BOOKS: All the dead dears

THE MISSING by Andrew O'Hagan, Picador pounds 14.99
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IT'S a commonplace that the Celts are on a writing jag at present. The Irish never stopped and now the Scots are in sudden bristling flower - or that's the narrow metropolitan view. Of course the Scots never stopped either, but some of them have begun writing not in "English English" or Lallans or synthetic Scots but in the many tongues they have at their command. Down south the reactions, even among readers of some sophistication, still tend to be predictable. If metropolitan readers have taken in the northern ferment, they are unlikely always to distinguish between its many voices.

As with kilt movies, this most complicated and self-ironising of nations has suffered from caricature in the matter of writing. Last year you would not have learned very much about Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late from a literary press that busied itself counting his expletives, while a member of the Booker panel who awarded him the prize demonstrated her grip on the vast resources of language by describing it as "crap". In the same vein, the staggering success of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting may be based less on his verbal agility than on a scene about skittering with yer finger nebs doon a richly filled toilet to dig oot a suppository containing a wee bit opium. These stereotypes may serve to block off what is actually there: the East Coast writers, the writers from Inverness, Dundee, the poets, essayists, polemicists. There are rumoured even to be middle-class Scots who write.

Andrew O'Hagan is one of the few critics writing outside Scotland whose experience, ear and ability equip him to show outsiders a real Scotland and the life, outer and inner, that the country makes for its people. The Missing is two books. The first is an autobiography, although the writer is only 27; the second is a long essay on those who fall between life's cracks - go missing, get lost, lose their lives, or cross the path of someone set on murder. The effect of O'Hagan's coupling of his own story with that of a legion of the lost is that the reader is left with a sense of a book that is at once too short - one wants to spend more time with the writer and his family - and too long, since his account of the unutterable sadness of taken lives ends with the murders of Frederick West, that seem, in the reading, to have no end.

This sense of being simultaneously too short and too long is just one of the things that make this book so good. A life curtailed leaves us with a sense that the happy bit went on for too short a time and that the dreadful bit will never end. Andrew O'Hagan has a gift of pure conveyance. He deploys language by cleaning and arranging it, like Henry Green, and, in The Missing, he has given an account of childhood as dense yet clear as that of Green's own autobiography, Pack My Bag. Both Green and O'Hagan have that sapping characteristic, charm, but each turns it to empathy and is scrupulous in showing himself at the worst. In O'Hagan's autobiography lies a sense of his own childhood capacity for violence - "the memory of sporadic wickedness opened the way to the larger account" - and its relation to the link between communities and the crimes committed within them.

Andrew O'Hagan came early to a metaphorical sense of himself and his forebears. From behind the lagged hot water tank - "the immerser" - at home in Glasgow, he extracted a picture of his grandfather Michael: "I sometimes went back to the picture, and I got to know a little more as time went by. He was missing. I'd never seen him, and I was born 28 years after he disappeared at sea. I couldn't get over these bits of information. He looked like Glasgow. He was missing at sea. In another time, when I'd come to look something like the man in the picture, I looked at the photograph again, and noticed how my grandfather Michael hadn't changed a bit. He was missing, and was to be forever dark-eyed, with a forehead fit to launch ships with."

An ability to deal in plain words with several conjoined levels distinguishes O'Hagan. I suspect that it came to him as soon as he could talk. He seems to have been conscious from a toddler of the history of his family, Irish Catholics in the west of Scotland. Their move to Irvine, one of the pioneer New Towns of Scotland, gave him the invaluable, writer's boon of a sense at once of insecurity and of place. Irvine was a New Town in an old place. Soon Andrew and his friends had history skinning their knees as they played in the ruins where the Eglinton Tournament - a great show of colourful dream pageantry put on to scare away the machine age - had been rained off. The static fixed life of the missing and the dead, that cannot be granted to living people or societies, preoccupies this book. By implication the newness of the New Town offers hope, but it is repeatedly shown to be either quite as corrupt - and human - as older communities which might seem less clean or certain, or to be false and arid (and dead), like "heritage trails" or sad snapshots of dead pretty girls with old hairdos.

In writing of his own life, O'Hagan is articulating thousands, perhaps millions, of unarticulated lives: "The world of before, we imagined, was all just salt air and emptiness. Up until a certain age, of course, all children see their world as new... My childhood was about seeing things emerge out of nowhere, seeing buildings go up every day, as we played among the cement mixers, and seeing history come out of the blue, as we adventured, with increasing awareness, among the historical ruins and parks beyond our estate. As time went on, we wandered, too, into ruins of another sort; the empty factories and halted industries which surrounded us suddenly became central to our sense of where we lived, and how we lived."

A great deal is written about the effect of townscape on our moral life. Andrew O'Hagan goes far to counteract the hysterical link between shopping malls and child murder set up by the videoshots of James Bulger and the poor wretches who took him. He is a writer who looks myths and lazy thoughts and images clear in the face and scrubs them down to what he elegantly calls "truthful inelegance". From "the boiling contradictions" of his childhood this young writer, who was "determined to get very used to" books, "and perhaps to let them win me in the end", has made a triumph in words. The components of The Missing - memory, townscape, absence and murder - are welded into an imaginative whole which takes us from the domestic poetry of individual life to lucid long views over the layers of lives in a city, a family, or under the playroom floor of a man in Gloucester who once drove an ice-cream van in Glasgow, and got in young girls to babysit his stepdaughter and make company for his wife, all of them bones now.