Sean Hughes Is a Sad Old Bastard

Written by Tanya Richardson on . Posted in Books, Posts.

He’s also a total asshole.

Although Hughes has creative
carte blanche over there, he isn’t exactly respected. His fans are diehard,
but most Brits seem to consider him a bit of a joke. On the back of his first
novel, The Detainees (1997), one critic graciously compared Hughes to
Martin Amis and Will Self. Hughes’ writing is nowhere near that caliber.
But that’s all right, because you don’t read Hughes to get the kind
of polished English public-school product Self and Amis crank out. One wades
through Hughes with the promise of sublime moments of brilliance, the times
when he pops off a one-liner that has you laughing out loud, nodding your head
in agreement and knowing for certain, if only briefly, that you are not alone.

I bought my first Sean Hughes
book on a lark, but after a few days I didn’t know how I’d lived without
it. I stayed indoors that week and even slept with the thing. It was the same
when I got a hold of the new It’s What He Would’ve Wanted in
London, right after I cornered Hughes in Kings Cross’ Water Rats club and
set up an interview.

At the BBC studios, Hughes’
producer very politely told me to have a seat, where I listened to the last
10 minutes of his weekend radio program. After it was over, Hughes came into
the control room and asked, "Shall we do a quick interview?" I nodded
and followed him down the hall. He didn’t look back or give me any indication
of where we were headed, and I almost went straight into the men’s room
with him. He emerged, walked straight past me and out of the building, accompanied
by two men who’d been guests on the show that day.

In the parking lot he strode
over to a brand-new BMW, unlocked it with a remote, threw his bag in the trunk
and opened the driver’s side door. Looking over at me he asked, "Are
you ready?" Taking that to mean "get in," I went round to the
passenger side. He glared at me in disgust and shouted, "Not in the car!
We’ll walk to a pub!" My face turned red. Luckily no one noticed,
because Hughes and his companions walked five feet in front of me.

At the pub Hughes ordered
drinks for everyone but me. I, raised to be a lady, paid for the round regardless.
We made our way to the back of the bar and he told the others he had to do a
quick interview, which apparently didn’t mean, "Give me a few minutes
alone with the babe," but rather "Let’s all sit around and stare
at her intimidatingly until she fucks off." I got out my tape recorder
and pushed record as Hughes, the two guests and five BBC lackeys looked on in
challenging silence.

His first official comment
was "I hate Americans," which he used as a springboard into his next
big admission, that he hates "the media," explaining that the masses
would be much better off without "the media" constantly leading them
astray. That argument is never interesting, because it hinges on the belief
that the general populace is too stupid to run their own lives. They need someone
like Sean Hughes to personally oversee all the information that’s fed to
them. In other words, a fascist, but a fascist for good. I imagine Hughes is
a big fan of Tony Blair.

I pointed out that with
the radio show, the tv show and the occasional op-ed piece, Hughes is
the media. He quickly changed the subject by saying how he never wanted to be
in the limelight; how he never intended to be a celebrity. His two guests agreed
adamantly, and it was only then that I realized they, too, were celebrities.
Thinking it might be nice to mention them in the article, and not being terribly
up to date on British celebs, I asked them their names. This had the same effect
as walking into a cotillion and taking a shit in the punch bowl.

"Don’t you know
who these guys are?" Hughes screamed indignantly. I then put forward the
notion that if they were all so desperately unhappy about being celebs, perhaps
they should find it refreshing to meet someone who didn’t know who they
were. Turd number two had been launched. Turns out one was a comedian from Newcastle
and the other was a Scottish musician.

Hughes told me he plans
on writing a trilogy and then using his fourth novel as a forum for bringing
all his characters together. This might be difficult, as every Hughes protagonist
is the same person–Hughes. But therein lies his genius, because that Hughes
persona is such an easy one to identify with. Tennessee Williams wrote the same
play over and over, but goddamn is that one hell of a play! And what about Neil
Young? He recorded the same song hundreds of times, but what a fucking


Thus Sean Hughes’ work
is predictable, but in a nice, comfortable sort of way. For instance, you can
always count on the main character being more pathetic than you. Consider this
passage in which Shea from It’s What He Would’ve Wanted wakes
from a one-night stand:

In the morning I learned
that I was a pathetic man first and a thinker second as we had sex again…
Hazel went to work and I went to freshen up. It was ridiculous but I wouldn’t
use her toothbrush for hygiene reasons, even though some of her pubic hair was
still stuck between my teeth.

I put it to Hughes that
his main characters have no faith in humanity, and venture out of the house
solely to prove it. In the beginning of the book Shea decides he needs a night
out. While going through a list of phone numbers, he realizes he’s let
every relationship in his life slide. He hasn’t talked to most of his friends
in years. When he finally does get hold of someone, they decide to go to London’s
Astoria, and get beaten up by the bouncers. The next day Shea learns that the
club has been burned down–his friend became an arsonist ages ago.

"Yes, yes, but in this
book it’s different," Hughes tells me. "You haven’t gotten
to the end yet. In the end Shea comes to terms with the evil thing his father
has done and truly embraces life."

Hughes is correct. At the
end of the book Shea, whose father kills himself within the first few chapters,
learns that his semi-famous, seemingly normal dad committed a heinous crime
in his youth that drove him to take his own life. By the end of the novel a
morbidly depressed Shea loses almost everything, including his own freedom,
yet is somehow able to finally appreciate his own existence.

Like The Detainees,
It’s What He Would’ve Wanted is the story of one man looking
evil in the face, coming to terms with its ramifications and only then moving
on with his life. "The thing is, everyone has that good and evil inside
them," Hughes explains.

Somehow this understanding
of the blurred line between right and wrong, and the ability to forgive and
accept, is a feat Hughes can only achieve in his writing. During our second
round he told me that a famous UK daytime talk show host should be "executed
by public hanging." It reminded me of an interview Hughes did with The
last year, in which he told the paper he’d once dumped
a girl after learning she was a regular viewer of a certain variety show, saying
of the audience, "Those people…are just sheep. It’s only one step
away from the Nazis."

Shea describes himself as
a "pursuer of truth," something I can see Hughes fancying himself
as. But one wonders what would happen if he ever turned that magnifying glass
on himself. I asked Hughes what his biggest ethical struggle was in life, and
he told me there were too many to count. Has he considered the fact that he
has his own crappy, mind-numbing variety show on tv every Friday night?
He must have. He must have examined himself, and quite thoroughly. It’s
the only way to explain his obvious depression. The only time he smiles is at
his own jokes, which invariably involve making anyone near him (on this occasion
me) the butt.

I used to find it odd when
a man as accomplished as Hughes had never married. In the "about the author"
section of his current book, it says he lives with "assorted pets, a smoker’s
cough, and loud music." I asked him if he has plans for a family. He said
absolutely not. After having met him, I think that that’s wise.

In parting I thanked him
for the interview. He told me that while walking through Southeast London the
other day he’d seen a teenage girl in tattered clothes clutching a lottery
ticket. I reminded him of the moment in the book where Shea explains why he
only cries at movies, because "real life is maybe too sad." I was
glad for this exchange, that I’d gotten to witness the compassion in Hughes
the man that I’d found in Hughes the artist.

A few weeks before I flew
to London I’d asked my friend’s father, an analyst, how to approach
meeting one of my idols. "Perhaps it isn’t really so much him that
you are attracted to, but what he represents. Think about those things you love
most about his work and his personality. Maybe they’re really just aspects
of yourself."

I never dreamed our meeting
would go so badly. At the bar Hughes and his two friends told me the thing they
hated most about giving interviews was that the interviewer always knew how
they were going to write the story before even talking with the subject. I can
now assure them from personal experience that this is not always true. I did
recognize bits of myself in Hughes, and now I am more determined than ever not
to become a sad old bastard.