Andrew O’Hagan (2006) Be Near Me.

I’ve been dipping into Andrew O’Hagan’s back catalogue. Be Near Me was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2006, but for me the book didn’t work. The title comes from an Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem, ‘In Memoriam, A.H.H.,’ preceding the beginning of the novel.

‘Be near me when the light is low,

When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick

And tingle: when the heart is sick,

And all the wheels of Being slow.’

Who is it? What is it? We can expect from this precursor a strangulated love story of sorts, with added doom and gloom. We know that Andrew O’Hagan likes to keep things close to the Ayrshire coast. The Prologue is 1976, Edinburgh Castle. We get Oxford, Balliol, and Rome. Fling in a bit of Paris 1968, and student unrest and protests in London about American involvement in Vietnam. The echo of that comes with George Bush Junior’s great lie: Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. (No he doesnae, I can hear whisper, young Tony Blair.) And there you have it, twenty years ago, and the invasion of Iraq. Father David’s having a dinner party with a Bishop, some other priests, a social worker and a school head. A light-hearted meal with fish, naturally.

For Mark (McNugget) McNulty, aged 15, none of these things matter. Celtic have beaten Liverpool in the Europa Cup and they’re going all the way to the final. Lisa Nolan, his sidekick, knows the score. McNugget is top of the world. She will both lead and follow wherever their hormones take them and make them.

Their families are a waste of space. Mark’s da is fat as fuck and depressed. He might even be clinical. Who gives a fuck? Certainly not him.  His life is over. Factories have shut in Dalgarnock. They can’t talk to each other. They’ve nothing to say. Football is their only religion. Drink their only communion. Standard fare for Andrew O’Hagan.  

Catalyst comes in the form of the new Parish Priest, Father David Anderton. He’s middle-aged, upper-middle-class and relatively well off. Worse, he’s English and well educated. He’s no great experience of parish life, but he’s got Mrs Poole as a housekeeper. He makes enemies of teachers at the Catholic school where he offers pastoral care.

But he quickly makes friends with McNugget and Lisa. They adopt him and bring him into their gang, which includes a car thief, Chubb. They take him away from loneliness and lead him into temptation. Here we have it the central story which is McNugget and Anderton. They go on outings. He becomes infatuated with the boy. It reminds him of his first love with Conor—back in in 1968, at Oxford. Be near me. Father David does lots of things that aren’t very priestly, including kissing McNugget.

We’re in clichéd, paedophile priest territory. And in Dalgarnock that’s a burning offence. The sensibility of the story (and backstory) is skewed towards how Father David got stupid and remained stupid even when he knew it was stupid. We’re in the unknown known territory of the Gulf War.

My problem with the known knows is McNugget remains one dimensional. I guess most 15-year-old boys and girls such as Lisa are. Their uncommon language to me doesn’t sound right. Their relationship with Father David doesn’t, therefore, make sense. I thought if McNugget was a girl and he was an older man, but this is not Lolita. But I’m not 15 either.

Read on.     



An English priest and a one-dimensional McNugget. What could go wrong? It sounds like it did. 


Obviuosly to be nominated for the Man Booker the judges thought is had quality. I like O'Hagen writes about Scotland. But I thinnk it's back to the idea authors continually write the same story. His protagonist (the priest) and his antagnoist (McNugget) speak a different language. I don't think they meet in the middle. The transitions don't work. That doesn't make it a bad book.