Chips off the old block

Beneath the high-rise estates of urban Scotland lies the enduring land: Angus Calder acclaims a novel that builds on the foundations of history
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Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan

Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan

Independent on Sunday review by Julie Myerson

BY ANY standards, Our Fathers is a powerful novel. As a first novel, it is very remarkable indeed. Yes, it is in the bildungsroman genre favoured by many debutants. Its narrator, Jamie Bawn, is perceived to grow from a lonely, introverted boy, victim of an alcoholic father and easy prey for a wistful homosexual priest, to a man who can take a kind of parental responsibility for his father's father, accept his parents, and envisage parenthood himself.

Like other protagonists in the genre, he is very well read (though his obsessive interest in plants and rocks is unusual). But his family relationships and his imagination are seen in the context of the entire history of south- west Scotland in the 20th century. Andrew O' Hagan offers a vision of immemorial and contemporary time comparable to Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Scots Quair trilogy.

I rather think O'Hagan intends that comparison to be made. Don't get me wrong: his rich prose is highly distinctive although, like Gibbon's, it is sometimes a mite precious. With each author, the heightened prose relates to a project of merging individuals with people in general, and both with history and with terrains peculiar to Scotland. In Gibbon, it was the rural north-east; with O'Hagan, industrialised and suburbanised Ayrshire.

One may speak of Old and New Testaments in 20th-century Scottish writing. The New Testament arrived in the 1960s with Alexander Trocchi, Edwin Morgan and Ian Hamilton Finlay. Though not ignorant of Scottish traditions, these men wrote in relation to kinds of foreign modernism, American and European. So with the Glaswegian utterances of Tom Leonard and James Kelman.

O'Hagan, most movingly, returns to the Old Testament - to the Scottish Modernism of Gibbon and MacDiarmid, and back past them to Stevenson and Burns. Jamie's grandmother is saturated in traditional song; his self- educated "granda", Hugh, admires the strenuous, neglected verse of John Davidson. Literary reference in Our Fathers is not merely decorative; it is structural. The book ends with a quotation from MacDiarmid's great long poem "On a Raised Beach": "There are ruined buildings in the world, but no ruined stones."

This clinches the novel's immensely ambitious association of abiding Scottish culture with the history of urban redevelopment. The Bawn family stem from Irish Catholic migration into Scotland. But granda's mother Euphemia became "Famie", and famous, leading the great women's Glasgow Rent Strike of 1915, which forced the government to control landlords. She was there in the Movement when John Wheatley swung the Catholic vote on Clydeside over to Labour, creating the basis of the party's dominance in Glasgow.

Famie's son Hugh, a charismatic local politician, saw himself as Wheatley's heir and became Glasgow's "Mr Housing", domesticating Le Corbusier as a Scot and animating the notorious development of the city's high-rise estates.

The grand theme of Our Fathers is the tragic nemesis of high-rise architecture. Jamie, based in Liverpool, is employed as an expert on the demolition of tower blocks. Now dilapidated, damp, vandalised, they were once the concretisation of Granda Hugh's Socialist vision - homes in which one could breathe fresh winds, from which one could see for miles.

Since that vision is conveyed with unsentimental sympathy, Our Fathers is a welcome corrective to all those fusty acres of print mourning the demise of the squalid tenements which men like Hugh Bawn swept away. For each home to have sunlight and its own toilet was a noble objective. Imputations of "warmth" to the rat-ridden, gang-ridden tenement culture should be viewed with extreme suspicion. But there is indeed a West of Scotland warmth that O'Hagan conveys exceptionally well. His ear for dialogue seems impeccable; never a fuck, so to speak, misplaced.

In the end, however, as with Grassic Gibbon, nothing endures but the land. This book is about how our own lives may stand in relation not only to our parents', but to all the lives lived here before us, and to here itself; to the waters flowing past us, to the rocks beneath us. There are no ruined stones.