Andrew O’Hagan is editor-at-large of the London Review of Books. His latest novel is Mayflies.
It can take years to understand your father. Mine died almost 10 years ago. In the last few months of his life, his shape became clear to me, a solid creature at last, someone whose physical ailments gave temporary shade to his moral ones. To his last hour, he was a charismatic guy – funny, handsome, Scottish, irreverent – and I’m sure he felt that his failure to solve the problems of his life or to mend his reputation wouldn’t matter. In that sense, he was a true fan of extinction, meeting his end as if it was everybody’s end.
Yet fatherhood is a condition that exists as much in the afterglow as in the blaze itself. It exists beyond the man, in his children’s eyes, and the father who ignores that has missed everything. Whether your father is dead or alive, you will turn to him, now and then, looking not so much into a gene pool or for a deep voice from the past, but for sustenance. A true father is a living presence, a font of acceptance and love, or the sad denial of both.
I recently found an old video camera. It had a tape in it, one of those small cassettes that became outmoded with the rise of digital, and I knew, as soon as I saw it, that the tape would contain footage of my father. I sent it to one of those video transfer labs and it returned as a flash drive. One night, when everyone had gone to bed, I plugged it into my computer, and there he was, in 2007, sitting in his favourite armchair, wearing the colours of Glasgow Celtic Football Club while he watched the team playing on TV.
He kept turning to the camera, completely un-shy, speaking in a rasping voice of his exploits as a Glasgow teenager. The rasping was because of asbestosis – the disease that killed so many working-class builders and carpenters – and it only enhanced the drama of his confessions and the boastfulness of his manner. That was my dad: an exhibitionist with no pity for the dependency culture in your average family. What he liked was strangers, people he could impress with a version of himself unconfined by family responsibilities, new friends who were pleased to take him at his own estimation. His early life, I think, had given him a dread of those who would presume to know him, as if they only meant to squash his independence and mock his ability to shape himself as the occasion demanded. My mother came to seem to him a sneering domestic goddess filled with contempt for his big ideas. I never in my life saw them hug or kiss and they never presented a united front. Very quickly, their four boys became random pawns in the battle for supremacy: He couldn’t muster love or admiration for us, and never saw who we actually were in ourselves.
In the video, he entertains himself with stories about his father, a known gangster in Glasgow with four brothers in prison, and he eulogizes him as a community leader, a man who would give the poor people of the East End his last penny, when in fact Michael O’Hagan stole everything he could find. My dad never truly met his father, and all his stories, including the stories of his own children, were about how none of us could live up to the glories of Michael’s paternity.
The old man had died, at 34, when a German U-boat sunk the ship on which he served in the North Atlantic. Fifty years later, I went to see an officer from that ship who had happened to survive the sinking. When I told him my father always spoke of the ship’s last minutes, of how his father selflessly ran below decks to save his Glasgow comrades, the ex-officer sipped from his glass of water and told me it wasn’t true. He was sorry, he said, but the men I was talking about, my grandfather included, had gone down to raid the whisky stores. That was why they hadn’t made the lifeboats and were on-board when the second torpedo struck.
My father hoped that his life would be concealed by fictions, which is perhaps why he took to my own novels so quickly, as if they might provide fresh snow with which to cover his tracks and justify his own stories. When I published my first, Our Fathers, he made me sign more than 100 copies for his friends in Alcoholics Anonymous, even though the father inspired by him is a hopeless case who abandons his family.
In one scene, that man is found in the snow. The police discover he has been lying there all night, and in order to get him off the road, they have to borrow scissors from someone in one of the nearby houses, because over the hours his hair has become frozen to the pavement. “You’ve got some imagination,” my father said to me on the phone after he read that passage. “I don’t know where you get it all from.” But the answer lay in the annals of historical fact. My father had indeed once been picked up by the police in that condition, frozen to the pavement. The idea of fiction, that it gave a chance and a fertile life to all possibilities, appealed to my dad. In a sense it meant that nothing was ever entirely true, that everything was deniable. When I was young, I once quoted to him Camus’ line, “Fiction is the lie that reveals the truth.”
“Ah,” he said. “Whit’s true tae you is no’ necessarily true tae me.”
Therefore, the relationship worked. I could think what I liked, and so could he, and we could meet on the dubious, uncertain ground in the middle, knowing it suited us fine, and that his stories were his and mine were mine. It was academic. But what I’d really given him was an alibi, an excuse for all his terrible negligence. “It couldn’t have been that bad,” he once said, “if you went to university and ended up a well-known writer.”
In that wonderful recuperation lie the seeds of an entirely personal salvation. He would never need to answer the question about whether he’d been a good father, because his children were doing all right and he had given up the booze. I never in my life had a drink with my father, or went swimming with him, or was read to by him. When you hugged him at the airport it was like embracing an ironing board. His own father had died when he was 4 and he had nothing to go on and no instinct for it, either. Fatherhood, to my father, was a foreign country he knew nothing about, and which he viewed with open hostility. He wasn’t going to be told what to be, or have expectations hanging over him, when there were perfectly receptive people in the pub – or, later, in the rooms of AA – who could cheer him on and admire the articulacy of his own needs.
I once went with him to an AA convention and could see the admiration shining from all the faces. He was a green-eyed redemption machine, talking in a compelling way about moving on, and they loved it, feeling no doubt that the arithmetic of recovery was a sum you must do alone, in your own head.
But I still look for my father in everyday things. He had a kind of Lawrentian humour, great at impersonations, faultlessly vulgar and disrespectful, with a certain working-class brio for social caricature, for spotting uppityness. He showed me, in the duplicity of his own character, that no person is one thing. He hadn’t much utility as a father, and no skills whatsoever for taking care of children, but he proves a foundation text for me in the meaning of fiction. He once spoke to me of a better life we might make for ourselves in Canada. The very word, spoken with a Glaswegian voice, sounded like an outgrowth of hope and a final destination. People had gone to Canada and made better lives for themselves. People had started again with their families. That was it – Canada. Enter the wide open spaces and make the journey west, into newness, into an unpremeditated future, where you might begin to read books to your children and kiss them goodnight.
At the other end of the video tape, for a few minutes, my own daughter Nell, who is now 17, comes gambolling toward the camera. She is 3. In the piercing light of one forgotten afternoon, she laughs in nightdress and boots, throwing down the lid of her potty, choosing items from her toy grocery store and offering them out. At one point, deeply involved in the Chaplinesque drama of trying to fold a newspaper, she looks up and points at the video camera. “Ah-ee!” she says – “Daddy” – and the camera trembles for a nanosecond as the man behind it reacts to the one word he most wishes to hear.
At the time, Nell had speech problems that slowly worked themselves out. But she knew by then that the world had certain securities no matter what, and I was one of them. The flowering of fatherhood has been one of the great experiences of my life, and all the better, in my case, for being bound with a world of everyday realities more than fictions. Like many a teenager now, she is finding herself, and her own difference, in a world of alternative pronouns, and I find it so natural, a kind of blessing, to be in my post to cheer her on. Her positives are never my negatives. She will not be my alibi and never my conundrum, because fatherhood was the gift she gave me, rather than the other way round. She orchestrates my reality, my good times, by showing me at last that paternity can be a song and never a curse.
Mayflies is the novel I set out to write about friendship. It was another way of writing about fatherhood, because, in my youth, a reluctant or an absent father was the thing many of my male friends and I had in common. The boat of our friendship, if you like, was built to sail against a tide of screwed-up masculinity, and we made it, the guys and me, to the other shore through a love of movies, books, songs and politics. There was always a story in that, about how the present-day-ness of adulthood can exist in a sort of Proustian correspondence with the past, not because the past was in any way better, but because it offered the first great soundtrack and the first clear invitation about how to live. We didn’t take that invitation from our fathers, we took it from our best friends, and, years later, with fathers gone, with adult concerns swirling on every side, the old tunes can take on their full resonance.
On the brink of Father’s Day, I think of them again. I think of those fathers held back by their own fathers, whom they never knew. I think of young men released in their teens into wars or tenement buildings or early marriages, and I see again how hopeful they must have been as they fought to do their duty. And this is what I cling to, not the later years, the miles of indifference and the bad fictions, but the hope that gleams from the young faces of our fathers in those fading photographs, boys dressed in sharp suits, ready for the off. They make me think of Scott Fitzgerald, and his sense of how the American continent, once reached, must have appeared to Dutch sailors’ eyes, “the green breast of the land” which stretches now in my imagination all the way through the republics of our past, to a new place, much hoped for, longed for, and never in all the blazing days of our lives, forgotten – “Canada,” he said.
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