Caledonian Road

Andrew O’Hagan

Faber & Faber, £20

Review by Rosemary Goring

Caledonian Road, like the street after which it is named, feels both modern and old. Andrew O’Hagan’s ambitious seventh novel could hardly be more different from his last, Mayflies, a simple, powerful story of boyhood friendship that lasts a lifetime. By contrast, Caledonian Road is complex and convoluted, managing to be completely contemporary yet as full of characters, plotlines and morality tales as a Victorian novel.

Largely set in and around the road that runs from King’s Cross to Islington, it is a dissection of, as Trollope might have said, the way we live now. In the 19th century, this thoroughfare was filled with institutions, among them the Royal Caledonian Asylum and Pentonville Prison. Its populace embraced the poor and destitute and the comfortably well-off. Today it is much the same, albeit with a multi-cultural and student population unimaginable in earlier times.

O’Hagan’s students, drug dealers and rappers, in their crowded quarters, rub shoulders with middle-class enclaves, such as Thornhill Square, home to his tortured central character, the art critic and writer Campbell Flynn. Across more than 600 pages, O’Hagan dons Dickens’s mantle and burrows under the skin of the city to illuminate who and what makes it tick. In so doing, he exposes the sources of the corruption and rot that seem to infect government as perniciously as the rest of society. It’s a sickness that, as he cleverly shows, lies within even those who believe themselves politically and ethically correct.

The Herald: Andrew O’HaganAndrew O’Hagan (Image: free)

Entering the lives of people whose existences are alien to each other – with Asian seamstresses in a sweat factory, youthful gang members and people traffickers at one end and MPs, aristocracy, fashionistas, the intelligentsia, Westminster and Russian oligarchs at the other – O’Hagan employs broad satire to pull them together in an effervescent, if occasionally exhausting, portrait of our times.

At the story’s heart is Campbell Flynn, survivor of a blighted Glasgow childhood, as is his sister Moira, a Labour MP for Ayrshire. Moira is commonsense and decency, Campbell is Tinker Bell, an academic and media darling whose controversial ideas are catnip to those more interested in novelty than meaning. He believes he is a good man, but as the story unfolds, and his connections to far from upright individuals emerge, he begins to question who he is. At which point his grip on reality begins to loosen.

Those malign influences and contacts include his old university friend William Byre, from whom he has borrowed heavily to sustain his bourgeois lifestyle, unbeknownst to his imperturbable and long-suffering therapist wife, Elizabeth. Byre will soon be exposed as a pariah, but it is he who has perhaps the clearest perspective on Flynn: “He looked at pictures, but the big picture, and his part in it, escapes him.”

When Milo Mangasha, one of Flynn’s precocious students, befriends him, Flynn is flattered and intrigued, even though he can sense danger: “The young man had edges and they often glinted on the blade of his charm."

As his research assistant, Milo introduces him to the dark web and the intricacies of bitcoin (here be echoes of research O’Hagan has previously done as a journalist). But soon the relationship, which is not sexual but nevertheless all-consuming, becomes the driving force in his life. Milo, meanwhile, is on a crusade. His involvement with Flynn is merely a means to an end: namely revenge upon the establishment and its utterly rotten core.

Driven by the central idea that “London has become the world capital of diseased finance”, in thrall to Russian money and power, and that “we are a nation that turns a blind eye”, Caledonian Road is simultaneously funny and savage. Offering cameos of criminal London youths involved in gang rivalry, the ventriloquist O’Hagan captures their lingo convincingly, keen to demonstrate his mastery of every sphere of society.


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His chapters on people trafficking and drug distribution show the business to be so routine as to be almost suburban. Add these to the excesses of a Russian billionaire’s debauched son; the breath-taking narcissism of the club scene and fashion world; or indeed the nasty little secrets held by a duke, who happens to be Flynn’s brother in law, and what you have is an excoriating dissection of British society, and the collusion of the cocooned middle classes and their lieges. Above all, however, it is the story of a talented man who learns how morally low he can sink.

O’Hagan’s prose sparkles with verve and conviction. There are passages of high humour, but because everyone will recognise how close to the shameful truth of today’s inequalities and iniquities the novel comes, the overall tone is sombre.

At times the plot, which is as labyrinthine as the London underground, feels a little contrived. The plethora of names is bewildering, initially at least, although thankfully there is a list of characters, as there is for, say, War and Peace. Perhaps the most serious criticism is the hectic progression of events, and the sense of reading while on a roundabout that is whirling faster and faster until you feel you might topple off. It is a lot to take in.

Yet this being O’Hagan, the writing is very good indeed. Flynn’s daughter’s partner AJ “flitted in and out of everybody’s life as if permanence was a conspiracy supported by old people and their nostalgic governments.” Moira, back in her Scottish constituency, reflects: “When people say darkness falls, they could be thinking of what happens in Ayrshire…when the dark drops out of the sky at teatime, the street lamps smartly blinking to life like they’ve arrived for work”.

Billed as a state of the nation novel, Caledonian Road manages to meet its remit without too obviously showing the tick box list of issues it must necessarily address. In the purlieus of Westminster, Islington and the Hunt Ball shires, this will make uncomfortable reading. But so it will for many of us. This is a novel about collusion in maintaining the status quo, no matter how venal. Who among us can confidently say we are not, to some degree, guilty of that?