In Andrew O’Hagan’s own words, Thursday was a “pishy” night but that didn’t stop my pal Anne and I from heading to the Jeffrey Room of The Mitchell Library to hear the writer in conversation with Stuart Kelly, literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, critic and writer.
I’d heard Andrew talk once before when he delivered a lecture at the University of Stirling on “Civic Memory: An Argument on the Character of Scottish Culture” and he argued that civic memory binds us together and is the currency of Scotland’s cultural life so I knew we were in for a treat. On this occasion, he was in Glasgow to discuss his new novel, The Illuminations and was just as thought-provoking and insightful.
In describing his new book, the analogy he used was that the characters in The Illuminations had lived inside him for a long time as tinder and the spark that ignited the story and inspired the characters was the life story of the photographer Margaret Watkins. Andrew was intrigued by a still-life photograph, The Kitchen Sink taken by Margaret and investigated her work further to discover that she was born in Canada but died as a recluse in Scotland in 1969, leaving her photographs to a next-door neighbour, Joe Mulholland. The idea of the secrets people keep fired him up to create the central character of Anne Quirk. The onset of dementia makes Anne feel as if her past is slipping away from her and yet in the other storyline we have the opposite scenario. Anne’s grandson, Luke, a captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers, who is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan is trying to forget memories, while Anne is fighting to keep them.
Andrew read an extract from the novel and spoke eloquently on a range of humanitarian issues connected to the book. He also shared his views on the Independence Referendum and his hopes for Scotland’s political future which resulted in a rousing round of applause from the audience. I can’t resist the temptation to use the pun so it has to be said; Andrew illuminated a dreich February night with his sharp wit and passion for exploring the issues of memory and identity. The Illuminations is going straight to the top of my to-be-read pile!
Has a photograph inspired you to create characters?
(An exhibition of Margaret Watkin’s photographs of Glasgow in the 1930s is currently on show at The Hidden Gallery in Glasgow until 7 March 2015.)