Tragedy has forced me to move on from Julian Assange
Being a ghostwriter for the controversial WikiLeaks exile was a chastening experience for Andrew O’Hagan. The Grenfell Tower fire has given him a new sense of purpose
June 25 2017, 12:01am,
Andrew O’Hagan lives in an arts and crafts-style house in Primrose Hill, northwest London, where he works in an upstairs study. It is furnished with matching sofas, a large fireplace, overhung by an oil painting once dismissed by a previous girlfriend as a “bleak Scots puddle” and not one, nor two, but three different writing desks.
While there are few writers in Britain as skilled as the novelist, essayist and author of superlative non-fiction, it cannot be explained by furnishings alone. Yet each desk has a different purpose. “One’s for fiction, one’s for non-fiction and the other is for general admin,” he explains with a chuckle.
The fiction desk is where Caledonian Road is slowly taking shape, a huge state-of-the-nation novel, inspired by the street in London where O’Hagan first lived, and which, when eventually published, will be his sixth novel, after the Booker-nominated success of The Illuminations, Our Fathers and The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, the finest novel ever written in the voice of Marilyn Monroe’s Scottish terrier.
Yet the non-fiction desk has scarcely lain fallow. The Secret Life, his latest book, published earlier this month, is a collection of three long essays about the internet’s landscape of subterfuge, deceit and revelations including stories on the potential founder of bitcoin; how O’Hagan reanimated a dead man’s identity into the new online world, and his 27,000-word account of life as the ghostwriter of Julian Assange.
First published in the London Review of Books, the essay chronicles O’Hagan’s attempts to wrestle Assange’s life onto the printed page, while growing increasingly uncomfortable by, not only his table manners — he eats lasagne by hand — but his predatory eye and messianic arrogance and indifference to those around him. A version of the book was eventually published by Canongate as an “unauthorised autobiography” and O’Hagan last saw Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy on the eve of the publication of his essay. He told Assange he wouldn’t like it. He was right.
Today, reflecting on the experience, O’Hagan said their relationship went from “honeymoon to bad marriage” in a year. “He was basically under house arrest in Norfolk when I took up with him, then I kept seeing him for a while after he moved into the Ecuadorian embassy. For a while I was one of the last men standing. But as the taped interviews accumulated, I noticed he was lying to me. He was using me. And then I began to notice a fatal conflation he was making — pretending that his defence of himself against a possible threat under the US Espionage Act was the same as the threat posed by the two girls who accused him of rape in Sweden.
“He simply couldn’t see how ruinous that was for him. It was a moral disaster, in my view, to not answer those questions in Sweden and clear his name. Hiding in the embassy of a nation with a questionable record on freedom of expression as a way of avoiding those questions was at best an act of cowardice. I’m afraid he lost all his moral capital by framing himself as the victim in that case. He became ludicrous. And after a few years of saying nothing I found I had been suppressing my own story for no good reason.”
Contemplation requires a degree of reserve, and you can’t maintain that while also gibbering on Twitter
He explains that Assange’s hatred of Hillary Clinton allowed him to be used by Russian intelligence: “Well, it’s interesting. Hillary always denounced WikiLeaks. And she’s a hawk. He hated her personally and that clouded everything. I always knew he would be fooled by his own resentment, as thoughtless people often are, and seeming to help Trump was the last nail in the coffin of his credibility.”
O’Hagan doesn’t see a way back for Assange: “He could leave the embassy right now. But his pride would not allow him to be booked by the police and taken to Paddington Green for skipping bail. Even that would kill him. He has the damaged child’s hunger for heroic outcomes and massive personal vindication. But he won’t get it. And I feel sorry for him because, despite everything, we got on well personally and I admired the spark of idealism behind the facade. Ironically, he is, for a freedom fighter, the most trapped person I have ever met.”
To become a sworn enemy of one of the world’s most successful hackers may explain why O’Hagan has taped over the cameras on his computers: “why make it easy” he wrote in a recent essay, discussing the CIA and MI5 programme Weeping Angel which can turn on a user’s camera remotely. His decision not to have a twitter account or official website is more measured. “I’ve never understood how writers can afford to spend time on social media or in promoting themselves online. Some of us just believe in privacy I suppose and maintaining a public self takes energy I’d rather spend on proper writing. Contemplation requires a certain degree of reserve, and you simply can’t maintain that while also gibbering on Twitter.”
The youngest of four boys, O’Hagan was born in Glasgow in 1968 and raised in a housing estate in Kilwinning but built himself using books from the local library. His father would later chastise him for stating in interviews that there were no books in the house growing up, pointing to the telephone directory as an exhibit for the defence. O’Hagan credits his English teacher Mrs McNeil for setting him on the path to Strathclyde University: “She really saved me” he told the BBC.
Upon graduation he moved to London, working for a magazine for blind veterans, before securing a post as editorial assistant with the London Review of Books, a position partly secured on account of the dapper suit he wore to the interview. Yet his loyalty to the LRB is resolute for it was here that his literary star first attracted the attention of the world, first with an essay written in the wake of the James Bulger case exploring his own violent behaviour and those of his friends and later what would become his first book, The Missing — an exploration of missing people, Fred West and the grim underbelly of modern Britain.
He is now working on what may become a dark literary twin to The Missing, a non-fiction account of the Grenfell Tower fire, to be published by Faber & Faber, his time now spent speaking to survivors and building a portrait of the community. “I grew up in social housing and high-rise idealism was the subject of my first novel, Our Fathers. Every day now, and often at night, I find myself on the way to that street in west London, to work with the community, with families and servicemen and women, to find the real story of the tower.”
O’Hagan will, however, be taking a break to spend a fortnight in Edinburgh in August, with his partner, Lindsay, and his daughter, Nell, from his relationship with India Knight. There he will be delivering a lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, entitled Scotland, Your Scotland: “I think this is politically the most creative period for Scotland in just over 300 years. We have arrived at this point at different paces and in different ways, but the independence debate, whatever your preference, has fertilised the mind of the nation to a terrific degree.”
Then O’Hagan plans to return to the privacy of his study, his desks and his words.
The Secret Life by Andrew O’Hagan is published by Faber & Faber