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Fiction Class menagerie

FIONA O’CONNOR assesses a dense and overpopulated novel that isn’t satire and doesn’t go deep

Caledonian Road
Andrew O’Hagan
Faber, £20

 
FREDERIC JAMESON used the term “national allegory” for the view that literature is really an attempt to discover a country’s identity, and therefore its inhabitants.

In Caledonian Road, big thumper of a novel at over 600 pages, Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan offers a post-Brexit, liberalist mea culpa of sorts, repositioning Britain in its isolated decline.

O’Hagan’s focus is a London “levitating on a sea of dirty money,” as Sergei Magnitsky put it. Emerging from the pandemic in 2020, the masks are coming off and there’s profit to be extracted. 

It’s a tale of two cities and both of them are London. O’Hagan’s novel has an ambitiously Dickensian scope, drawing from the striking disparities nestling cheek by jowl along Islington’s Caledonian Road: “the Cally.” For some it is the best of times, for others, not so much.

Although hardly mentioned, the ghost of a bloviating Boris Johnson lurks throughout. The cast includes a Russian oligarch father and his “too camp to be dangerous” son, reminiscent of the Lebedevs; a foxy actor playing out a toxic masculinity bent; the “notorious” right-wing columnist wife of a pension-scheme-swindling industrialist; and a Duke: “Lord Crofts, also styled as the Earl of Sundrum, Baron Eye and Viscount of Kiltarlity.”

That’s the posh end, depicted snaffling tapenade and anchoiade, £500 bottles of Dom Ruinart Rose 2004, or £800 Meursault “Clos des Ambres.” A world-cruising countess whines: “I miss my Mason Pearson hairbrush!”

From the other end we get slang and squalor: “That yute is a proper nitty … always popping on suttin.” A gang of county lines hip-hopping black youths moves inexorably towards destiny: to shank or to be shanked. 

Other ethnicities are also available, smuggled in on container trucks to work in grow houses or sweatshops up north. The inclusion of a pair of Northern Irish lorry drivers signals inevitable tragedy on a layby off the M25.

Strolling across class lines is Gorbals boy-made-good, Campbell Flynn. Now a successful, though “disconsolate” academic/media-hack celeb, he is “living with his duplicity” and a Joan Eardley painting on his Thornhill Square townhouse wall. Campbell Flynn is a cross between Neil MacGregor and Niall Ferguson, with a bit of Michael Barclay from Radio 3 thrown in. 

Flynn packs all the self-serving delusion of liberal hypocrisy while secretly nurturing a narcissistic primal hurt: his parents once stole cutlery from a B&B. 

“This is the book you were born to write,” Flynn’s publisher unconvincingly says of his Rembrandt biography. An argument about high and low cultural values murmurs through Caledonian Road, culminating with a pair of Michael Jordan Air Max trainers illustrating the perils of aesthetic fetish. 

Marketed as a state-of-the-nation chronicle, Caledonian Road does cast a wide narrative net, gathering in Tory corruption, illegal migration, cryptocurrency, the dark web, and hack writing (O’Hagan once ghost-wrote a Julian Assange autobiography and later also penned a take-down of Assange for the London Review of Books). 

The narrative also pinpoints some historical glimpses of a former, less corruptible Britain. This is one in which the role of trade unions and their embeddedness in social community is shown through a visit to the Leicester Railwaymen’s Club where a young smuggled migrant is presented with a laminated pass of temporary membership that will serve as an emblem for a lost humanity.

But despite its weighing out of obscene inequities zoned into financial London’s real estate, Caledonian Road lacks emotional resonance. It takes up a lot of space — like a Netflix series it exudes “location mania” — but it doesn’t go deep. In that sense, the book represents a screen version of UK Plc: one with lots of production values and a swanky props department. And, as a story whose characters play out within a vivid contemporary content that we already know, it isn’t satire either. It lacks the screwdriver twist to the dangerously ridiculous of a Martin Amis or Michel Houellebecq.

Ultimately, north London white liberalism seeks to pick up the sympathy vote: “Campbell knew himself to be a traitor to his class… knew that he could no longer get away with it in his own conscience.”

Flynn eventually locates his class hatred and gets his just deserts, and real-life residents of Thornhill Square might well have a copy of this book displayed on their rosewood shelves as a celebration of their inclusive values.

However, one element of reparation is telling: Milo, a mixed-race hacker activist (an Assange-in-embryo type) has groomed and manipulated Flynn for much of the plot. At the end of the story, Milo releases his quarry with a note of forgiveness.

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