The Missing by Andrew O’Hagan

faber and faber, 2004, 273 p. First published in 1995. One of the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.

 The Missing cover

This was O’Hagan’s first book and unlike his later fiction works is a piece of investigative reporting.

It begins as a series of histories; of O’Hagan’s family, on both sides, of Glasgow’s troubles with sectarianism, of O’Hagan’s childhood, the Bible John murders, of Kilwinning and Irvine old (that of John Galt) and New, but transforms into a meditation on people who have gone missing; as a three year old boy and, later, a young woman of whom the only trace was her handbag, did during O’Hagan’s youth in Irvine to where his family had moved in the early days of the New Town’s construction. In the text he writes that he has, since childhood, fuelled by those two incidents in his home town, had a morbid fear of disappearing. Of that ongoing sectarianism O’Hagan says, “There’s sometimes too much pleasure, and too much social cohesion, involved in an ongoing mutual hatred for it to be surrendered just like that. In the absence of much else, of course, prejudice is just a form of tradition.” Which perhaps goes a long way to explaining sectarianism’s persistence.

In the book’s course O’Hagan meditates on the cruelties children perpetrate on one another when there are no adults around; with particular emphasis on an incident from his youth – when he was a joint perpetrator – and the James Bulger case (“There was something unhelpful about the way that case was discussed….. the two Scouse boys were called devils, treated as complete anomalies, and they were hounded outside the court by adults sick with the desire for retribution,”) before finally coming to the heart of his investigation, 25, Cromwell Street, Gloucester, by way of Fred West’s connections to Glasgow via his first wife, whose body, with those of her friend and daughter, was eventually dug up in the garden of West’s previous home in Much Marcle, Herefordshire. The last quarter of the book is taken up with West’s life and activities and the missing and, up till the discovery of their bodies, his seemingly unmissed, victims.

There are different ways to be a misper (as police jargon for missing persons has it.) Some people have reasons for going missing – and want to remain so. Many folk O’Hagan met in an occasional shelter, for drop-ins, fell into that category. He also notes an increasing category of missing who are simply unnoticed until their bodies are found in their homes months or years after their deaths.

While it is the thought and possible plight of missing persons that toll through the book it is the autobiographical details of O’Hagan’s family and early life which are the most immediate and memorable to the reader. (O’Hagan refers to going to school for the first time – in long trousers. Such a change there was in fifteen years or so; in my day such sartorial splendour was not sported until Secondary School.)

In the afterword to this 2004 edition O’Hagan writes that he opened the US publication of the book with the sentence, “We are none of us safe in this world,” and now does not wish to limit its “ominous tenor”. But surely that has always been true? We could fall under the proverbial bus – or cart as was. A close examination of the awful events that take place, of the lives cut short or compromised, will inevitably lead to such a sense of insecurity. Feeding and encouraging such thoughts is what fuels the tabloid press and right wing politicians eager to reduce freedoms for the populace and scrutiny of themselves. Perhaps O’Hagan’s journalistic endeavour has obscured to him a wider perspective. There is no such thing as absolute safety. And protection from threat – terrorist or otherwise – can never be complete. Yet notwithstanding what goes on today in the world – and the UK – my generation and that of my children are generally – and statistically – safer than those of my parents and grandparents. (This may not apply to the missing of course.)

It is a usually neglected yet necessary endeavour to reflect on and pay attention to people who are perhaps too easily forgotten and whose fate may or may not be grim. Even in this digital and camera-surveilled age it is possible to disappear, apparently without trace. The light O’Hagan shines on the problem is not sparing neither is it comfortable.

Pedant’s corner:- Conopticon Variety Theatre (Panopticon I think,) elevator (in Irvine that would be a lift,) the knave (it was of a church; so, nave,) “up to high do” (doh,) “there’s other places” (there are,) “the audience are able” (is,) “than to most anyone else” (USianism; than to nearly anyone else.) Dr Chambers’ (Chambers’s,) “who has made the trip” (the rest of the sentence argues for “had made”,) “she would be beat-up” (beaten up.) “Isa had began an affair” (had begun,) absense (absence,) sat (seated, or sitting.)

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