Sunday, July 22, 2007

What was the Bishop thinking of?

In Andrew O'Hagan's book 'Be near me' the Bishop of Galloway puts an Ampleforth/Oxford educated priest into the catholic parish of 'Dalgarnock' (= Stevenston, Ayrshire; it can't be Glengarnock since that's not by the sea). The Bish himself was not from that part of the world, but really, can anyone think of a less suitable person, from his background allow, to go into the Wild West of Ayrshire? (Note that there are many more very nice corners of Ayrshire!)

As a former social security officer covering, especially at weekends, all of Ayrshire and much of the southwest of Scotland, I know Stevenston, and the other dens of iniquity that form parts of North Ayrshire, fairly intimately, and I can well relate to the events described in the book. I wonder what the good burghers of Stevenston will think of their description? Though most of those who are described wouldn't read a book anyway....

O'Hagan always seems to write about that part of the world, where presumably he grew up (he was born in Glasgow, but many people in Ayrshire were, and maybe his parents moved to the new town of Irvine, or the new parts of Kilwinninng after they were built). He certainly also has an intimate knowledge of life among the downtrodden, excluded part of society - it's almost like my former work. The only fictional place in this book is Dalgarnock; all other places are named almost with address and post code, including Crosshouse Hospital (but does it really have a private wing on the top floor?), Kilmarnock Sheriff Court, Ayr Harbour, Ailsa Craig (the people in the book succeeded in getting to Ailsa Craig which is more than I ever did).

So, onywize, as they would say in Stevenston, the book is about this priest with a highly educated background, but also a background of emotional issues, who is sent from genteel Blackpool to the parish in Glengarnock, and almost as soon as he arrives reality hits him (almost literally) when we walks past the Lodge in this dogcollar. (My readers not from the West of Scotland will not know what I am talking about). Quite apart from that, everyone holds his 'Englishness' against him (he was born in Edinburgh, but the parish priests have traditionally been Irish.

As part of his work he does some teaching in the local school, where he immediately rubs up people the wrong way - suggesting to the music teacher not to use 'happy clappy' hymns in morning assembly, but the more traditional ones. He befriends some teenage tear-aways, though I can't quite believe the scrapes he lets them lead him into. And eventually it results in catastrophe.

Around this is the story of his relationship with his housekeeper; I'm slightly perturbed at the tone of their conversation which some people might see as quite aggressive, but again they have not lived in the West of Scotland. Cultural differences....

It's a great book, though I wonder what meaning it has for people not familiar with that part of Scotland. It's set very much in the present both of Scotland and the wider UK, and the 1960's - it seems our priest is a bit of a 68er, but that part of the book is a bit less believable (for those of us, who have also been there). Bit of a short book, though, and quickly read in a day.

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