Our Fathers

Our Fathers

by Andrew O'Hagan

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Hugh Bawn was a modern hero, a dreamer, a Socialist, a man of the people who revolutionized Scotland's residential development after World War II. Now he lies dying on the eighteenth floor of one of the flats he built, flats that are being demolished along with the idealism he inherited from his mother. Hugh's final months are plagued by memory and loss, by bitter


Hugh Bawn was a modern hero, a dreamer, a Socialist, a man of the people who revolutionized Scotland's residential development after World War II. Now he lies dying on the eighteenth floor of one of the flats he built, flats that are being demolished along with the idealism he inherited from his mother. Hugh's final months are plagued by memory and loss, by bitter feelings about his family and the country that could not live up to the housing constructed for it. His grandson, Jamie, comes home to watch over his dying mentor and sees in the man and in the land that bred him his own fears. He tells the story of his family-a tale of pride and delusion, of nationality and strong drink, of Catholic faith and the end of the old Left. It is a tale of dark hearts and modern houses, of three men in search of Utopia. Andrew O'Hagan's story is a poignant and powerful reclamation of the past and a clear-sighted look at our relationship with personal and public history. Our Fathers announces the arrival of a major writer.

Editorial Reviews

The End of Idealism

With violent energy in life, and violent refusal as they near their deaths, the two generations of patriarchs in Andrew O'Hagan's debut novel aren't easy for a son to bear. Jamie Bawn leaves his childhood home to escape his father's drunken rages. He joins his grandfather, a powerful city planner in Glasgow, where he learns the elder man's craft—and then must leave again, rejecting his grandfather's suffocating idealism and outsized ambitions. Now that old Hugh is dying, Jamie returns to Scotland from his life in Liverpool. Hugh wants to engage him in a new sort of project: to acknowledge that the socialist housing utopia was the right dream after all, and—as a finance scandal unfolds—to save the old man's reputation from the wrecking ball.

Our Fathers is a quiet knockout. Hailed at its appearance in England earlier this year, it well deserves its recent inclusion on the shortlist for the Booker Prize. Observers of the usual trends in present-day fiction will be prepared to categorize it in a couple of words: memory, family, national identity. But O'Hagan knows the debates, and he knows how to step right over them. Memory isn't sacrosanct in O'Hagan's novel; it's a fund of gray truths and lies to be sifted. Family isn't the source of one's truest self, requiring some emotional reconciliation; it's a collection of troubled people who sometimes must be left to themselves. This is restrained fiction, which knows how to use its restraint to wring more profound truths from the usual sources of melodrama: abuse, family trauma, love, politics.

Named Scottish Writer of the Year in 1998, O'Hagan has written a contemporary "Scottish" book that avoids all the traps of the label. Berwick, where the book begins, is a proper bit of England, while Ayr and Saltcoats, where the action soon moves—near to the bustle of Glasgow, looking across the water to the misty Isle of Arran—are fiercely Scots. Jamie Bawn stands between worlds. The gangs of kids who light fires in the lot outside his grandfather's building recognize him as an outsider. "We could beat the English," a proud boy declares. O'Hagan shows where Scotsmen have beaten themselves or gotten lost in rage and chauvinism. Real pride comes from a different source than mythical, kilted Highlanders. Jamie finds it in the tradition of progress, and in the poetry and agitation that gave even inexpressive people a voice.

The visit to his grandfather's deathbed starts a journey, for Jamie, through his whole family history. His great-grandmother was an activist who battled landlords in the Glasgow tenements while her husband fought in Flanders. His mother, who when he left home had been on a road to nowhere, now holds court like a queen among the confident middle-aged women of a genteel pub. Even Jamie's alcoholic father, Robert, returns at the book's end—though the reunion is not what Jamie expects.

Our Fathers is also a subtle and sophisticated meditation on the greatest architectural shift of recent times. This is the radical repudiation of modernist planning in public housing—like the much-hated multistory "projects" in American cities—and the rise of widespread aspirations for smaller-scale, more livable accommodations. The tower blocks, cement slabs, and plazas meant to create "machines for modern living" still exist in the metropolitan landscape around Glasgow. Jamie's profession is that of a manager of demolitions: He's knocking down the high-rises that his grandfather built. If ever a clunky Oedipal metaphor were in position to weigh down a book, this should be it. But O'Hagan plays the generational conflict deadpan and pulls it off brilliantly. Grandfather Hugh's motives were both merciful and arrogant. His generation worked to build a utopia, a city of castles reaching to the clouds, without reckoning the human toll.

In a long episode where Jamie squires his dying grandfather around town for one final tour—stopping to drink at the British Legion, betting at the races—Hugh demands they go to Alloway Kirk, where the poet-hero Robert Burns's father is buried. It is a moment of confrontation, a symbol of the power of fathers over the gifted offspring who can speak for them. Hugh insists Jamie climb a rickety ladder to read the inscription on the church tower's ancient bell, but Jamie experiences a revelation up there that Hugh could never imagine. "And something happened at the top of the ladder," he narrates. "A feeling came over me: light-headed, awesome, a feeling of tender mercies. The sky was all eyes: peering down the millions of years; blessings of light from the cold, interminable distance." The encounter with mercy and eternity is a picture of Andrew O'Hagan's achievement as well. With the past in front of him, goaded on by the Scottish inheritance and the generations of fathers, O'Hagan has surmounted their grandiose dreams to find a new poetry of his own. Compassion and cool appraisal are combined elegantly in this first novel; it is surely one of the most remarkable books of the year.

Mark Greif

Mark Greif is a writer living in Boston.

About the Author

Andrew O'Hagan was born in Glasgow, Scotland. He serves on the editorial board of The London Review of Books, is a contributing editor to Granta, and writes for the Guardian. In 1998 he was named Scottish Writer of the Year. His previous book, The Missing, was a finalist for several awards.

NY Times Book Review
A surprising, thought-provoking discourse on the vulnerability of human life at the end of the 20th century.
The most auspicious debut by a British writer for some time.
Will Self
A timely corrective to the idea that nothing profound can be said about now.
Eve Claxton
Be warned...it's impossible to keep Our Fathers shut for very long.
Time Out New York
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Scottish writer O'Hagan's first book, The Missing, was a well-received nonfictional compound of memoir and journalism on the subject of missing persons. Now, switching competently to fiction, he has produced a family melodrama and novel of social consciousness spanning four generations. Jamie Bawn's grandfather, Hugh, better known as "Mr. Housing" from his days as Labour's Public Works mastermind, is dying in a grim flat in one of the many Glasgow high-rises he erected in the name of progress. To Hugh's pride and dismay, Jamie has followed in his footsteps and, after briefly deserting Glasgow for Liverpool, is now assisting with the demolition of his grandfather's buildings, for the good of a new generation. As he nears death, Hugh is under investigation for cutting corners in the construction of his utopian towers, but Jamie knows that though the allegations are true, Hugh intended to pass his savings on to needy tenants. In a bedside vigil lasting many weeks, Jamie devotes himself to his grandfather, their sparring underlaid with prickly affection. Jamie also reminisces about his father, Robert, a crude and abusive drunkard who hated his son, and Hugh's mother, Effie, the family's first idealist, who led rent strikes in Glasgow's tenements during WWI. If Jamie and Hugh are too strong as individuals (and political animals) to reconcile completely, Jamie's watch over Hugh's last days gives him enough perspective to allow him to reestablish contact with his estranged father. O'Hagan's control over the Glaswegian idiom never slips as his characters tentatively get in touch with their feelings in most un-Scottish fashion. Skirting sentimentality and never indulging in it, Our Fathers deftly balances generational conflict with political struggles in a hardnosed, reform-minded Scotland. Author tour. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
On the heels of his successful first book, the acclaimed nonfiction title The Missing, journalist O'Hagan tries his hand at fiction. At the center of this book is Hugh Bawn, an ardent Socialist who planned and built high-rise flats in postwar Scotland. Years later, as he lies dying, his grandson Jamie returns home from England to reclaim the past he has tried unsuccessfully to leave behind. Spun by Jamie, this poignant tale reveals the lives of Hugh, Jamie, and Robert, Jamie's alcoholic father. Hugh's high-rises are destroyed one by one to make room for newer housing, much like the dreams of these three Scottish men. Eventually, Jamie realizes that the "child you have been will never desert you" and that memories may not always offer solace or solutions to present conflicts. A thoughtful book; recommended for large fiction collections.--Faye A. Chadwell, Univ. of Oregon Libs., Eugene Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The first fiction from Glaswegian journalist O'Hagan (The Missing, 1996) a muted, melancholy, and gently touching tale of a son who returns home for the death of his grandfather and finds both the private, and the public, dimensions of a changing Scotland.

From the Publisher

"By any standards, Our Fathers is a powerful novel. As a first novel, it is very remarkable indeed."-The Independent
"O'Hagan makes the heavy light, the ugly near to lovely through an unusual combination of language, poetic in its imagery on the one hand and ruthlessly sharp and contemporary in idiom on the other."-The Spectator
"I have scarcely read so silvery beautiful a style when it comes to the Scots landscape, nor one so tender about matters of life and death."-Financial Times

Product Details

Faber and Faber
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
The Sea Shore

I know nothing of the house I was born in. The look of the town is all I remember. And yet I can hear the sound of the door as we closed it behind us for good. I sat by myself on the train leaving Berwick: six years old in long trousers. Jamie the boy with the watery eyes. That was me. And something of me will be sat there still. My eyes looked into my eyes in the glass. The town of Berwick was out of reach, beyond the window, and quiet at last. Under the mound of the railway station the sea lapped up on the brown sand. Every wave brought forgiveness to the shore. And now I am left with the thought of that day. The English town I left as a boy: the closing door.

The houses looked into the North Sea. They peered at the saline darkness: a world of algae and sea sounds. As a child I wondered where it all went. Miles of sea and miles of dark. They say that nothing goes on for ever. Even the tide goes somewhere in the end.

Mrs Drake lived in the manse at Berwick. She was old in her carpet slippers, pinning her sheets to the line that day, a skirl of winter down among the rocks, and I thought of how pleased my friend had been to teach me good books, a payment in kind, for odd jobs done in silence, with no fuss. I had learned a bit of life down there. The smell of chimneys still giving out to God. The smell of mackerel. All the small graces in Berwick town, where the river meets the sea, for someone seeking out gladness, exploring the sand, and knowing these things for the first time. The train pulled out and I never saw the town again. The North-East of England slid away in a rush of greenery. But more than a splash of time lay among those rocks I then abandoned for the North: my own first voice along the sea-front, the river's memory of salmon and corn, a notion of something good in that childish basin. I knew that day I would always miss it, and I always have. Mrs Drake had given me a book to take away to Scotland. The book was for me alone. The book was mine. It had a strange blue cover, the glint of the old woman's eyes; and the words on the spine were printed in white, the spell of her hair. My book had belonged to someone else, but now it was mine, and it carried the trace of someone else in its tea-tinted pages. I could take it with me. I held the book in my hands as the train slowed at the signal box. Surely Mrs Drake would remain this while, her good hands clasped over mine, her piano-playing fingers with their slackened rings, holding me tight in the afternoons. Her voice with those fishing songs, softly sung, more spoken than sung, the kiss she planted in my mess of hair, her sweet perfume in the winds of Berwick. My old friend: in no time at all she was round the corner and out of sight.

I could see St Abbs lighthouse in the distance. It made me think of lamps and night-times and weather. I felt just then how the day was all movement: the beat of the heart, the clattering train, the tides out there, the light. I unfolded the book from my jumper. It was in my thoughts all the time. The Sea Shore, by C. M. Yonge.

She'd pressed down the corners of two pages. I took my time sounding out the words. The first page, 'Barnacles and Molluscs of a Rocky Shore'. I read out the big words circled in pencil. Her note said, 'Copy out, my dear, and try to remember.'

Limpets possess an undoubted 'homing instinct'. The exact nature of this has so far defied analysis; it does not seem to reside within the restricted powers of sight, smell or touch. As shown in Fig. 35, limpets browse in a rough circle around their homes, travelling at most three feet from this and usually very much less, and are able by this sense of direction to regain their home when it is necessary. Some of the words were hard to read, and they sounded new. Underneath was a picture of a limpet stuck to an English rock. The second page marked down by Mrs Drake was near the end of the book. In her own writing it said, 'Learn this one, Jamie. Near your new house, on the other coast, you might notice these things as well.'

On the coastal lands of Ayrshire seaweeds are extensively used on the potato fields, where up to thirty tons are scattered per acre. As a result of investigations at the Marine Station at Millport (underlined), methods were worked out for the successful preparation of agar (arrow: 'jelly, good for all the experiments') from gigartina (arrow: 'red seaweed'), of which large supplies exist on the coasts of Wales and especially on the west coast of Scotland (underlined twice).

Mrs Drake so loved to write things down. She had taught me to love it just as much, though my favourite part was the digging part, the measuring part, the walking part, and the milk and the toast at the end. As well as the marked pages of The Sea Shore my old teacher had written something on a square of paper - a slip of paper with a black edge - and she had placed it inside the back of my book. As much as the book itself, the writing on this paper would always remind me of Mrs Drake, and without notice it would bring me back to her living room, the open fire, the record player, and those jars of hers, high on the shelves, filled to the brim with cockles and whelks.

Dear Jamie,
Please remember to round your letters and curl your tails. You are a good boy and I will miss you. From now on I will think of you as I go along the shore. Work hard at all your reading, you are very clever about it. Here are two fine books you will enjoy as soon as you feel ready. Try to find them if you can in the good library. One is by John Graham Dalyell, and has a funny title, Rare and Remarkable Animals of Scotland, represented from living subjects: with Practical Observations on their Nature. The other is by Philip Henry Gosse, A Year at the Shore. These will help you. Say ta-ta from me to your mummy.

Yours faithfully

Mrs P. Drake

On the back of the paper she had written out some words. '"Who can say of a particular sea that it is old? Distilled by the sun, kneaded by the moon, it is renewed in a year, in a day, or in an hour." Love, Pat.' My father returned to Scotland in a flurry of hatred. My mother soothed him over the border in a Bedford van. They put me on the train and then limped away to their big people's business. The train took me first to Glasgow, and my grandfather Hugh, who made a point of never asking about my ailing father, and never knowing our proper address, though now and then he would wonder if my mother was 'coping'. He took me from the station to one of the new building sites at Ruchill. He threw an envelope of papers at the face of the foreman there. He peeled money from a roll. From the back of the car, in the pouring rain, I could see my granda shouting the odds, throwing up his hands, handing money to the men in the yellow hats. He climbed in and out of a visiting truck. With that strange fury on his face he looked like my father. I lay down in the back seat. You could see the concrete layers going all the way up. Metal rods hung over the sides; they went up so high you couldn't believe it was so. Sawdust came down with the rain. My mind went soft with the weather, and the journey, and the thought of the deep green sea. Everything was mingled now: the world at my back, the sea shore; and this building site in the north of Glasgow, this field of mud, with its new clanging. My ears were filled with the roar and the clang. I fell asleep with water running down the car window.

My father took drink. He was an alcoholic, the kind that rages and mourns. His long-haired flight to England was all about drink. Nothing meant anything without drink. It was all drink.

He had thought he might drown himself in Berwick. Leagues away from his father's ideals. Good miles out from his mother's patience. Six-fathoms-five from the glory of his dead grandmother and all her Utopian dreams. My father sought an end to the question of himself in Berwick. In the rivermouth of Berwick he tumbled down, drinking the waves, a floating tribe unto himself, and wet with loathing, he drifted out, no high-toned relatives to temper the sway of his blitzed afternoons. My father was an alcoholic. The kind that rages and mourns. He never meant well, and he never did well. A blind-drunk bat in love with the dark. There was no feeling sorry: he took down too many days for easeful sorrow; he glutted on ruin.

And books became the only breath in that foreign room he kept us in. The only soothing language known, and all the kindness of printed words just taught me to hate him more, and to pity him, and to see a day when all would be loosened, or gone, and no one left to feel sorry. This is what I thought then. My father was a maniac. He frightened away the best of our health.

I would sit in a chair by the window of our new Ayrshire house - birds twittering out there, diving for the grass seed - and watch him drunk and asleep by a three-bar fire. My damp eyes bored through him. I could take the lighter and set fire to him as he slept. I stared at him. I knew I could do that. The twittering grew louder. Somewhere over the burn, in the thick of the housing scheme, an ice-cream van was selling good cheer. The sound of that music. I stared at him. I tried to make him go, and thought of him disappearing, and sliding away, being no more in our lives, and dead, or part of a place that was meant for badness, and right for the cruel, and endlessly quiet.

My books kept me living. And the thought of my grandparents. I was in love with what they knew, my semi-estranged granda and nan. They knew about trees and Robert the Bruce; they knew about rivers and buildings and stones. And without their thoughts, my mind turned slowly on the blaze in the armchair, one day coming. I sat at the window. I watched him to death. Down a slanting column of light - high window to living-room pile - a million tiny rags of dust came floating down, a million specks of chance, turning there, reflecting, turning again, each one a whisper of something peaceful. A million lessons in calm, part of a hateful day.

My father did not resemble himself as he slept. And that too was a part of his danger. He could have been somebody else. Somebody else in that raging skin - easy-going, a cool forehead - and dreaming of sunshine. So good inside, and with hope of being happy, and all his suffering due to stop, if only we'd let him breathe. He seemed a different Robert, much more wounded than wounding. He failed to resemble himself in that chair. Our candy-striped wallpaper behind his head, a long ashtray by his legs. Feet crossed at the ankles; cardigan buttoned up the wrong way; his chest breathing softly, like a baby in its cot. He could have been good as he lay there. Mindful of all our strange days, our hurried lives, and keen to make everything right for us. Our guardian. A madman who slept with an angel's smile. He could have been better, and that made it worse.

I sat by the window with the books he detested. The pages turned over. Don't wake him up, and rustle his bed, and turn him into himself again. The shadow of new-begun leaves came past the venetian blinds and crossed his face: 'To me my father should've been as a god. Composing my beauties, making of me a form in wax, by him imprinted . . .' So on and so on. '. . . within his power to make me good or bad, a well-made figure or more like him, disfigured.'

I closed the book. I wanted him to pay attention. Stop shouting. I dreamed he might rise and prove himself great. Improve the world, make the days work, and add some shine to the new Ayrshire day. He lay for hours in a malicious slumber - his face as calm as milk - and opened his eyes as the day went out.

'Get me a beer from the fridge,' he said. 'Hurry up.'

In my father's anger there was something of the nation. Everything torn from the ground; his mind like a rotten field. His was a country of fearful men: proud in the talking, paltry in the living, and every promise another lie. My father bore all the dread that came with the soil - unable to rise, or rise again, and slow to see power in his own hands. Our fathers were made for grief. They were broken-backed. They were sick at heart, weak in the bones. All they wanted was the peace of defeat. They couldn't live in this world. They couldn't stand who they were. Robert's madness was nothing new: he was one of his own kind, bred, with long songs of courage, never to show a courageous hand.

Into the arms of oblivion they ran like wicked children. Their pretend love of freedom: we all learned the family business. We all knew the shame. His Scotland was lashed, betrayed, forgotten. That was our happiness; that was our song.

'How would you know about us?' he snapped. 'You English bastard.'

In Berwick my father gave vent to his troubles by punching my mother. His life was hidden behind floral curtains. In Ayrshire he went into the open air with his burning valour. No one was safe.

Cunts and fuckers and bastards and slags.

Ordering a cup of tea in a café, or buying a newspaper, or paying a bus fare: a season in hell. My father's theatre of war.

A hopeless cunt, a useless prick. The fucking idiot. See that arsehole.

'No,' I would say. 'Just pass by.'

Total wanker. Dickshaft. A right good kicking he's needing. See you.

The newspaper seller had better be nimble and accurate with the change, or else he might find himself, or his mother, being raggedly abused in a giant voice . . .

You stupid fucking tosser. A good slap you're needing. Get the fuck out the road. Wankstain.

The confectionery display being brutally disarranged.

'Sorry,' from me. And in silence: I'm sorry. I will always be sorry.

This was the person who lived in our house. He broiled inside his own deep anger, keen for reasons to writhe and scream. He loved his own strength. He missed his own weakness. There was nothing he wanted to know, or not know. From the petrol-soaked armchair he aired his views. Minute by minute he lost the plot.

Hitler: tried his best for the people, so he did.

Churchill: a pure wanker who kissed the King's arse.

Books: a load of shite, only good for boring bastards who don't know how to enjoy themselves.

Cooking: if the meat is any good, you don't need anything in it, just water and salt. Fuck all that poofters' sauce shite.

Churchill: kept the people of Scotland hungry, so he did.

Women: fucking pests.

Racehorses: slow cunts.

Shopkeepers: thieving Paki bastards.

Cricket: English fuckpigs.

Hitler: at least his soldiers could fucking march.

Person with chequebook: a pretentious middle-class twat.

People with gardens: time-wasting, no-use tosspots.

Churchill: not a clue. The thick tosser. Complete wanker.

People on the dole: layabout sponging cunts, most of them.

Traffic wardens: fucking lowlife scum.

God: a load of pish.

Politicians: bastarding liars, just like your granda.

So on and so on.

The world, for my father, was a thing to be hated. And dreaded. And vilified. And one day left behind, as he sank to a kingdom of his own, where drink could be his friend, and like the best of all friends, could dull all sense of the enemy. With the can and the bottle he fought the good fight, and kept himself from himself again.

My mother and father had never seemed young. Early in their lives they made ready for decline. I had imagined it would come early to both of them. When I was a child he had sandy whiskers. His hair was short and orange; his eyes were green. He sounded young enough, but he walked with a deepening stoop at the age of thirty-two. His trousers and shoes predated his father's. Robert didn't want to be young - he wanted to be past everything. He wanted to live out of time. He never wore denims, went swimming, rode a bike, or ate greens. He didn't dance. He sought out the company of pensioners, and would shine among them, his young wisdom ringing true, his lively complaints, his barefaced cheek, his scattercash.

My father took no pleasure in buying things for my mother and me. There was nothing in it for him. He was generous in the pub; he believed in that sort of kindness, where near-anonymous men could think him free, and think him great. He didn't care if his family thought him great. He didn't want that. His wife and his child were his mother and father: a constant drain on his sense of himself, a pain in the arse, a bundle of bills, a wrongful call to responsible action. I can see it now: so much he resented our claims upon him. How sick that made him feel. The men in the pub could ask for nothing, and therefore anything was theirs. All the men in those pubs were the same. And they clung to each other with their sense of freedom. My father was the sort of man who would criss-cross the country, on behalf of a drunken pal he'd met twice, in search of some phoney tax-disc going cheap. Yet never once did he sit down with me and my homework. Not that I would have wanted him to. My homework was my own secret. And homework is a different kind of sickness.

So my father was using a walking stick before he was forty years old. And my mother had all the singing and dancing knocked out of her before she was twenty-five. She was an only child, her father dead in the Second War, her mother remarried and living in Australia. As a teenager she wanted the man who might take her away. She wanted a musician or a fast driver, someone to make her all over again, to take her places, two weeks a year on the Isle of Man, and the promise of laughs, and something new. And after all that an easy life, a series of days quite filled with colours. Goodness in the kitchen, the children in their beds. Some day there would be one of the new houses to make orderly. Other mothers, and bikes for Christmas, a lager-and-lime on a Friday night. The chance of hire purchase, a three-piece suite, wall-to-wall carpets, no time like the present. There'd be sex with a man called your husband. You would lie beside him night after night. A man who loved you. A man with his faults and no angel, but loving. She dreamed of the world she could just build up. They all dreamed of it. They could piece it together with time and love, and call it their own. The life they had made out of nothing special. The life they had made, their own small victory.

But my mother was half in love with chaos. She liked my father's hatred of his father, and encouraged me in my hatred of mine. With all her yearning for the ordinary life, my mother was born to admire outsiders. You could see she felt enlarged by drama and trouble, by the electric pulse of things going wrong, and her vision of the easy life remained in most ways a recurring dream. Though he killed half her life, and always took his hand to her, and never listened to a word she said, there was a part of my mother that found in my father's listless turmoil, his seething rancour, the features of a vast attractiveness. My mother and me, our little alliance, lay somewhere among the backroads, a place to run to in the uncoupling hours, those times of sense or savagery.

My mother was in love with him, and I never was. There was nothing in my heart for my father then. That is what I said. And my mother liked me detesting him. It left more of the lovable him for her, and made me a stranger to their understanding. Sometimes she would come to me at night, sit on the edge of my bed, and look at my models of engines and trains, stacked on the floor beneath us. 'We could go to Australia, you and me,' she would say. 'I want to leave him. He's a bad bastard.'

'Mum,' I would say, 'don't upset yourself.'

She would dab her eyes on the bedclothes, laying her head down next to my feet. The red on her lips, her old-seeming face, would shine, the light coming in through the top of the door. 'Jamie, you're a boy that likes history and flowers, and that's unusual. You build these wee engines and take them apart. I bet you'll end up planning houses like your granda. Your father was never good for anything.'

My mother would sometimes try to drink, just to be more in my father's world. But she would never try to read a book, or come along the beach, or take me into a towering building, just to be more in mine. And who could blame her? My mother was willing to let me go. She would rage and scorn, and hold me close for a minute, and promise to leave him to rot away. Yet she knew herself better. She would always go back in the end, and I would be left, quite happy alone, uncovering peace among boyish things, planning a future without my parents, in a world that believed in the things it said. My mother told me she believed what she said when she said she would love him in sickness and in health. She would say that, and would be right to say it, and would one day allow him to unsay the lot, and divorce her by Royal Mail. That is the sort of kindness my mother believes in. She's a better person than I could be. There are no vows between parents and their children.

The top of my shorts was made of elastic. It dug in. There was always a ribbon of red-ruckled skin appearing just over my hips. There was a summer's day, not long after we came to Ayrshire. I played at the door of a pub called The Unco Guid. The smell of the sea and the smell of the pub came on like one thing.

I remember my arms were out of the arms of my jumper. My hands stuck out the bottom, busy at Five Stones. I was more than good at that game. One stone up in the air - pick up two - catch the fallen - put them aside - nick off each pebble - scoop up the lot - toss them into the air again - good boy - and make them come down on the back of one hand. Good boy. My hand darted about the dirt as I sat against the brown tiles of the pub. The Spillers dog-food factory across the way.

Dogs were bad.


They were made to be just like their owners. Angry, barking, with stuff on their teeth. Men in Scotland make dogs be like them: aggression machines.

In Berwick you never saw people kick dogs, not like you did in Ayrshire. My father said he loved dogs. He would bring one in from the pub - docile, lost - and thereafter train it to bite people. He liked terriers most. Scots, cairns, wire-haireds, West Highlands. Little dogs with sharp teeth. Every one we ever had would pee itself at the sight of Robert. He beat them so much, and taught them the rule: to be scared of him. Any that peed would have their noses rubbed into the wet carpet, lashed with the leash, called all the names. The yelps and whimpers of those poor dogs. And yet how they'd dive up, and lick and kiss him, as soon as he showed some sign of affection. There was something of soft Judas in each of those terriers. By and by my father would take each of them away. He got sick of them. One day we'd wake up and the basket would be empty, the tins of dog food stacked in the bin. My father would go off with the shivering dog. A drive to the countryside. He would lose it there.

The dog-meat factory was over the road. Spillers, they called it. Spillers: 'The Happy Choice for the Happy Dog'. Cars went past in a hurry to somewhere. A little way off, under the clouds, I could see cranes moving. New houses going up. People came along the street

Meet the Author

ANDREW O'HAGAN was born in Glasgow, Scotland. His previous novels have been awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the E. M. Forster Award.

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