Andrew O’Hagan meets me in the kitchen of his flat on the top of a tenement in Edinburgh’s New Town. The flat is as elegantly turned out as he is. Maybe O’Hagan’s colour palette is a little more restrained than the interior design of his surroundings, but he clearly fits in here.

But then he seems to fit in everywhere. Born in Glasgow, and raised in Ayrshire, the son of a joiner (and a drinker) and a school cleaner mother, O’Hagan is an editor at large for Esquire magazine, a contributor to the New Yorker and a novelist whose books have been adapted for stage and screen. These days he mixes with the great, the good and everyone else.

Indeed, researching his latest novel, Caledonian Road, he hung out with both royalty and a “drill gang”. On the same day.

So, you might wonder, does O’Hagan ever feel out of place?

All the time, he says. “I’m an imposter. I don’t know that I wasn’t born an imposter. It’s my natural condition. I’m not that much of a joiner."

He takes a bite of the croissant I’ve brought him from the corner bakery. “I mean, I’m sociable. I love friendship. I’ve always found it easy to relate to people. I like people. I love to know a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, a joiner. If I met a guy who worked on the CalMac ferry between Ardrossan and Brodick I’d ask him to show me his work, tell me what his day is like. I’m a cone gatherer.”

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

We are here to discuss his latest gathering. For the last decade (and counting) O’Hagan has been working on Caledonian Road. It’s a novel that climbs up and down Britain’s class structure. O’Hagan did the same while researching it, spending 16 weeks at the Old Bailey, covering migrant cases, but also going to the polo at Windsor.

“The Polo club at Windsor is a kind of salon for influential and terrible people from all over the world,” O’Hagan explains. “Not all of them terrible, obviously, but a number of them. It’s where a kind of royal glitter falls over business ambition.

“While I was there I made all sorts of connections. There were Japanese businessmen, there were Russians, there were sports personalities, there were minor royals. And if you’re a suit-wearing guy who’s our age, it’s not that hard to get to the position to listen to these characters.”

All of these types find their way into the novel. (O’Hagan is 56, I believe. I know I’m a bit older.) He tells me a story – the first of many this morning – about the day he met the drill gang after spending the morning with the then Prince of Wales.


Andrew O’Hagan's Caledonian Road takes aim at British hypocrisies

“I was asked to go and represent novelists at Dickens’s house. Gillian Anderson was reading from Great Expectations. Gillian and I went along together.

“Charles came and sat in one of Dickens’s kitchen chairs. Gillian read and then we were to go into a reception and a wreath laying at Poet’s Corner. We were whizzed through London behind Charles and Camilla to Westminster Abbey. Everyone was already there. It was like a wedding, except we were walking behind Charles and Camilla.

“My phone was in my pocket and I can tell you, Teddy, it was one of the big moments in comedy. It was ‘bzz, bzz, bzz, bzz’. And later on I looked at it. It was Zadie Smith and a lot of fellow writers going, ‘What the f***? Why are we standing up while you walk down the middle of Westminster Abbey?’”

Let’s set aside that easy familiarity with royalty and the former X Files and Sex Education star and get onto the afternoon. Because on returning home from Westminster Abbey he got changed to meet the drill gang.

He smiles. “The shift in registers is a bit mad,” he admits. “But mad shifts in register are my thing.”

It probably says something about me that the question I want to ask him most about that day, I tell him, is what does a middle-aged author wear to meet a street gang?

A T-shirt, trainers and jacket, he says.

Baseball cap? “No, I’m one of those people that nature intended that I never wear a baseball cap, on account of bawface.”


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Caledonian Road is a huge, raucous, funny, compelling state-of-the-nation novel, Victorian in size and scale, utterly 21st century in detail, that examines the way we live; from cryptocurrency to corruption, from gentrification to gentlemen’s clubs and from migrants in the back of lorries to Extinction Rebellion. It couldn’t be more of the moment.

It’s a big, bold book. Show-offy, but in the best way. “Readers deserve big books,” O’Hagan argues. “Thankfully, they don’t all need to be by me. But I thought they could suffer one by me.”

It is O’Hagan’s seventh novel. It may be his best. It’s certainly one of his most entertaining. In all, the novel contains 60 characters who bob and weave through more than 600 pages, but at its heart is Scottish art historian Campbell Flynn, a man who has the perfect life but seems intent on pulling it apart.

“Somebody was eventually going to write a novel about the good liberal in crisis in this country,” he suggests. It has fallen to him.

Flynn, O’Hagan acknowledges, shares much in common with his creator. Both are writers, both are Scottish, both come from working-class backgrounds. Both, he doesn’t say, but I will, are successful and invariably well-dressed.

But he and Campbell are not the same, he insists.

“One of the great differences is that his potential for unhappiness is so much greater than mine,” O’Hagan suggests.

“I grew up in a world of chaos but somehow it didn’t bend me away from the sun,” he continues. “It didn’t make me unhappy. I don’t have a therapist. I don't feel turned inside out by the past. I’ve got a lot of friends who are. I’ve got a lot of people in my wider family who struggle more. But, unlike Campbell, I don’t think I am propelled towards disaster.

“Campbell’s unhappiness and self-destructiveness was something I had to invent for him because it wasn’t in my experience.”

His full answer is actually much more discursive than this, taking in a quote from The Great Gatsby, a mention of Philip Roth, Brexit, post-truth and Rishi Sunak.

All of his answers unfurl in this manner. He is a man of words, after all.

Given that Caledonian Road offers up a jaundiced vision of the UK, is he suggesting we’re screwed? Or maybe we’ve always been screwed?

“Both of these things, I think.”

But there is hope in the novel too, he adds. “We’re on the cusp of a big change. I think it’s quite a positive book. I think Caledonian Road is about a road out of the present.” A present, he suggests, where businesses rob their employees of their pension, where men are casually racist or sexually abusive in the workplace, where, “we could pretend that we are a civilised people while allowing migrants to die in the back of lorries for want of freedom and economic safety.

“At the end of it, I feel there is an arrow coming out of this book, out of Caledonian Road, up towards a world where those things just don’t get to be standard any more.

He’s optimistic then? “I’ve got a 20-year-old. I don’t feel depressed when he talks about the future. I feel challenged.”

When he was that age – and younger even – O’Hagan was planning his escape from the world of his childhood. “I’ve got a tin somewhere that my mum left me of embarrassing letters I used to write and get responses from nice secretaries saying, ‘Thanks for your enthusiasm, but I’m afraid the New Yorker doesn’t need a new editor this week. Thanks Andrew, aged 14.’”

He left Glasgow on the day he graduated, jumping on the bus to London. “Our parents wanted us to get out and get on,” he says at one point. And he has. We are sitting in a flat that is the reward for that. It is a working retreat from the London home he shares with his wife Lindsey Milligan.

The Herald: London's Caledonian Road is home to the poor, as well as the richLondon's Caledonian Road is home to the poor, as well as the rich (Image: free)

“My wife sometimes comes and my kid sometimes comes, but it’s really a kind of glorified man cave.” The family also has a place in Largs.

But do we ever leave the past behind us? In a 2009 essay entitled Guilt: A Memoir for the London Review of Books, O’Hagan wrote: “At every turn, there is the endlessly repeated narrative of your mum and dad, the old wounds and the litany of blame, the bad decisions, and the failure to protect the innocent parties.”

Does he still feel that? “I think it’s eternal. I had a really busy, really involving childhood in Ayrshire. Growing up in one of the new housing estates in Irvine new town. We were the first family to live in that house. The smell of plaster, the smell of grout, was so tangible.

“So the sense of newness and possibility was kind of ingrained in the situation. But then you see old habits from the old city start to emerge. You can build people new houses and give them a wee patch of garden and an inside bathroom, but we have DNA from the past. Problems would start to emerge.

“My dad was very like his Irish ancestors. He was a drinker. And he was trouble in those years. And that emerged in this glittering new environment almost like a story, like a novel. The past comes visiting every day.

“So, I don’t think you ever leave that because you don't leave your DNA and you don’t leave the stories of what happened to your people, some of which they were responsible for and some they weren’t.

“And that’s my basic sense. My mum and dad are present in my life and writing, always.”

His mum, he tells me in passing, died two years ago. Two years to the day, actually. She is clearly on his mind. He speaks at length about taking her to New York in 2003 where they were wined and dined by his publishers and the magazines he writes for.

“There was one particular dinner where the legendary Lillian Ross from the New Yorker and Nora Ephron and Barbara Epstein, the founding editor of the New York Review of Books, all these women, who were my mother’s age and older, were all around a table in Greenwich Village. And me watching my mum’s amazement as these women talked about their lives, had opinions, laughed, drank, smoked, stayed up late. My mother said to me as we went back to the hotel that night, ‘I didn’t know life could be like that.’ “That was one of the best nights of my life. My mother was a school cleaner who worked in Ayrshire all her life and never had those opportunities. But she felt it had all come good, not just for me but for her in a way.”

He recalibrates that statement. “She could come and go on that. Maybe mothers feel abandoned by their children if they go off and make their lives elsewhere. I wouldn't want to dress it up too much because I think that is also true. I’m a man for ambivalence and ambiguities. That is one of them. Parents can be delighted and pleased and feel fulfilled when their children go off. They can also feel left behind. And I think my mum did a bit. But on that week she came into her own.”

This story has a coda in an Irish bar on Third Avenue full of Irish exiles in their work clothes. O’Hagan encouraged his mum to get up and sing. “My mum was one of those Glaswegians that didn’t need much encouragement when it came to singing. She was a lovely singer. And she had loads of songs in her head, so she went up onto this little stage and sang a song, Killarney, and I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. Some of those guys were weeping at the bar.

“I was proud of her, that she could do that. A brilliant piece of self-magnification. Whatever her life had been and whatever differences there were between my working life and hers, she was a performer inside.

“She had a huge inner life, my mum. And it came out that night as performance. Usually it came out as chat or gossip or maybe a drink in the pub. But my mum had a larger sense of life than she ever was allowed to fulfil.

The Herald: Andrew O'Hagan. Picture: Duncan McGlynnAndrew O'Hagan. Picture: Duncan McGlynn (Image: free)

“I think that is one of the reasons if you come from a working-class background and you find yourself in quite big rooms there’s always a wee story turning like an old record in the back of your mind; not unhealthily, not regretfully, but just persistently: ‘You come from somewhere not like this.”’ That sense of being an imposter goes deep.

We talk about money and Scotland. Does he, like his character Campbell, worry about his finances?

“I don’t really. I think I was born to worry about money. My parents worried about it all the time. But I’m a grafter and I’ve also been lucky. The two things together are the things that have probably kept me sane since I was a teenager. I was a grafter. I’ve never had a year off. I’ve never had a gap year.”

In the last month, he tells me he has written for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. There’s also a podcast series coming and a TV adaptation of Caledonian Road in America in preparation.

As for Scotland, O’Hagan still feels part of it. “Scotland’s the present for me and I’m delighted to see what is happening when I come up.

Scotland, he adds, “is the landscape of my imagination. I see Ayrshire light in my dreams.”

That said, it’s not the same place he grew up in.

“When I was younger I said some things and I argued with the notion of Scotland being too self-pitying. Before it had the parliament and before it had the vigour it has now, there was a period when it was maybe a wee bit given to feeling sorry for itself and blaming the English. I think that’s gone. It’s not gone 100 per cent, but it’s not the dominant theme any more.”

In the past he has been sceptical and embracing of the idea of independence. Today? “I do think Scotland deserves … requires … as much of its own self-definition as possible. Whether that can happen within the UK or in some future arrangement that’s more like independence … That’s for other people to decide, but I’ll be watching really closely and seeing how it affects the cultures and character and plot and the development of the national story. That’s where the action is for me, not in telling people where they should mark their ballot paper.”

The action is on the page too. He tells me he has plans to write a book about the Irish coming to Glasgow in the 19th century. Another big novel. Is his ambition for his writing growing?

“There comes a moment where you’ve got to walk the walk, you’ve got to see how far your reach is as a puncher,” O’Hagan says.

“There are moments when you just know that you are stepping into your best writing self and you’re responsible then for maintaining that. And I feel as if I am at that point now. I can’t slack. I need to get on and produce these books which I feel I have in me … So, I’ll be back at my desk in 25 minutes’ time.”

In the past, the present and the future Andrew O’Hagan is a writer. I leave him to his words.

Caledonian Road by Andrew O’Hagan is published by Faber, priced £25. He is appearing at the Paisley Book Festival on April 28. See review on pages 36-37