Two countries, two cousins
A kindly soul has sent me a copy of a book I have been looking for for months now: The Atlantic Ocean, a collection of essays on Britain and America by the Scottish writer, Andrew O’ Hagan.
The New York Times has called the 41-year-old O’Hagan the best essayist of his generation (he is also the author of three terrific novels – Our Fathers, Personality and Be Near Me, and The Atlantic Ocean shows you why.
The essays are, as the books subtitle suggests, on Britain and America, but they are much more than that. They point out how Britain has, over the years, succumbed to its transatlantic cousin’s cultural and political hegemony. Here is O’Hagan in his introduction on how the worlds of the two countries have become similar: “Culture as social balm. Spite as entertainment. Shouting as argument. Dysfunction as normality. Desires as rights. Shopping as democracy.”
O’Hagan can be funny, poignant, satirical and empathetic, but he is always attentive to detail and always has — in the tradition of George Orwell — his eyes and ears alert.
Even when he does a review of a book or a film, he uses his subject as a jumping-off point to examine society, history and politics. A great example of the last one is his review of the movie, The Queen, which he uses to talk as eloquently about the director, Stephen Frears, as the former British prime minister, Tony Blair.
All the pieces are engaging and illuminating, but some of them deserve special mention: the one in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; the ones on Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles; and the one about the murder of a two-year-old by two ten-year-olds in Liverpool in 1993.