Andrew O'Hagan: Remembering My Father

Most Popular

When I was very young, my father swore me to a secrecy that still applies. He wasn’t one of life’s bigger men and he didn’t have much influence, but he influenced us, and I still possess an irrational sense of loyalty to his version of what his life was all about, though it was our lives, too. Writing is often the act of pouring fresh sense on an old problem, but families are not always built to welcome that, and mine was crumbling from the start.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

I once wrote a novel called Our Fathers in which a man is so drunk he falls down in the snow. He lies there all night, and, when the police come, they have to bring scissors because his hair is frozen to the road. When my father read this, he called me up and I could feel him smiling down the line. “You’ve got some imagination,” he said, and he meant it as a compliment and I was happy to take it. (We were friends by then.) But the drunk man in that work of fiction was nobody but him, drawn from a fierce, cold night in my Scottish past. It was almost impressive the way he tried to disown it, but he must have known, however quietly, that the secrets of our house couldn’t be his forever.

Most Popular

It was Evelyn Waugh who said that when a writer is born into a family, then the family is finished. But it’s not really that the family is finished: it’s the group lie that is done for. Other members might stick to it, but the writer won’t, not if he’s any good. Even as a child, I was forever questioning the official version of history. My father was an alcoholic, a hopeless one, and every area of our upbringing hinged on his abuse of drink, and the aftermath of his sobriety, which saw a kind of holy narcissism replace his thirst. But first — the drink. I hear the clink of whisky bottles every time I imagine the first house I grew up in. He would hide them and my brothers and I would find them while playing in the cupboard under the stairs. He drank to oblivion, and now that I’m past the age at which he finally got sober, I see that the drinking itself was a brutal part of a Glasgow childhood in which he had no father and a mother who could barely stomach him. She never showed affection to him in front of us, and was a hard Catholic, barely suppressing her dislikes, while clearly still recovering from her own brutal marriage. By the time we were living with his problem, my father was spending everything on booze. He worked as a joiner, and, at that time, the trade was full of drunks, and I can still see them at a building site in Paisley, pulling half-bottles of whisky from their nail bags at 10 in the morning.
 


[Above: The author's father, Gerald O'Hagan, with Gerald's mother Mary (right) and an aunt, Glasgow, 1959.]

My mother had four boys to this man and always loved him. She didn’t know how to handle him and she couldn’t change him, and over the years she got used to punishing us, without realising it, for all his criminal neglect of her. My father had charisma — he was good-looking and outrageous and could winnow a laugh from a dead priest — but he just wasn’t built ever to care about other people except as an occasional for his own glory. He would help people so long as it made him feel better and look better, but he knew nothing about family love or the almost selfless dedication to a little community of wellbeing. Like many of us who drink, he was actually a loner: the world made sense to him with fewer people around. After a particularly bad binge, he ended up in a psychiatric hospital in Dumfries called The Crichton. I remember going to see him there, I was no more that eight years old, and he was sitting up in bed in striped pyjamas. He had rosary beads by the bed and a glass of barley water. “I don’t want a drink,” he said, and his eyes were full of determined fibs and possibly hope. Then he added something that I’m sure I’ll remember until my own lights go out. “But I don’t want to come home, either.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

His car was always being found abandoned. He’d spend a night in the cells, or end up at the house in Glasgow of my mother’s sister, another heavy drinker with charisma and private pain who seemed in the Seventies to live in a permanent state of song. The storytelling started early with me, and I remember writing a story in my News Book in Primary Three where I told of how my father had staggered across the living room and fallen over a pouf. I couldn’t understand why Mrs Docherty the teacher was blushing and why she ripped the page out of my jotter. Dad was always disappearing to England. Even today, about 40 years on, I can’t hear the word “Carlisle” without imagining a series of sodium lights in the drizzling rain with my father stumbling below them in his working clothes, for that’s how I imagined him in my youth, a vagrant in England, lost under a foreign sky and estranged from all the comforts we tried to offer him.

He’d sometimes bring a dog home from those trips. They were always called Lucky or Bob or Butch or something he’d thought of as he poured over the border, and he knew my mother hated dogs and that his boys felt doubly abandoned by the other dogs and him, but still he would bring them and pretend that life was going to be new. I can still recall him coming into my bedroom with a tiny brown puppy and putting it on my pillow before climbing under the covers with me to fall asleep in a snoring miasma of Old Spice and whisky. The dog, of course, peed the bed and the house woke up next morning to a shouting match to beat them all. After he fucked off to another job or a pub that existed beyond the very end of his tether, my mother would mournfully take the dog to a pet shop in a town up the coast, and leave it there.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

One alcoholic generation in my family led to another, and, looking back at the records, you observe — on both sides of my family — a litany of breakdowns, arrests, suicides and hospitals. The records for parish relief in Glasgow tell a story of the O’Hagans that is too deep for tears, but I always hoped my father might escape it by meeting the people who knew how to capitalise on his charisma. And the way he did that was to become a kind of lieutenant in Alcoholics Anonymous. He opened a meeting in our Ayrshire town and one of my brothers, who was good at art, painted little slogans onto plywood and he put them around a room in the social work department: “One day at a time”, “Easy does it but do it”, “Just for today”, “Let it begin with me”.

Most Popular

He came into my bedroom one evening and asked me what I was doing. By that time, we were living in an attached house in a borstal, where my father was the janitor, and my parents’ marriage was finally coming apart. It was dark and damp, that place, and being in the bedroom was like being at the outer edge of optimism, where goodness and happiness were proscribed by a threat much bigger than my dad’s problem. Basically, my parents both had nervous breakdowns at the same time, and his reaching out for AA leadership was, at the time, merely another version of his mania and his need to heighten himself. I told him I was reading a book and he looked at it before asking if I needed the leather case I had on the bed. (It was a Christmas present. I was gathering papers and wanted one for school.) “You could give it to me,” he said, “for my literature.” He left the room and came back with something called The Big Book and other AA tomes and leaflets and reports that he had pored over. “Literature,” he said. And I remember leaving my childhood behind as I emptied the bag and gave it to him.

He didn’t drink again for 30 years. For a while, before my parents split, we used to spend Hogmanay at an AA convention in another town. All the former alcoholics would be there with their families and the tables were covered in stubby bottles of orangeade, Red Kola and cream soda, with crisps on paper plates, while the women danced. I have a photograph of myself at one of those evenings, with my friend, who later struggled with heroin. I have a yearning sometimes to find those men who I knew back then, and to ask each of them what it was like, and did they feel the rogue gene had come down to them? I love male company in a lather of drink, but I always know, even when among the die-hards, that I would probably go further than them, I would leave my life and go on a plane and keep drinking until somebody took me away. But it’s strange how much of the experience I’m describing — of growing up in a culture of alcoholism and watching it play as it lays — also gives out to comedy. My father remained one of the funniest people any of us ever knew. He was reckless in his jokes, both casually abusive and brutal about disadvantage, yet brilliantly satirical, an inspired mimic, and somehow the bad medicine he took in that first half of his life had left him sick but funny. He could pierce weakness because in some deeply immersed way he was always weak himself. He could spot it. He understood it. He knew where to look for it and in truth there was always something self-referential about this ex-alcoholic’s way of naming bad behaviour. Every man, however slowly, must come to know the source of his father’s pain and outgrow it.

He loved my books. He couldn’t get over them. Of all the people I know — many of whom did much more for me, educated me and stood by me — he was the one who felt it was miraculous that I had come to be a writer and made my name writing books. He would ask for copies in inexhaustible numbers and all the bookshops in Inverness knew him well, as the guy who came in to buy multiple copies by a single author. When I travelled north he would have me sit by the open fire and sign them to his AA friends and “12-steps”, people he was helping to get sober, as if one of my books might help them on their way. And that was entirely subjective: I came to see that it had helped him on his way, making him feel that, for all the mess, all the dark hours, all the hospital stays and nights frozen to the pavement, that he had an alibi with his children, for they had each gone on to do better than he had.

During his final hours at Raigmore Hospital where he was dying of complications associated with asbestosis, the builders’ disease, he would ask me to do little things for him, as if the little things had become my province. There were people he loved more, the people who made him, but I was the god of small things and that’s what he needed then, and he’d reached the end of his great exhaustions. For reasons of their own, my brothers had decided to go home to their children and I was left to listen to some of those last thoughts, along with his second wife who had always been a natural friend to me. “I’m thirsty,” he said early on the last evening, and I realised in that moment that I wanted him to ask me for a proper drink. I stood up and put my jacket on. “I’ll go out and get something,” I said, and I was thinking Oban Single Malt. We would sit for the first and final time and drink together. He wanted a copy of the Racing Post and he reminded me that ice would be handy because his thirst was bad. But, as we know, you can’t go home again, and the drink my father wanted was Irn-Bru, a fizzy pop that the adverts of my childhood had always called “Your Other National Drink”. I returned from the supermarket and we drank it together. Then I sat by the window and knew that the whisky would wait for another day.

The Illuminations by Andrew O'Hagan is out now.


***
MORE BOOKS:

Johann Hari's 'Chasing The Scream': The Truth About The War On Drugs?
The Top-5 Men Who Write Men
30 Books Every Man Should Read By 30
***