Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Secret Life, by Andrew O'Hagan

I was given this 2017 book after chatting with a friend about Andrew O'Hagan's 60,000 word essay on the Grenfell fire, which brilliantly conjures the lives so awfully lost and then not-so-brilliantly identifies heroes and villains. This book is subtitled "Three True Stories" and in two of them O'Hagan trails in the wake of extraordinary individuals, reporting on what seem to be pivotal movements in history. In between these instalments, he charts his own experiment in matters of identity - and it's altogether different.

First, there's "Ghosting", his account of being employed to ghost the autobiography of Julian Assange, the efforts involved to produce a 70,000-word manuscript, and then why that never got published. It's all really peculiar, and few of the people involved are very likeable, but O'Hagan is good at the small but telling details:
"During those days at the Bungay house I would try to sit [Assange] down with a new list of questions, and he'd shy away from them, saying he wasn't in the mood or there were more pressing matters to deal with. I think he was just keen to get away from [his then residence] Ellingham Hall. I had the internet. I made lunch every day and he'd eat it, often with his hands, and then lick the plate. In all that time he didn't once take his dirty plate to the sink. That doesn't make him like Josef Mengele, but, you know, life is life." (p. 34)
That casual sense of other people being there for Assange's convenience illuminates much of the story. The sense is of Assange talking big and then not delivering, or at least not caring about details, or how that lack of care might affect and damage other people. O'Hagan signs off with his last meeting with Assange, when the book is clearly not going to happen.
"It was a Friday night and Julian has never seemed more alone. We laughed a lot and then he went very deeply into himself. He drank his beer and then lifted mine and drank that. 'We've got some really historic things going on,' he said. Then he opened his laptop and the blue screen lit his face and he hardly noticed me leaving." (p. 99)
His involvement with Assange leads to him being recommended to Craig Wright, the man who, under the alias Satoshi Nakamoto, invented bitcoin - or did he? In "The Satoshi Affair", O'Hagan recountsWright's efforts to go public and then decide otherwise - just like Assange. Again, it's a fascinating account of what seems a major moment, one that raises issues about identity, our relationship to technology and the truth, and O'Hagan has a ring-side seat throughout. As with Assange, there's a lot of money at stake and a rather glamorous, showbiz lifestyle being lived - but Wright is another sad, trapped figure racked by indecision and doubt. We'd sympathise with his predicament if we didn't see what it costs everyone else around him.

Between these two accounts is "The Invention of Ronald Pinn." It begins in Camberwell New Cemetery, O'Hagan remarking on the number of young people's graves. He identifies one, Ronald Alexander Pinn, who died in 1984 aged 20, but otherwise roughly O'Hagan's own age, and decides to use the dead man's birth certificate to create a false identity. In doing so, he's inspired by recent revelations about undercover policemen from the Met's Special Demonstration Squard using such identities:
"In several of the cases, officers kept their fake identities for more than ten years and exploited them in sexual situations. To strengthen their 'backstory', they would visit the places of their 'childhood', walking around the houses they had lived in before they died, all the better to implant the legend of their second life." (p. 102)
So that's what O'Hagan does, touring the places Pinn would have known, researching his life, speaking to people who knew him - and then using that to build up an alternative life. He then wants to see what can be done with such a false identity, and goes on to buy white heroin, cannabis and Tramadol, and counterfeit money. He investigates but apparently doesn't buy guns, as if moral scrupples stop him going that far. But who was he paying for the drugs and fake money, and in giving them money what else was he tacitly financing?

These are not victimless crimes. Living in south London, I'm very conscious of the links between the drug trade and knife crime, the lives of children blighted - and ended - by the supply chain. As a bereaved parent, I had a visceral reaction to what O'Hagan did with the name of some mother's son. He's an unapologetic tourist, blithely enjoying a stroll through other people's misery and grief.

At the end of his account, he finds the mother of the real Ronald Pinn and we realise that she must have provided much of the biographical detail given earlier. But it's telling that this is where his account finishes - we don't hear what her son's death did to her, or what she thinks of what O'Hagan has done with her son's name. O'Hagan is, like Assange and Wright, caught up in the thrill of his own story and seems to spare no thought for those hurt along the way.

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