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25 August 2021updated 26 Aug 2021 3:55am

Andrew O’Hagan Q&A: “Joan Didion once told me not to stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel“

The author discusses the Smiths, Billy Connolly and the Home Secretary's poor decision making. 

By New Statesman

Andrew O’Hagan was born in Glasgow in 1968. The author of nine books, he has been nominated for the Booker Prize three times and worked as Julian Assange’s ghostwriter.

What’s your earliest memory?

I was digging in the mud with a spoon. It was 1972. I found a large brown halfpenny coin, with George VI on one side and a ship on the other. I ran inside and my mother helped me shine it up with ketchup. 

Who are your heroes?

In childhood, the actor James Cagney, who had the correct attitude to authority. Today, Billy Connolly, who demonstrates that comedy is a way of seeing rather than a sequence of jokes. 

What book last changed your thinking?

When asked this question, people often choose a book that confirmed their thinking; if I was doing that I’d choose Failures of State by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott, which brilliantly describes the UK government’s botched response to Covid-19. But I think I was changed by Kayo Chingonyi’s recent volume of poems, A Blood Condition. The musicality and the hard reason is just so fresh, you feel altered by it. 

Which political figure do you look up to?

John Maclean, the great socialist educator, anti-war activist, and convicted seditionist, who died in 1923. He kept faith with the higher aim of politics, which is not to provide opportunities for careerist politicians, but to give moral focus and practical support to people in their search for a better life. 

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The life and films of Marilyn Monroe, 1926-1962.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would be comfortable sitting in the Mitre Tavern, Fleet Street, circa 1764, watching Boswell and Johnson carry on. I’m not sure about the pints of sherry, but the conversation would be something else.  

What TV show could you not live without?

The Crown. I mean, a gift from the gods for republicans, or what?

Who would paint your portrait?

Alison Watt. Everything she paints becomes beautiful. She painted a cabbage the other day, which gives me hope. 

What’s your theme tune?

“Vicar in a Tutu” by the Smiths.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Joan Didion once told me you shouldn’t stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel; you should stay at the Beverly Wilshire. When I’ve finished the big book I’m working on, I’m going to take her advice for the rest of my life. 

[See also: How Joan Didion broke free]

What’s currently bugging you?

The Home Secretary. Everything she says. 

What single thing would make your life better?

A snap decision by the Home Secretary to think before she speaks. 

When were you happiest?

A: In the Hacienda with my mates in 1986. 
B: In the room where my daughter was born in 2004. C: The other day watching the telly with my wife. 

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Understudying James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Are we all doomed?

Only if we lose our native talent for showing idiots the door.

“Mayflies” by Andrew O’Hagan is published by Faber & Faber

This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat