Currents and the Clyde

Landscape, friendship, mortality and just life itself are the inspirations for close friends artist Alison Watt and writer Andrew O’Hagan

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“I think there were probably only about three days like this in my whole childhood, yet when I think of my childhood, I think of it as being just like this,” marvels Andrew O’Hagan, gazing out across the Firth of Clyde, the Isles of Bute, Cumbrae and Arran shimmering on the horizon, bathed in glorious sunshine.

“Mesmerising, isn’t it?” agrees Alison Watt, surveying the view from his side.

“I really like community. I like sticking up for other artists. I feel like a trade unionist.”

It’s a beautiful hot day in August and we’re in the seaside resort of Largs on the west coast of Scotland. In the distance, a ferry takes locals and day trippers across the Clyde to Millport. Further down the shoreline, tourists queue up to get ice cream from Nardini’s, an art deco café that’s been a must-visit location in the town since 1935. Everyone, it seems, is in a joyful mood, including close friends O’Hagan and Watt, who are here at Big Issue North’s behest to be jointly interviewed.

The location was chosen by O’Hagan as they both share a deep personal connection with this picturesque stretch of Scottish coast. In his case, he grew up in Irvine new town, on the coast of Ayrshire, around 20 miles south of Largs, and would regularly come here with his family.

“I think the excitement of visiting here when you’re a child comes from the river and that idea of travelling on a boat to somewhere,” remembers the 51-year-old writer. “I still have a strong memory of going to Rothesay on the ferry from close by here, and it being the most exciting feeling of going on holiday I’ve ever had – then and since.”

For Watt, who is two years older than O’Hagan and grew up in Greenock, once a busy harbour and shipbuilding town around 15 miles to the north, Largs represents a direct link between her childhood and her adult life as a painter and artist.

“It takes you a while to understand what the physical landscape you’re brought up with does to you,” she reflects. “My dad was and still is obsessed with the River Clyde and he talked about it as if it was a character that ran through his life, like the beating heart of his work. Everything we did as children involved the River Clyde, so we were always down this coast and Largs was a special day out. There is something about the light and the landscape here. It pierces the heart, and it stays with you. When I come by here, I feel happy and I feel relaxed.”

“One of the things that I feel draws me into a natural alliance with Alison is the notion of light, shape and shade,” says O’Hagan. “You can’t have a conversation about those things without having a conversation at some level about where you grew up.”

Although their presence in Largs attracts scant attention from passers-by, even when being photographed for this feature, O’Hagan and Watt stand tall among Scotland’s leading cultural
figures of the past 25 years.

O’Hagan’s first novel, 1999’s Our Fathers, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, setting in motion a hugely successful writing career merging fiction, memoir, documentary and journalism into a series of critically acclaimed books, including 2015’s The Illuminations and last year’s beautifully bittersweet Mayflies, which won the Christopher Isherwood Prize and is now being turned into a TV drama series.

Watt is one of Scotland’s most celebrated living artists, renowned for her intricate paintings of fabrics and draperies that blur the boundaries between portraiture and still life. Awarded an OBE in 2008, her work is held in many prestigious public and private collections with her latest solo exhibition, A Portrait Without Likeness, currently on display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

The two of them have been close friends for around two decades, although they were aware of and admired each other’s work long before that.

“I remember when [O’Hagan’s 1995 non-fiction book] The Missing came out. I had never met Andrew at that point. And it would be years before we did meet, but I felt there was a connection between us. I felt as if I understood where he came from,” recalls Watt, turning towards the writer, seated next to her in a Victorian seafront shelter, tucked away on a secluded stretch of the shore.

“It’s a very unpretentious thing when you share a landscape and share a period,” agrees O’Hagan, who now lives in London and is the more extrovert and forthcoming of the two. “We’re pretty much the same age, from the same place and share all those references, whether it’s to pop music or movies or things that happened along this stretch of coast.”

“A stretch of coast that takes you to Glasgow,” notes Watt, referencing their adolescent desire to move away from the area as soon as they were old enough to do so.

“We transported ourselves to Glasgow as if it was visiting Babylon,” says O’Hagan.

“It was,” she responds.

They first met in person at a Spirit of Scotland awards ceremony in the early 2000s. O’Hagan remembers thinking at the time: “She’s as nice as she is talented.” He pauses and smiles. “Which, by the way, is hardly ever the case. In my experience, people are usually as horrible as they are talented.”

They both burst into laughter, and I get the impression that were they alone the guilty parties would be named. “We love to gossip,” O’Hagan later states and it’s clear from just a short time in their company that the two of them share a deep and longstanding bond. At times, interviewing them feels like eavesdropping on a private conversation between old friends. One minute they’re talking to me, the next to each other. They both regularly finish off each other’s sentences and topics of discussion career all over the tracks, veering from working habits to where in Scotland does the best ice cream (“People are obsessed with ice cream up here,” says O’Hagan).

“One of the things that I love about knowing Andrew is that we don’t sit down and consciously talk about work,” says Watt. “We talk about everything, but in there you’ll always find yourself coming away and thinking about it afterwards.”

“We don’t socialise a lot. My partner and her partner have never met each other. We don’t go to dinner every Tuesday night. So it’s not a friendship based on the usual things, but Alison exists in a special place for me,” elaborates O’Hagan. He wonders aloud whether they should extend their friendship group beyond just the two
of them.

“I don’t want to,” immediately responds Watt. “I’m quite possessive of it in that way, possibly because of the way that I work. When I work, I focus absolutely on whatever it is I’m doing and when I’m with Andrew I want to focus on him.”

The artist’s new exhibition offers a vivid illustration of her intense dedication and attention to detail. Inspired by the celebrated 18th century Scottish artist Allan Ramsay, the collection of 16 paintings picks out tiny details from two of Ramsay’s best-known works – portraits of his first and second wives, Anne Bayne and Margaret Lindsay – and makes an item of their clothing, such as a pink ribbon, or object they are holding, the sole subject of the canvas.

“I’ve always been drawn to the past in terms of my painting influences,” she explains. “When I feel immersed in looking at a work of art, I don’t see the past and the present as distinctly separate.”

Looking through Ramsay’s original sketchbook was a key moment in the show’s development.

“What I was unprepared for was that this book had been written in the middle of the 18th century but it was entirely present. In a similar way to when you read a great novel or a great poem, it felt as if a hand had reached out and directly taken yours. Time just evaporated.”

Initially, she thought she would make just one painting in response to Ramsay, but as soon as the first work was completed, she felt compelled to do more. “I knew I was at the beginning of something. I had to keep going.”

O’Hagan visited Watt at her Edinburgh studio at the time and describes himself as being “gobsmacked” by what he saw.

“I couldn’t quite believe that a human being would be in company with these single still images on their own for all that period of time and not go mad.” He says that while the two of them have many characteristics and traits in common, he considers Watt “a much purer artist than I am in the sense that focuses to an almost obsessive level”.

“There’s a real sense of quietness and privacy on the material and I admire that,” he says. “I’m much more of a talker and interested in the social world around writing, whereas I think it’s almost the reverse with Alison. She’s very sociable but she works very privately.”

“Painting is very solitary,” concurs Watt. “I go to the studio every day and I lock the door because I don’t want anyone to come in unless I invite them. I find it a minor miracle that anyone else engages with the work because I make it entirely for myself.

“I’ve never really made paintings that you would view from across a room. I like to make paintings that you get close to. I like to make work which is subtle and does things in a quiet way because I think there can be a lot of power in that quietude and there’s an intimacy in that.”

Talk turns towards their restless desire to constantly create new and better work. Watt says she worries about there not being enough time to do everything she wants to do.

“Particularly as I get older, I feel this huge sense of urgency in making work because I have all these ideas and I want to realise them, but I don’t know if I can.”

Mortality is something O’Hagan also thinks about a lot these days. It’s a theme that is at the heart of his latest work, Mayflies, a brilliantly tender and funny elegy to a real-life teenage friend from Irvine who died from cancer in 2018 aged 51. Based on the author’s own adolescent experiences, the novel is constructed around a trip that he and his friends made to Manchester in 1986 to a music festival featuring the Fall, the Smiths and New Order.

“I had to face the fact, as the book does, that I’m now at a point in life where I can say that one or two of those amazing vivid boys have died,” he says, describing the writing of Mayflies as the biggest technical challenge he’s faced.

“It takes you a while to understand what the landscape you’re brought up with does to you.”

“For the first time in my career I wanted to make something exist in a state of permanence that was ephemeral: those boys’ friendship, their visit to Manchester all those years ago and then their dependence on each other 30 years later as they face life and death questions. I wanted that to survive permanently on a bookshelf in a library somewhere, for the good of the boys and myself, but also just for art’s sake.”

He says the book’s overwhelmingly positive reception from readers and critics means a great deal to him “because it underscored for me something that I wanted to be true, which was that I still had, at the deepest level, a connection to where I grew up and how those boys spoke and how they were.”

Like the music obsessed teenagers in Mayflies, O’Hagan and Watt both come from working class backgrounds. O’Hagan is the youngest of four brothers and was the first member of his family to go to university. Without going into details, he describes them as a “colourful, noisy, complicated family” that has experienced “every version of economic and social and psychological disturbance”.

Watt’s father James was brought up in abject poverty in Port Glasgow, sharing a bedroom with his five brothers. Despite his impoverished upbringing, he won a scholarship to the Glasgow School of Art and went on to become a well-known artist, specialising in maritime paintings. An exhibition of his work recently went on display at the Greenock gallery named after him (the Watt Institute) to celebrate his 90th birthday. Watt describes her father as her biggest inspiration and credits his strong Calvinist work ethic with fuelling her own drive and creative spirit.

“When you make work, you’re drawing from inside. It’s a form of biography,” she says, agreeing with O’Hagan’s statement that no painting, poem or novel is ever made inside a vacuum. Instead, both say they draw upon a wide range of sources, spanning art, literature, friends, family and life itself. “Everything adds to the vocabulary,” she says.

This summer O’Hagan and Watt held a public talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival called The Joy of Influence. The talk’s title is a riposte to the American critic Harold Bloom who wrote a book called The Anxiety of Influence, about the competitive nature between artists and creators.

“Anxiety has nothing to do with it, as far as I can see,” says O’Hagan. “In my experience, especially in relation to Alison and the handful of artists in my life, I can say that it’s altered my sense of what is possible.

“Alison has taught me how to inhabit a stillness and not talk my walk out of the problem, as journalists and writers do. That’s our business: to explain. We’re on a mission to understand. So it’s sometimes quite a relief to be able to put that on ice.”

Having grown up in the 1980s during the highly politicised Thatcher era, he says one of the things he’s always objected to is the former prime minister’s notion of individualism. “I really like community. I like sticking up for other artists. I feel like a trade unionist. If something goes well for one of us it goes well for all of us,” he says. “The idea that you become an airy-fairy person who is on a special Mount Olympus of your own and the rest of society is separate, I don’t get that. I want to be in the thick of it.”

“I love the way that Andrew sees things,” reflects Watt as our time together draws to a close. “We approach the way that we work in different ways, but I love to see how someone else engages with the world and I have a fascination with how visual artists, painters and writers edit the world. A painting, just like a novel, is its own universe and its own rules apply. I think that side of it is wonderful because you can do whatever you want, and there are very few things in life where you can do whatever you want.” Cue more laughter. “I think we both thrive off that.”

Mayflies is published by Faber and out now in paperback. Alison Watt: A Portrait Without Likeness is on display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until January 2022 

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