made a confession at his London Review of Books event held on Sunday 12 August (8.30pm). After looking
around furtively, and wondering if there were any journalists in
attendance he revealed that as a child he had a Billy Elliot phase,
pirouetting around the family kitchen in Kilwinning, north Ayrshire,
wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with "The Jacqueline Thompson School of
Dance" which he frequented for a time in Irvine.
There is something of
the high camp, the dandy about O'Hagan - constructed in a way, yet not
blithely. He confesses this himself, declaring that he's a complete
drama queen, in both senses and totally anally-retentively tidy. This
is reflected in his wonderful turnout - bespoke suit, cufflinks and
Whatever the reason, a self-construction perhaps,
he is, by turns, touching, beguiling, hilarious, a wonderful raconteur,
serious and deeply intellectual. Surely he's one of the most appealing
writers of the Book Festival, home-gown or otherwise. And his audience
was there to hear his stories.
After a brief reading from last year's Be Near Me, O'Hagan hunkered down to the serious work of blethering with Sarah Compton, Arts Editor of the Daily Telegraph. Being of Irish extraction and a Catholic from the west coast, Be Near Me,
his latest novel about a troubled priest, was a good opening point for
talking about his own life and, in turn, discussing the book.
that he had a hissy fit of envy when he realized as an alter boy that
he wasn't centre of attention, that the role had already been nabbed by
another. He confessed slyly and shyly that he was eventually sacked
from the role when a gentle ring of the bell to signify the host,
turned rather vigorous and repeated. All in the name of
When he was researching Be Near Me,
he interviewed a number of priests, one of whom wore red high heels
under his cassock and grapes dangling from his hat. The real-life
priest fails to see his own wonderful offensiveness, as does the
fictional priest of Be Near Me.
thinks acting is close to writing. He likes open-endness in one's sense
of self, and believes that writing and acting allow one to inhabit
different bodies, different lives, consort with ghosts, be limitless.
To questions of autobiographicalness in his work, he says that he's all
of his characters. And none of them. He says that fame is different
When Norman Mailer (whom he'd interviewed by podcast earlier in
the day) first published Naked and the Dead he sold 2
million copies in a matter of months. Now the meaning of fame has
changed and it's not necessarily related to doing. When he was
researching Personality, his novel based on Lena Zavaroni, he interviewed girls at a school in London.
What do you want to be when you grow up they were asked and 70%
responded, ‘famous'. He laments the state of British newspapers and
says that they both reflect this dilution of society, and contribute to
it, to its emptiness. It's related to economics and not a quest for
truth or justice or quality.
says that there's no way to be a good writer, just as there's no way to
be a bad writer. You're just the kind of writer you are. He likes work
that explores and exposes the moral temperature, work that allows him
to consider things like all the people present in the Scottish Power
Studio at his event will be dead in 70 years. And what then?
the legacy? Perhaps this has led to his role as a goodwill ambassador
for UNICEF. He has travelled to Malawi, Mozambique and the Sudan. It occurred to him when he was last in Africa
that J M Barrie's Lost Boys are the opposite of the children he saw -
these children are not trapped in childhood but never had one and never
would. Some of the issues he dealt with in Our Fathers. He wants to give something back.
a strange mix O'Hagan - a drama queen whose work is deeply serious,
though he does concede that his next novel will be more comedic. He is
certainly one of Scotland's gifted thinkers who is both searingly intelligent and hugely entertaining.