Books

We owe children an apology for the state of the nation, says Caledonian Road author Andrew O'Hagan

The Scottish author's new novel holds those responsible for the state of the nation to account

Charles Booth’s poverty map of Islington, London (1902). Image: Antiqua Print Gallery / Alamy

Author Andrew O’Hagan had spent enough time on Caledonian Road – which cleaves a seam through the borough of Islington, north London – to recognise its potential as the setting for a sweeping Dickensian novel. But it wasn’t until he looked at Charles Booth’s poverty map that he realised he’d struck literary gold.  

The 19th Century philanthropist colour-coded the streets of London according to their inhabitants’ income: yellow for the wealthiest, dark blue for the very poor. “I lived right beside Caledonian Road in my early days [in the capital], and I had always been fascinated by the social mix,” O’Hagan says.  

“On one side there are Victorian houses worth millions while on the other there is social housing, some of it in crisis, some of it accommodating migrants.” Booth’s map showed him the mix hadn’t changed in over a century: that the palette for Caledonian Road would be the same today as it was then. “I thought, ‘Here we are after the Beveridge Report, after the establishment of the NHS, after 130 years of growth and technology, in a major world city, and yet those differences are maintained.’” 

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Economic inequality is the core of O’Hagan’s new state of the nation epic. With a cast list of 61, Caledonian Road digs under the tarmac of post-Brexit, post-lockdown Britain, exposing links between aristocrats and activists, toffs and traffickers, socialites and sweat shop owners, Russian oligarchs and rappers, until what we are presented with is not so much a map as an immoral maze of interconnectedness.  

Published to the kind of clamour that greeted the last instalment of Oliver Twist, the novel exposes the way dirty money flows through the capital’s veins, with exploitation as its engine room. Add a sprinkling of Wildean epigrams and O’Hagan has created a grand satire on modern mores and the failures of liberalism. 

That we are talking about these failures while forking smoked salmon and avocado in a cafe on Edinburgh’s gentrified Broughton Street might feel crass were his novel not capable of self-mockery. 

Andrew O'Hagan, author of Caledonian Road
Andrew O’Hagan

O’Hagan has come north because he has been appointed honorary professor at Glasgow University. His main character – Campbell Flynn, art critic and author of an acclaimed biography of Vermeer – is “Professor of Box Sets” at UCL. Like O’Hagan, Flynn comes from a tough, west of Scotland background. Like O’Hagan, whose Primrose Hill home (“chimneypiece by Nicholas Gifford-Mead, dresser by Luke Ellis”) was featured in House & Garden, he lives the life of a wealthy aesthete (Bloomsbury lamps, tables from Heal’s). Unlike O’Hagan, whose wife Lindsey Milligan, a theatrical producer, was born in Glasgow, Flynn has married into the upper classes, and his success is the result of moral compromise. Yet it feels as if, in Caledonian Road, a whole generation of pot-bangers and slogan-tweeters is being held to account. 

“Part of the fun of writing a book like this is the not taking hostages,” O’Hagan admits. “I have been a liberal all my life. I have been on every march. But I have to look now and say: ‘Did we achieve as much as we hoped or did we let ourselves off too easily?’ I think that’s a good subject for our generation. We did well. We got the free education, we got the equity, we got the houses. We must say to our children: ‘We owe you an explanation’ and [occasionally] that explanation will come in the form of a novel”. 

O’Hagan is one of the UK’s finest essayists, a master of reportage, but he doesn’t flaunt it. Dapper without being showy, cerebral without being intimidating, he appears as interested in what others have to say as in what he says himself (which is presumably why everyone from panhandlers to members of the Royal Family open up to him).  

Three of his novels – Our Fathers, Be Near Me and The Illuminations – have been nominated for the Booker Prize, but they were “chamber pieces” compared to the scale of this new work. “I couldn’t have written Caledonian Road 10 years ago,” he says.

“I didn’t know enough about cryptocurrency, about the House of Lords and its operations, about the secret relationships between oligarchs and members of the aristocracy. Every mark I have made in every notebook was building not just towards the piece I was writing, but to an understanding of Britain and to this book.”  

To further that understanding, O’Hagan, 55, followed Dickens’ example: he pounded the pavements, staked out the Old Bailey, haunted the House of Commons’ reporters’ gallery. This old-fashioned “shoe-leathering” makes his work authentic; but it is also, I think, integral to his identity.  

“If you are, of a Tuesday morning, hanging out in north London with young gang members and, later that evening, you are in a restaurant where you see £50,000 being spent on dinner and the following morning you are spending time with migrants who made it through the tunnel, or travelling to Leicester to be with Bangladeshi women working in a garment factory for £4.50 an hour – that’s an actual writer’s life that I imagined couldn’t be had now,” he says. “And yet, I did have it.”  

O’Hagan’s sense of himself as heir to the Victorian greats – which might, in others, come across as arrogance – is tempered by his astonishment at his own good luck, and his dependence on it as a protective factor. In Caledonian Road, Flynn is haunted by a mother who tried to block out her unhappiness with melodrama. O’Hagan’s father, Gerald, was an alcoholic; his mother, Agnes, worked three jobs “to cover for the behaviour of an irresponsible man.”

The baby of the family, he was mostly looked after by his three brothers, the eldest of whom was 10 when he was two. In 1980, when he was 11, and his father was a janitor in a List D school, both his parents suffered breakdowns and split up. 

It’s an upbringing that ought to have led to therapy. But where Flynn is tormented by his parents’ volatility, O’Hagan sees “the vividness of the story”. “I don’t feel trapped by my past,” he says. “I feel I can walk right through it if only you’ll allow me to go with a pencil and a pad in my hand.”  

Nature, too, proved redemptive. Like Burns and Keats, O’Hagan’s personal growth was intertwined with a love of landscape. Picture him as James Gillespie in Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, taking flight across the North Ayrshire fields. “I ran away from the housing estates towards the tree and the burn and the mountain,” he says. “I thought, ‘If I run, I will find myself, but I will keep looking over my shoulder’.” 

While his “charismatic, chaotic” parents were alive, O’Hagan felt uneasy writing about them. Now they are dead, he feels freer to mine their eventful lives. He is currently working on a novel set in the heatwave summer of 1976, when a cache of armaments was found in the boiler room of the school his mother cleaned, and the Rangers scarf-wearing janitor was exposed as the head of the Ulster Defence Association in Scotland.  

Eventually, though, he intends to write a memoir. Perhaps this is why his thoughts keep straying back to his childhood. We chat for a bit about his fascination with false selves. It’s a recurring theme. For his essay, The Lives of Ronald Pinn, he stole a dead man’s identity then took his avatar on a tour of the dark net. In Caledonian Road, Flynn writes an anonymous self-help book called Why Men Weep In Their Cars as a vacuous money-spinner, then asks an actor to promote it as if it’s his own.  

“Now, because of technology, it’s almost a principle that you are free to be somebody else,” O’Hagan says. “You can have a fake account on Facebook, you can produce your life on Instagram with the aid of filters and captions. Young people don’t just live their lives: they direct them, they star in them.” 

But then, mid-flow, he changes course. Perhaps, he reflects, he is drawn to stories about people who lose touch with themselves because his parents “lived at a distance from who they really were”. Asked to expand, he says, “My dad created this big family, but he didn’t want to live a family life with those four boys in that way. He wanted to create families elsewhere, to have meaningful associations with people outside the family home.”  

O’Hagan’s father wasn’t at his nativity play or his First Communion because he was away boozing and working in Newcastle or Sunderland or in a drying-out centre in Dumfries.  

“My mother’s life was a kind of whisper. She tried her hardest to make a nice home, with wall-to-wall carpets and curtains,” he says, “but because she was working, she was never there. I grew up among dissociated people. They weren’t loving the life they’d made, or even dwelling in it. I have never said this before, but I think it gave me a grounding in dissociation, a sort of alienation effect.” 

The parents in Caledonian Road are alienated from their children. They give them everything they didn’t have themselves, then resent them for their lack of gratitude. The women are the novel’s moral spine, grounded and secure. In deference to his mother, O’Hagan was determined to turn the Victorian treatment of women on its head. “I didn’t want them to take the fall for the bad behaviour of the men like Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” he says. But their husbands are dissociated; lost in modern masculinity. Indeed, the great, postmodern joke of Caledonian Road is that it could be subtitled Why Men Weep In Their Cars.  

Flynn sees in his internet-savvy protegee, Milo, a way forward; Milo sees in Flynn proof that men like him, and the structures that enable them, must be destroyed. Yet, as the book notes, the backlash against liberalism has led not to greater equality but to rising populism. 

O’Hagan is sustained through these tumultuous times by hard graft and good fortune. He is happy with Lindsey – “my right arm and my best friend” – and his 20-year-old trans son, Fin, from a previous relationship, who lives with them. Meanwhile, Caledonian Road has already been sold to Sinestra/Fremantle Films as a returning series directed by Johan Renck of Chernobyl fame.  

In the wider world, too, he detects shards of hope. “Time’s up for the old ways of being a good person,” Flynn’s editor tells him, but O’Hagan is optimistic new ways will be found.  

“Coming out of the novel, the assumptions that made society so unfair and so wrecked can’t be easily reproduced,” he says. “Yes [some] terrible men are taken down as they have to be, as they should be, but I think the generation that turned a blind eye to the corruption of others has learned that life cannot go on like this. The casually racist world I grew up in does not exist for my child’s generation. They will stop you immediately. And I’m glad of it.” 

Caledonian Road is out now (Faber & Faber, £20).

You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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