Andrew O’Hagan is one of those writers I have been collecting for a long time, but until recently I had only read his fourth novel, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe (published in 2010) and his most recent novel, The Illuminations (published in 2015). In 2011, O’Hagan travelled to Western Australia to participate in the Perth Writers Festival. He also gave the closing address. I was in the audience that night. When O’Hagan stepped out onto the stage in an impeccably tailored blue suit there was an audible intake of breath from both male and female members of the audience. He was very, very handsome. There is no other way to describe him. His speech was too, and I encourage you to take half an hour, make a cup of tea, and listen. It is a far-ranging speech, discussing notions of the West, both in a local sense (for O’Hagan, the west coast of Scotland, for his audience, the west coast of Australia) and in a global sense (the decline of the West, our legacy of imperialism and colonialism). In his speech, O’Hagan returns again and again to the notion of literature as an empathic and inherently political art form. For him, such “acts of the imagination can be the best offence to tyranny.” Novels, at their best, are concerned with “the small business of life standing in for the universe.” 
O’Hagan’s first novel, Our Fathers, published in 1999, is all about “the small business of life.” The New York Times critic Jeff Giles rapped him smartly over the knuckles for this:
Characters in novels are hopeless – they’re constantly repeating
mistakes made by other characters in other novels. Will these people ever learn? Has nobody in a novel ever read a book? 
I can only assume that Giles is being facetious here. What he means is that O’Hagan doesn’t impress him, that Our Fathers is a bad novel and I disagree, as did Hilary Mantel in the New York Review of Books. Our Fathers is a good novel, a great first novel. O’Hagan’s writing reminds me of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens. For all of these novelists, for O’Hagan, the sufferings of the family are the sufferings of the world. It is worth noting that Our Fathers was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999.
O’Hagan’s fictional family, the Bawn family, hail from the south-west of Scotland, from Ayrshire. Several family members lead the charge for better housing for the working classes. Euphemia Bawn is the fictional equivalent of Mary Barbour, the working-class woman who lead the Great Women’s Glasgow Rent Strike of 1915, fighting against overcrowding, evictions and unscrupulous landlords. Euphemia’s son Hugh also becomes a social reformer. Hugh dedicates his working life to finding a solution to Glasgow’s tenements. He has a visionary’s belief in the high-rise tower block. He imagines them as clean, affordable homes with beautiful views, he imagines ordinary people living high above ordinary cares and concerns, he imagines working class cathedrals of light and air. Forty years after these tower blocks have been built, there is very little left of Hugh’s Utopian vision. Hugh is an old man dying in one of the tower blocks he designed, and the tower blocks themselves have become dilapidated, miserable places, rife with vandalism and violence. Hugh’s grandson Jamie, now living in Liverpool, returns home to see his dying grandfather for the last time. Jamie has continued in the family business, but he is an expert in the demolition of tower blocks. He is literally destroying his grandfather’s vision.
O’Hagan’s working-class voice is filtered through lyrical prose and this is the kind of writing that I really love:
The train was enfolded in darkness. The burning train, the field out there; the tadpoles alight in their pools.
Paisley then Johnstone. The farms of Wester Gavin and Newton of Belltrees. The train was a strip of yellow light. It shook up the moss and Herb Robert, and running at speed on the wires above, it rackled the moor, and lifted the wind to the rowan trees. A furrow of broom and bracken fern lay snug at the waist of Lochwinnoch.
Up and down the empty aisle, a bottle of Irn Bru. 
Jamie Bawn is the narrator of the story, but it is as much Hugh’s story as it is Jamie’s. Not content to leave us with the image of a bitter old man on his deathbed, O’Hagan returns us to Hugh’s origin story, his apprenticeship at the feet of older working-class men, his belief in Socialism as the only real alternative to Communism or Fascism, his dedication to finding a way forward for working class families. We also hear about Jamie’s childhood, his alcoholic and violent father (Hugh’s son), Jamie’s long-suffering mother. This all sounds pretty grim and it is here that I must hand over to Hilary Mantel, and her comments on the response to O’Hagan as part of the Booker Shortlist:
It is an old British folk custom to intensify the hysteria by convening a guest panel of authors in the TV studio, to trash and mangle the shortlisted entries. But this year, Channel Four decided to replace them with a “People’s Panel,” a gaggle of amateurs who would trash and mangle in a less practised, articulate way. “Bleak” was the word the People’s Panel used of Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Our Fathers: “bleak” and “bleak” again. 
Personally, I did not find Our Fathers bleak – Dickens and Dostoevsky are bleak. Perhaps if you had a childhood far away from working class life you might find Our Fathers bleak. But for those of us who grew up working class, the return to Jamie’s childhood is not bleak – it is more (well, it was for me) a fierce illumination of childhood:
My body was pleased to outgrow that boy. At times you forget him, the person who lived in this skin. You find a nick on your thumb. An overlaying of white tissue, like anaglypta. You remember the story of a boy who once cut his finger on a rock. You hear something of his voice. You think of his books and his pencils. You remember the way he looked out through his eyes. And then you see they are your eyes too. Your vision clears. You were that boy. Every room of his house is here. You can never demolish him. He will never leave. Unless you find yourself leaving yourself. The boy is not back there in Ayrshire; he’s here. He is always here. 
Our Fathers is a book about masculinity, about fathers and sons. There is no escape from the complexities and contradictions of the working-class man. If I have one gripe about this book it’s O’Hagan’s women. I would have liked to have had more of Euphemia Bawn’s story, much more, if only because she was such a huge influence on Hugh’s life. While Jeff Giles complains that Jamie’s mother is a stereotype, I know she isn’t as I have known so many women like that, caught in those circumstances, and I think O’Hagan writes Jamie’s mother beautifully. Jamie’s girlfriend however, is not much of a character at all. Jamie has to have a girlfriend so we can see that he struggles with intimacy (and fair enough after his childhood) but Karen has no agency of her own, she could be any woman at all. Having said all of this, I need to say that O’Hagan’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe in Maf the Dog is utterly, utterly brilliant.
Our Fathers ends with a quote from Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid (which I won’t spoil by quoting here) and it is the perfect end for a novel which speaks so movingly about the tangled threads of work, family, aspiration and politics in working class life.
 Andrew O’Hagan. Closing Speech. Perth Writers Festival. 2011. ABC Radio National. Broadcast 11th March 2011. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bookshow/2011-03-11/3002808
 “What Goes Up.” Jeff Giles. New York Times. October 3rd, 1999.
 Andrew O’Hagan. Our Fathers. Faber and Faber. London. p. 57
 Hilary Mantel. “A Legacy: Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan. “New York Review of Books. December 16. 1999. New York.
 Andrew O’Hagan. Our Fathers. Faber and Faber. London. p. 57