Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. Books
17 April 2024

Andrew O’Hagan’s maximum city

Caledonian Road is a brick of a novel lobbed at the towering glass houses of London.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

In February 2024, an article in the New Yorker forensically investigated a moral rot spreading through London. In “A Teen’s Fatal Plunge Into the London Underworld”, Patrick Radden Keefe reported the strange story of a British 19-year-old named Zac, who fell from the fifth floor of a gleaming riverside skyscraper in Pimlico. Keefe tracked the odd circumstances of his death to a drug-trade gangster called “Indian Dave” and a once-bankrupt crypto millionaire, and depicted a London where the seemingly oblivious liberal middle classes lived alongside crooks, fraudsters and the children of oligarchs. He characterised the city as “a bastion of gaudy consumerism”, “a commodious base for global kleptocrats”, “a mecca for moneyed reprobates” and the world’s “24-hour laundromat” – the place where dirty money is washed clean.

This is the London of Andrew O’Hagan’s Caledonian Road, a 642-page brick of a novel lobbed at the city’s towering glass houses. Taking place over a year from May 2021, it begins by closely following 52-year-old cultural critic Campbell Flynn as he travels from the Wolseley to his office at UCL to his handsome house in Islington’s Thornhill Square, just off the Caledonian Road. Like O’Hagan, Campbell was born in Glasgow in relative poverty, and has made a success of himself in London. Author of a celebrated critical biography of Vermeer, he has more recently entered the cultural zeitgeist thanks to an incendiary article in the Atlantic on liberal hypocrisy (“The Art of Contrition”), and an appearance on a viral BBC podcast, Civilisation and its Malcontents. Campbell is “straightforwardly terrified of ever returning to poor conditions”, which “sat very uneasily with his also having an amateur de luxe side the size of the Place des Vosges”. So now he’s keen to cash in on the malleable self-help market with a semi-ironic, pseudonymous work called Why Men Weep in Their Cars: The Crisis of Male Identity in the Twenty-First Century (a pitch-perfect satirical title from O’Hagan). As he moves through the city, he lights up a circuit of old Cambridge friends, aristocratic in-laws, rebellious young relatives and students, shady businessmen, glamorous actors and models, and all manner of acquaintances grubby and powerful.

It’s a vivid cast of characters. There’s Campbell’s wife, Elizabeth, a clever and empathetic psychotherapist, and their children: Angus, a flashy, internationally famous DJ, and Kenzie, a quieter, gay former model who lives in the empty Belgravia home of Elizabeth’s mother, Emily, the Countess of Paxford. Elizabeth’s sister Candy is married to Anthony, the grand old Duke of Kendal, whose name keeps cropping up in select-committee investigations into Russian corruption. Campbell’s university friend Sir William Byre – a fashion-chain owner who has grown sordid in his later years, after too many dodgy handshakes and glasses of Château Montrose – is married to the venomous right-wing journalist Antonia Byre, who spits out columns and insults toward her son, Zak, a privately educated Just Stop Oil activist living in a £7m flat on the canal. Zak went to Oxford with the actor Jake Hart-Davies – who Campbell wants to front his self-help book project – as well as with the son of a billionaire Russian oligarch, and a journalist who is investigating seedy claims about William. And there’s Mrs Voyles, Campbell’s spider-like sitting tenant, who crouches in the damp basement flat, constantly complaining but refusing to comply with repairs – a demon from his past, or his subconscious.

Infiltrating this network of influence is Campbell’s student Milo Mangasha, an intelligent hacker-activist who lives just around the corner, determined to bring down a structure that fosters inequality in service of elite greed. Campbell senses that his ethical and intellectual values are becoming obsolete. “He’d marched against Section 28, he’d read every book on the fall of empire, was the proud father of a queer daughter, the first into pronoun therapy, yet his destiny, like everybody’s, was to fall short… The house of cards inside us becomes shaky when we realise, one day, that we breathe no differently from our parents, and are nervous like them to hold the world steady.” He recruits Milo as a “researcher” and the two have long conversations about class and cryptocurrency, digital selfhood and the dark web. Campbell is increasingly conscious of a growing hole where his moral centre should be, and here comes Milo to fill it.

The book’s cover, which shows a jumble of coloured lines, is a simplified map of Caledonian Road and its surrounding streets, referencing Charles Booth’s Victorian “poverty maps” of London, in which houses and streets were colour-coded by class. With all his characters in place, O’Hagan gradually zooms out from Campbell to reveal a web of money, crime and power, spanning all levels of society.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

This is a big, maximalist, bonkers novel – propelled by a relentless pace, a chaotic comic energy and a sometimes absurdist plot in which catastrophe follows catastrophe. Middle-aged establishment figures and hot young celebrities are publicly cancelled, innocent people are maimed or die in horrendous circumstances: abuse, addiction, human trafficking, contract beatings and even filicide. People are brought down by acts of theft, blackmail and everyday hubris. In a few pages, we move from a depiction of modern-day slavery in a Leicester garment factory to camp sequences over the breakfast table of a double-fronted mansion in St John’s Wood. It’s farcical in the literal, etymological sense of being “overstuffed”, and in the sense that everything goes from bad to worse. And so it finds itself in that compelling, uneasy space between realism and satire.

Caledonian Road, a book billed as a “headline-grabbing entertainment”, arrives with a TV adaptation (from Chernobyl director Johan Renck) already in the works. O’Hagan and Faber’s publicity team have also branded it a “social novel”, a “state-of-the-nation” novel, even a “reported novel”. O’Hagan has experience here: he has published long-form journalism on subjects including the mysterious founder of Bitcoin, the Grenfell fire and Julian Assange, who he spent hours with while ghost-writing Assange’s memoir. There is so much going on in this novel – from the unequal impact of the pandemic to organised crime in the art world – and he suggests that corruption is a terminal disease the capital can’t recover from. He has crammed his book with observations of the living, breathing city: O’Hagan has said he walked Deptford streets at two in the morning and visited ritzy Belgravia restaurants on the same day as his characters to make sure every element – architecture, weather, post-Covid regulations – is accurate.

But the novel also owes a debt to Dickensian caricature and the self-consciously “big, ambitious novels” of the 1990s that the critic James Wood famously dubbed “hysterical realism”. Here, “the conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted and overworked” in a landscape of “glamorous congestion” and a proliferation of larger-than-life minor characters with punning names. (There is no “Toby Awknotuby” here, but Campbell’s middle name is “Essendine” – a reference to Noël Coward’s autobiographical character in Present Laughter, charming but lost in a mid-life crisis, and an anagram of his fatal flaw: neediness.) The reprobates that inhabit O’Hagan’s London are both immediately recognisable and caricatured. This is a book about the slow creep of irrelevancy, the feeling of being displaced by a glittering and incomprehensible new world, and so perhaps it is right that it takes an old-fashioned form and crams it with contemporary references and incident to make its point.

O’Hagan’s satirical flourishes are sometimes triumphantly precise – particularly when he parodies the media and publishing industries (the New York Review of Books review of Campbell’s biography, for instance, is “two years late” and titled “Vermeer’s Veneer”). He knows exactly what clothes his characters wear, what pictures hang in their homes, what shade of Farrow & Ball paint is on their walls. But being given details such as that Campbell’s daughter applies Clarins’ Beauty Flash Balm in a hotel bathroom teaches us little other than that these are hollow men and women, who have outsourced their personalities to corporations.

The risk of a novel that nobly aims to capture both a 22-year-old rapper known as Big Pharma and a middle-aged, wellness-obsessed duchess nicknamed “Candy” is dialogue that lands with a clunk. The young non-binary designer, who claims to dress “to express their feelings about the destruction of the planet”, calls Campbell “Mr Boomerang of Boomtown” and chides him to “cool it with the micro-aggressions… Or maxi-aggressions”. Middle-aged parents fear their children will “give all my money away to wind farms and transgenders”, addressing them with a bitterness more typically reserved for strangers on social media: “Aw, Zakky. Did you have too much private education? Did we force too many holidays and too many presents down your throat?” An art curator sprinkles Latin over clichés, telling Campbell that his lecture “sure put the cattus among the columbae”. A model’s agent speaks in tabloidese, calling a photographer “only the biggest snapper since Avedon” and complaining about a model’s “lunatic squeeze”. Are today’s edgy DJs telling people to “Keep it peeped” and signing off phone calls with “Laters”? Are south London drill groups really referring to rap battles as “sing-song ding-dongs”?

Undoubtedly, it is Campbell who is the novel’s most sensitively drawn character, as he gradually becomes “brutally infected with all the viruses and sicknesses” of the city. Yet he feels stuck: leaving London is “a struggle now beyond him, so inscribed was he in their various scenes, and he did not have the resources – not the freedom, not the money – to divorce himself”. He is slouching towards bedlam, slowly driving himself mad, and a terrible sense of personal foreboding hangs over him and us.

At the start of the novel’s final act, Campbell is landing at Heathrow after a research trip abroad. London from the air is now “a reflective landscape”, he realises.

“So much glass, thought Campbell, as the plane banked over the city on 25 January. He recalled the grey and brown that had characterised the capital when he first saw it in the 1980s. In those days, flying into Heathrow from the east, following the Thames, you would look down from your seat and catch the top of the Lloyd’s building and the dome of St Paul’s, perhaps a thrust of green from Hyde Park, but generally it was a tundra of low-rise brickwork and steeples. Now you had the Shard and the London Eye, a notion of tourism, Olympic Games and foreign currency, fired in the city’s great furnace of deregulation and glinting in the sun.

It was unexplained, his feeling weepy in aeroplanes.”

Here is a man who likes to think he is gliding far above the corporate greed of the city, but finds himself drawn down towards it inexorably. A man who discovers that the optimistic world of his youth has been redeveloped into something sinister, glassy and blinding. A man who thinks he is too clever to put his own name to a cheap, easy book called Why Men Weep in Their Cars, but still can’t figure out why he weeps in aeroplanes.

If O’Hagan’s novel wants to offer us a glimpse of contemporary London, it hasn’t quite decided whether it is a window or a funhouse mirror. But it captures something of its dazzling and tricksy reflective surfaces, its winking outward charm, and the mouldering core beneath.

Andrew O’Hagan appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 17 April

Caledonian Road
Andrew O’Hagan
Faber & Faber, 656pp, £20

Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from, who support independent bookshops

[See also: The fight to save the fractured Union]

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

Topics in this article : , ,

This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran