Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Missing - Andrew O'Hagan Dramatises His Past

The room upstairs feels like a bed-sit. The sloping ceiling, flecked
wallpaper and the small trestle table writer Andrew O'Hagan sits behind
are all familiar to him from his time researching his 1995 book, The
Missing. O'Hagan spent a lot of time in kitchens during that period, in
Glasgow, Ayrshire, Liverpool and Gloucester, asking grieving parents
what it was like to lose a child who'd either been murdered or else
simply vanished into thin air.

As it is, the room we're sitting in is on the top floor of The Glue
Factory, the former industrial space turned arts hub now used as an
occasional rehearsal room by the National Theatre of Scotland among
others. Downstairs, through a windowed door, director John Tiffany is
working with his cast on O'Hagan's stage adaptation of The Missing, a
book that is part journalese, part social history and part
autobiography, which makes forensic inquiries into serial killers Bible
John and Fred and Rosemary West. The book's most important character,
however, is a little boy from an Ayrshire new town called Sandy
Davidson who disappeared.

Then, this incident kept the young O'Hagan awake at night. More or less
the same age as the missing boy and living in the same post-war
modernist encampment, O'Hagan recognised for the first time how easily
things could go wrong.

“I think I've realised just how much more deeply personal the book was
than I even thought it was at the time,” he says. “Obviously it was
personal in terms of looking at how families like mine were decanted to
these new towns, but I've discovered that it's personal in a much
deeper way. These towns presented a whole new vision of life, where
there was no violence or danger, and where you weren't harmable in the
same way as you apparently were in the big cities. As a child I went on
this journey of thinking that we were in this suburban heaven, to
realising that children could disappear, and that there was no
guarantee of safety, and that haunted me.”

It's been a long time coming, this production of The Missing. O'Hagan
was first approached by Tiffany with a view to putting it onstage more
than a decade ago. At that time, Tiffany was Literary Director of
Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, while O'Hagan, although already
acclaimed, was still a young author with no theatrical experience
whatsoever. The NTS, meanwhile, was still a pipe-dream. Since then,
Tiffany has pretty much raised the bar for theatre-making in Scotland
with his production of Black Watch, an international sensation during
the first year of the NTS. O'Hagan has been similarly feted, with his
fiction picking up numerous awards. Tiffany and O'Hagan finally worked
together on Ian McDiarmid's adaptation of O'Hagan's 2006 novel, Be Near
Me, which made the long list of the Booker Prize. Only after fifteen
years distance, then, did O'Hagan feel ready to return to his most
personal work.

“I wrote the book with a certain naivete,” O'Hagan happily admits, “and
a certain amount of beginners luck was involved. I tried to write a
book about the subject unlike a book that I had read. But it was a
modest proposal from my point of view. It was a way of setting out my
stall and finding my voice as a writer, trying to combine elements of
memoir and reportage and things that had mattered to me and still
matter to me, but to find a new technique for a book like this, that
got inside the mystery of missing persons. We all have a notion that we
know what that phrase means, but what is it actually like to live with
these cases of people going missing?

“The response to the book overwhelmed me, because people seemed to pick
up on it in such a way that blew me sideways. I was of course
fantastically excited by that, but it took me a few years to recover
from that, especially the reaction abroad mixed with the reaction here.
It was the way that people felt the book was about a contemporary
atmosphere in the nineties in Britain, and I hadn't really set out as
ambitiously as that, but that was the way the book seemed to exist out
there. I needed a period to recover from that, and to find my feet and
my focus on that text again. I needed to grow up a bit, and see what it
was that actually propelled me to writing that book, and what had
sustained me through the research, because this was dark material.

“I was a young guy. I was only twenty-four when I started writing it,
so now, as someone in my early forties, this play is also about what
that young man thought he was doing, what propelled him, and what
personal demons and ambitions made him spend a long time with the
families of missing children and murder victims and try to give an
account of society that hadn't existed in that form.”

Since The Missing was first published, the names of Madeleine McCann
and Peter Tobin have become totemic of the sorts of things O'Hagan was
dealing with in his book. While they won't be shoe-horned into The
Missing, which O'Hagan regards as a period piece, both will make an
appearance of sorts in Missing, a newly commissioned two-screen film
installation by artist Graham Fagen commissioned by the Scottish
national portrait gallery in partnership with the NTS, and which acts
as a companion piece to the play. While one screen moves from Ayrshire
to Glasgow, past the Barrowland ballroom to eventually wind up in
London, the other shows people watching Tobin on TV, or else reading
Kate McCann's book about her missing daughter, all in the safety of
their own living rooms.

“There's a journey through public places on one screen,” says Fagen,
another Ayrshire new town boy, who grew up with O'Hagan, “and private
places on the other. So there's that thing of escaping to the city, and
thinking you might have more of a chance, but getting into situations
where your vulnerability is played on.”

When The Missing was first published, O'Hagan was asked by a journalist
what the book was actually about. At the time, he couldn't answer. He
was too young, he reckons, too close to it still to be able to
articulate what he was doing, or maybe he just didn't know. Almost two
decades on from beginning the book, now he's finally squared up to it
again, it seems pertinent to ask O'Hagan, still squeezed behind the
trestle table, the same question.

“I now realise it's about a little boy who grew up in a Scottish new
town with an incredible in-born sense of idealism,” he says, “and how
that idealism was challenged and in some sense made complicated by what
happened in that town. So The Missing is a meditation on what it is to
belong in a place, and to fear disappearing from it. That's an answer I
couldn't give all those years ago. It was completely personal. I was
the little boy who couldn't sleep because Sandy Davidson went missing.
The sheer terror of that was so profound that it worked its way into my
imagination, and ended up having this future life.”

The Missing, Tramway, Glasgow, September 15-October 1; Missing by
Graham Fagen, Tramway, September 13-October 2.

Supported by Bank of Scotland

The Herald, september 13th 2011


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