Dangerous ideals

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Andrew O’Hagan’s fictional account of a wayward and dysfunctional priest is most striking for its discussion of the importance, and trap, of idealism

Prospect, October 2006


Self-confidence gives way to the pathos of downfall so suddenly, and when it does it’s the invulnerably confident who are the most shaken of all. Why? Because confidence isn’t an unbroken series of careless, high-bouncing gestures. It is, rather, a style that starts in childhood and steadily reinforces itself over a whole life. And in the same way its undoing too, however sudden, has almost certainly been germinating for decades. The form of the novel is well suited, with its forgiving kindnesses of nuance and point of view and its promiscuous embrace of future and past, to shed understanding on this slow, real-time collision. The fatally illusioned Emma Bovary, trivial, vain, over-confident of her right to romance, still manages to attract all our sympathetic attention. But can that sympathy extend to a character society calls dangerous? Can David Anderton, Andrew O’Hagan’s wayward and possibly abusive priest in Be Near Me—disillusioned, earnest, arrogant, over-confident of his right to beauty—still count on our compassion?

O’Hagan is one of Britain’s, certainly one of Scotland’s, best known writers. He owes his fame to his journalism as well as to his fiction: his essay “The End of British Farming” contributed to the debate that succeeded the shameful foot-and-mouth conflagration, and his first book, The Missing (1995), was one of the more serious hybrid texts—the 1990s produced a tiring rash of them—to dramatise a documentary subject with fictional techniques. As a prominent member of London’s serious print establishment (contributing editor and frequent contributor to the London Review of Books) he himself could be called one of the priesthood of English literary orthodoxy. His fiction however, for all its ambition, has tended not to bear that stamp. His fictional geography has not strayed from Scotland, in particular the west of Scotland—Ayrshire, Glasgow, the Isle of Bute—and its often bleak and troubled historical and sociological context. He recognises the universality of localness, the way the back of beyond can (and must) stand for the world in a novel. His west Scotland has been a rich correlative (like Flaubert’s Normandy) for the self-deception, the impassioned falsehood of his characters.

Our Fathers (1999) and Personality (2003), O’Hagan’s first two novels, are at heart sociological audits: in one the unhealthy traditions of Scottish fatherhood are under attack, in the other a girl who is the vessel of her family’s dysfunctional ambitions meets a train wreck of fame and anorexia coming the other way. Neither book is fully successful: both are painted too broad and too lush, falling victim to their ideas and their lyricism. In Be Near Me, his targeting of falsehood has greatly sharpened. A single point of view, David Anderton’s confessional account of his catastrophic year as priest of Dalgarnock (“an unemployment black spot… The factories are empty. The churches are empty”), defines the new novel’s far more existential aims.

David, son of a Scottish mother and English father, grew up in Lancashire, was educated at Ampleforth school where “the plains of indecision were more attractive than the wilds of passion,” went up to Balliol, was ordained in Rome, and spent his first 30 years as a parish priest in Blackpool. Now in his fifties, his decision to take on a Scottish parish is partly to do with his desire to be closer to his mother (though she is a puzzlingly distant presence), partly to do with a desire to reconnect with his Scottishness. The idealism that ignites that desire (and dooms it to failure) provides the obbligato to David’s story though the specific reason for his downfall lies in his long-ago choice of God as the means by which he can escape having to know himself.

          “Dalgarnock seems now like the central place in a story I had known all along,” he writes, “as if each year and each quiet hour of my professional life had only been preparation for the darkness of that town…” He is a curious priest, not always convincing to his parishioners (or this reader). One sympathises when they mock him as “Mr Perhaps” for his English middle-class diction, and when his housekeeper, Mrs Poole, gets angry at his complacent “I understand” in response to her telling him about her fatal cancer. “It is not your job to  understand… I expect you to help me prepare,” she justifiably snaps. And I think one wonders whether a young man, renowned at Oxford for his love of Proust and choosing the priesthood for its “book questions” as much as its faith questions, can make a persuasive fictional priest when he seems a bit too much like the author, quoting poets liberally (the author’s poets, I sense) and never the Bible.

On the other hand, it’s just that insufficiency, that unawareness of the meaning of faith and of his own humanity, that brings him down. His parishioners look for a figure to meet them on their level, but stand no chance: David has been refusing to meet himself since childhood, instead making himself invulnerable with the help of God and his aesthetic beliefs. Among them are that fine food and wine elevate people, and piety helps them. But when his own spirit finally begins to move, in a friendship with two teenaged estate children, Lisa and Mark, such beliefs are useless.

          “They spoke of stolen money and air pistols and homemade cider. They went out joyriding at night while pretending to sleep over with friends… I did nothing to oppose them. I gave into every aspect of them, every aspect of myself. I watched them as one might watch people in a film, because he was beautiful, because I liked the way they seemed to think of me.”

The characterisation of the two teenagers is beautifully rendered, their distressed adolescence convincing from their physical description to their speech patterns. One of O’Hagan’s very great charms as a writer is the fullness of his secondary characters: he makes the effort to defend their individuality and being, so they come alive. He (as David) can write about Mark’s father, a malingering 60-a-day bigot, as “polite, terribly overweight” and make stereotyping seem exactly what it is, bad writing. Mrs Poole is another who through her speech comes exactly alive. “You have more faces than the town clock,” she accuses David: the accusation tells something about David and also describes Mrs Poole’s origins as well as her forthrightness and disappointment with her priest, fully as intense as a lover’s hurt.

Through the summer David spends more time than he should with Lisa and, increasingly, Mark. Innocence (heaven defend us from innocence, as one of Graham Greene’s characters once said) is not much transgressed; even the night he and Mark spend at the rectory, drinking and taking mild amounts of Ecstasy, would be far from fatal, but for Mrs Poole walking in and finding them lying together on the sofa. In Dalgarnock such a spark is enough. David’s eventual trial has something of Meursault’s about it: a cult of truth takes hold of him and he acts with authenticity for the first time, becoming the architect of a downfall a more pragmatic defence would have avoided. The clash of legal code and personal honesty, like the novel’s earlier debates at a clerical dinner party, in arguments with Mrs Poole and memories of Oxford conversations, about subjectivity and submission, aesthetics and righteousness, morality and beauty, is conducted with a clever understanding on O’Hagan’s part of the need for both depth and suspense. (He writes very good courtroom drama.)

But the best thematic pair in the novel is none of these. It is instead the discussion that runs through it about the importance, and trap, of idealism, in Father David’s case starting with his membership at Balliol of a group of students nicknamed the “Marcellists” by a more political group for its addiction to Proust, and culminating in Dalgarnock in his “large private sense of wanting to depart from  the person I had always been.” Idealism, as the word suggests, is in the same class as wishes: you should be careful what you’re idealistic for. It leads Father David to scandal. But that at least is a hundred times more truthful an outcome than  youth’s idealism, entered into with such over-confidence and under-awareness. Be Near Me is of course at one level about Father David’s need for love; what is more striking is the author’s ability to go beyond that and examine the need he and we have to find our own humanity. It has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize, and ought to be shortlisted for its clarity on that point alone. As he has done before, O’Hagan also does not forget to remind us how close the personal is to the political: one of the unlikelytenets of humanity that emerges from this frequently wise, constantly involving, and powerfully entertaining novel is that ideals are more valuable as the product of experience than as its begetter. Another is that invulnerability is a very dangerous thing.


© Julian Evans 2006

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