandmother could gut a herring in four seconds. She went to Mass at St Mary’s every morning. Occasionally she smiled at one of the priest’s wee jokes, and she was brave and stoic, but the thing that seemed most to excite her was suffering. Not just her own but the suffering of the entire world. In her painfully restrained Glaswegian remarks, it was clear that she found our failings, and her own, to be more interesting than our virtues. A person was the sum of his sins and his character was an ongoing expression of his guilt. It was often said that she ‘wouldn’t say a word against’ my father, her son, though she never had a good word for him either. In truth she was frightened of him and her actions spoke against him in ways that were louder than words. I don’t think it would ever have occurred to her, or to her supporters (her three daughters), that her attitude to him would condition not only his life but much of our lives as well. It was clear that he was more or less a bad man in her eyes and that gave me a certain amount of pity for him as well as a wish to give him the benefit of the doubt. Loyalty works weirdly in families like mine. My granny felt loyal to the memory of her husband, lost at sea, but that didn’t mean she spread the good word about him. She was loyal to God, obviously, and to those who served God, but she wasn’t loyal to those who chose to serve him differently from her. Not long ago, when I tried to ask my father what kind of person she was, he looked right through me. ‘She was just a lovely, lovely person,’ he said.

In 1959, just before she married him, my mother was taken into the bedroom by my grandmother. I imagine it was one of those grey Glasgow evenings around teatime, when everybody could seem in such a busy state of belonging. Apparently my grandmother pulled back the curtain and showed my mother a broken window. ‘That was him,’ she said. (He was always ‘him’.) ‘We were having an argument and he threw a ginger bottle at the window.’ My mother was 19 years old. ‘I just want you to know what you’re marrying,’ my grandmother said.

So, at an early age, I felt guilty not only for what my father had done and failed to do, but guilty too for not instantly forgiving my granny for the guilt she imposed. It all felt very nicely regulated, as if this was how life was supposed to be, and there wasn’t really much room for childhood. I enjoyed myself, but my enjoyments were in my own mind and they always involved the transporting of adult worries and adult concerns. My three elder brothers and I had no childhood that could proclaim itself: childhood was untidy, and untidiness was banned; childhood was loud, and silence was demanded at all times; childhood was riddled with needs, but the adults in our lives were always too needy themselves to contemplate the needs of their children. So you grow up fast, and you grow up guilty about almost everything.

In my schooldays, the sentence I remember uttering most often was ‘Please don’t tell my mum.’ My mother was busy coping with my father and she had four part-time jobs, starting at six in the morning, when she would leave the house to clean at one of the local primary schools. My three brothers and I would get ourselves dressed and would often walk to see her at 8.30, by which time she was on to her second job, cleaning a chip shop. It was all a bit thrilling to be among the peelings and the mops. My mother did her best to look after us, and at the time we didn’t feel the lack of anything, but there were no storybooks and no pancakes. And we always had a keen sense of our parents’ difficulties: so much so, that it made us feel guilty about expressing any of our own. I worked out quite early that life could offer ways of attracting attention. In my second year at primary school, for instance, the class was doing a project called Home and Shopping. The teacher had us all in a semi-circle and she placed a cake on a table. The cake was very pink and very glossy with a large cherry. Later, Mrs Nugent said I had been like a sleepwalker. She said I stood up from my place and walked over to the table, lifted the cake and took a large bite out of it before sitting down again. Nobody else did. Mrs Nugent kept me back after the class and asked if I was hungry.

‘Naw,’ I said.

‘Did you have breakfast this morning?’

‘Aye.’

‘What did you have?’

‘Please don’t tell my mummy.’

A lot of the fathers were working on the oil rigs. Mine wasn’t: word would come from building sites in Liverpool or Birmingham, and I would try to imagine those places, the traffic on the streets and the different sense of busy belonging that must prevail there. I often daydreamed about being in a lorry and a vision of orange lights on a motorway worked its way far into my psyche: still, when I see those sodium lamps I feel excited by an idea of what life has to offer. At the same time, missing my father always seemed like an indulgence. We felt guilty for running to him when he came through the door, and eventually we stopped. Only my brother Charlie would run to him and he set his course that way. When my parents eventually split up, Charlie went with my dad.

There was music at a house three doors up. It was accordion music and sometimes pipes, played by a couple of wild creatures from the north called Hazel and Sandy. I felt at home there, and also felt guilty for feeling so much at home. I remember thinking that music and things like that – intelligence, I don’t know, capability in general, the achievements of art – might make my family happy and keep them together. But the truth is I was already slipping away. Hazel and Sandy were the beginning of a bid for freedom, accompanied by Strathspey reels that seemed to proclaim independence. I was always looking to cuckoo in other people’s nests, and I felt at home in that house with all the noises, the mess, and the childhood atmosphere. I was only ten but I often wore a suit, as if I was turning up for something formal and life-changing. There are very few photographs of me as a child, but I have one here as I write. It was taken in the square of the housing estate where we lived. I am standing on the rocks the council laid for the children to play on, holding the hand of Sandy and Hazel’s daughter, Jill. I am wearing a suit that my mother bought me in Saltcoats. I’m standing there in the suit and a tie like someone about to step into a meeting.

A photograph of the author as a child

There’s always a danger with childhoods that weren’t perfect: trying to tell the story truthfully can feel like an exercise in sentiment. (And sentiment is certainly part of what prevailed and what remains.) Yet I began to feel, even in the middle of those years, that art made you a kind of aristocrat, and that deprivation and elevation had a more comical relationship than I had hitherto suspected. As a result, my childhood was okay. It was a kind of psychological joke. Not that I’m always able to see it that way. I regret not having had any Swallows and Amazons, and I open up to one of the lesser literary attributes, self-pity, when I think of some of the things we were exposed to so young. But it was quite common. The most popular picture round our way – every family had one, usually above a three-bar fire – was a commercial painting called The Weeping Boy. There were several versions of it, but they all showed a child in distress. I believe it helped us to visualise our self-pity, and to accept a certain amount of kitsch. I spent hours looking at that picture, thinking it odd, thinking it mawkish, but feeling it must be social realism.

It always seemed like a betrayal to love both your parents at the same time. It felt wrong to need them equally. When my parents began the long slide towards separation, they made arrangements to accommodate their resentments, the main one being to move me out of the bedroom I shared with my brother Charlie and into the double bed beside my mother. It was a cold winter, and I can see the patterns of frost on the bedroom window, my mother asleep and my father and Charlie talking in the next room. A certain amount of excitement and dread mingled in the small hours: the Cold War had entered the house, and it crept through my mind like an intruder in the dark. My mother felt warm against my back in the strange guilty wrongness of the room. She only ever had one book by the bedside, a blue, sensible self-help book published by Al-Anon called One Day at a Time. I had bought it for her with my pocket money and my mother read a page of it every day.

It was hard to know the difference between guilt and ordinary awareness. We were Catholics, of course, and so a certain institutional comedy of shame was set in plaster. Freud didn’t get a look in, but Our Lady did, and we all lived as if the turmoil of life was ordained by higher beings. Priests were sometimes engaged to preside over pledges and to maintain the status quo in a bad marriage, but I found it hard – even harder, I think, than my brothers did – to understand how relationships could be sustained with so much anger and mental cruelty. In families like that, the most outlandish behaviour can come to seem normal: my father always worked, yet my mother would be forced to stand with us in queues at the Social Security, as it then was, hoping for funds to tide us over until my father was sober. You’d feel guilty for taking up space in the queue. Likewise, we were expected to claim free school dinners at school. The administrator gave you a special green ticket, but, in our case, my parents hadn’t even filled in the means-tested application form. We would have to make a case every term and have our name written down in ink at the end of the typed list, as if our parents were completely absent from all decisions and all procedures.

You felt guilty at both ends of the argument: guilty for not having the form and guilty for resenting your parents for not having what it took to complete the form. I suppose I was less good at taking life on the chin, always believing, in my airy way, that this wasn’t life as it had to be, that this was something we had chosen. In her sadness, my mother took to me as an inspirational speaker. She thought I could magic her doubts away with words. I tried my best, and so did Michael, my eldest brother, who became, at 16, the man of the house and someone whose own life appeared to be temporarily suspended. Yet none of us wanted to blame our parents. Establishing the right target for blame might make you feel better, but it doesn’t make you feel less guilty. Guilt is impervious to justice. Guilt feasts on irrationality.

Yet a writer can gain his feet that way. A writer romances the truth and invents his own freedom. My childhood can never let me down as a guide to human complication. But I sometimes wonder how my brothers survived it. Partly, I guess, by trying to be better parents, happier people. In many ways that is the greatest task of them all. My brothers have invested their hopes for renewal in family life, a good place but also the most difficult one, like employing yourself as the clean-up guy at the scene of a crime. It is a daily struggle to establish the sovereignty of your own story over that of your parents. At every turn, there is the endlessly repeated narrative of your mum and dad, the old wounds and the litany of blame, the bad decisions, and the failure to protect the innocent parties. And everybody wants to win the battle of the more-done-to-than-doing. If you come from that kind of family, you spend years in a defenceless state over your parents’ woes, and then, when your defences are sound, you discover they are rusted with guilt. Despite what Tolstoy says, all unhappy families have in common a dreadful inability to let the past sleep and let the future sing.

When I was 11 years old, I decided the only way to cope with my parents was to teach them a lesson in how to seek freedom through humiliation. My brother Gerry had tried a similar trick a few years before by becoming a punk. He spiked up his hair and put posters of the Sex Pistols all over his bedroom wall. My father came back from one of his adventures and hit the room like a tornado: the posters were ripped down and replaced with a crucifix. My own bid followed a few years later and it involved joining the local ballet class. No boy on that parcel of land had ever done ballet. Reader: Billy Elliot, c’est moi. The local paper got involved and wrote a story about me, though I wouldn’t allow them to take a picture. (I was too guilty at the sheer scale of the humiliation.) My father’s complexion actually changed for ever to a deep, alarmed red.

I turned out to be rather good at the old battement frappé, but my main purpose had been achieved when I saw the size of my parents’ fears. Ballet seemed quite natural to me, but it was really the extremity of the choice that felt so very natural. It soon gave way to other choices, editing a fanzine, being in a band, going to university, each of which was extreme in its own way, bringing a new language into the house and using our social stuckness as a platform for do-it-yourself deliverance. Music gave me the lift I needed. Not Strathspey reels in the long run, but all those punky bands who seemed to constitute, for so many of us, the soul of the north in the first days of Thatcher. And who, more important, seemed to give youth back to kids who didn’t have one. They did it ironically, too: those fresh-faced, post-industrial boys who dyed their hair grey and wore a gold stud in their ears were full of androgyny and working-class escapism. We listened to Joy Division and wondered if Ian Curtis, the band’s singer, hadn’t died from too much guilt and too little time to put it right. When I hear their album Closer, I think of the Winter of Discontent and the layers of frost on the bedroom window.

Some people imagine that when you try to talk about guilt what you’re really talking about is blame. But in discussing my early years I don’t feel like blaming my parents: to me, they were the greater victims of our circumstances. They hadn’t had childhoods, either. One time my mother was ill and I wondered how long it would take her to ask her mother for help. She never did, and her mother, my ‘happy’ granny, was allowed to imagine her youngest child was just good at coping. So much happened during those years that I can only really glance at them for now, knowing that we all, with more or less equal fault and merit, passed through a season of derangement. I feel guilty for describing it that way, but there you have it. My life was made out of my parents’ chaos, but I wanted them to know that I could take that chaos further. I was too young to understand that a child’s bid for personhood can actually come to renew his parents’ hopes. Even after the last waltz – or the last pirouette – when writing became my favourite task, those same parents were to be found cheering from their separate sidelines, glad at last to hear a story being told that wasn’t the one they told themselves.