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Cheek by Jowl

Art by Martha Hathaway

This interview with Andrew O'Hagan was first published in the Hilary Term 2024 edition (Summer) of the ORB magazine.


Andrew O’Hagan arrives in the back of a taxi from central London, he rushes in and apologises for running late. We are meeting at Sam’s Café in Primrose Hill and sit by large windows facing the street. It’s filled with multicoloured chairs, bookshelves on the walls, and copies of the London Review of Books arranged by the counter. Around us customers drift in for takeaway coffee and sit in for lunch — someone reads in the corner. He orders a Caesar salad and I go for avocado toast.

When I ask O’Hagan about the origin of his new book, Caledonian Road, he tells me it started with the voice of a man on the brink of disaster. ‘I could hear the sound of his anxiety when he was standing in front of the shaving mirror in the morning, I could hear this man who was about to make a terrible mistake, and I could see around him a whole society’. From this voice the novel widens out into a blistering critique of British public life: condensed into one year, it follows sixty characters from five families and stretches to over 600 pages. Along the way we are introduced to Russian kleptocrats, crony Lords, right-wing newspaper columnists, narcissistic academics, drill rappers, heroic hackers, and environmental protestors.

Before meeting O’Hagan, I took a walk down Caledonian Road where much of the novel is set. Spanning from Kings Cross up to Islington, it’s a jumble of local shops and cafés, council estates and large Georgian terraces — a stark reminder of the complex social fabric of contemporary London. The decision to set a novel here was, as O’Hagan notes, for its ‘Victorian character’. He continues, ‘that’s to say one side of the street is very rich and the other side is very poor. So much of London life is there, British life, social housing, cheek by jowl to these seven million quid houses.’ 

I ask about the link between the form of the 19th century social novel and his current efforts, and O’Hagan tells me that he studied the 19th century thoroughly before structuring the book. ‘It’s heavy with not just Dickens, but also George Eliot, and a lot of Balzac and Zola’, he says, admiring their ability to study their contemporary societies ‘almost scientifically’. But O’Hagan also stresses the complex possibilities in this form which allow him to ‘create a space on the page wherein these people from different worlds can mingle and push each other forward’. For him, the social novel is ‘a comedy of errors but it’s also a social canvas’, a way into the complex underworld of contemporary British life.

And O’Hagan is no stranger to writing about modern Britain, his non-fiction writing has often seen him uncover the counter-narratives hiding under the surface of public life. He has slept under Waterloo Bridge to write about the homeless, battled with the absurd ego of Julian Assange while trying to ghostwrite his autobiography, and even adopted the identity of a recently deceased man to investigate the underworld of the dark web. When I ask him about the influence of his journalistic work on his fiction, he is direct: ‘no doubt about it, the connections between my journalistic pavement pounding efforts over the years and the novel are completely explicit.’ He tells me that much of Caledonian Road is informed by his own ‘research into Russian oligarchs, cryptocurrency, the dark net, street gangs, migrants, the fashion industry, the film industry’— all of which he has been ‘inside in a very intimate way.’

In highlighting his personal experience, O’Hagan draws another comparison to the Dickensian tradition of the social novel. ‘I mean Dickens was up with his notebook open in parliament every other day’, O’Hagan recalls, ‘He didn’t do guesswork, he got his notebook out. He’s taught us how to be reporters who then wrote novels.’ It’s this interplay between personal experience and fiction which makes the novel’s political framing work, the cast of characters feel constitutive of fragments of contemporary British life. ‘I wanted a reader to be able to taste the Old Bailey, in a way that it couldn’t be if you hadn’t spent months inside those dusty corridors, and I did.’

This interplay between lived experience and O’Hagan’s fiction goes even further when I ask why he chose to situate the novel in 2021. He tells me that on Thursday 20 May 2021, he was there at the very spot in Wolseley where the book opens. ‘I fact-checked the opening of the novel: for weather, for Covid rules, for attitudes, for the openness of society. But in that week I actually fact-checked it moment by moment, by walking through it like a piece of method acting, or method writing’. The decision to place the novel in 2021 was also entwined with the specific political moment captured by the post-Covid late Johnson era, ‘a widening of the gap between rich and poor, a certain kind of savagery spit into our sense of nationhood and sense of foreignness, a certain intolerance of human need and weakness, a certain intolerance of difference’. While set in 2021 O’Hagan also notes, ‘the drama has been percolating in the culture of Britain for decades waiting to burst’.

Caledonian Road is primarily situated around the public and private fall of Campbell Flynn, a public intellectual bathing in the limelight after the bestselling success of his biography on the 17th century artist Johannes Vermeer. He lives in a beautifully decorated flat in Thornhill Square. He writes for various newspapers and magazines and runs a successful BBC podcast called ‘Civilization and its Malcontents’. In the novel, a fictional op-ed in the New York Times describes him as ‘a podcast warrior using art criticism in the way intended by the great Matthew Arnold: to argue about life.’ Anxious about the state of his finances, Flynn decides to ghostwrite a self-help book on male masculinity entitled: ‘Why Men Weep in Their Cars: How to Get Over It and Fix The World’ pegged to an upcoming young actor Jake Hart-Davies. 

‘Islington was full of men like Campbell when the 90s turned into the present decade’, O’Hagan tells me when I ask how representative he perceives a figure like Campbell Flynn to be in the public sphere. A character defined by contradictions, he’s ‘hugely ambivalent about so many things. On the one hand, he counts himself one of the enlightened who sees inequities in society and writes these famous essays about how everyone is fooling themselves, but then the culture wars are actually felt very personally by him.’ It’s these very contradictions which set Flynn on a path of self-destruction. Ultimately O’Hagan regards Flynn as ‘not a bad man, but he also isn’t a good man, and the good liberal that he thinks he is.’

A chance meeting with Milo Mangasha, an Irish-Nigerian graduate student taken under Flynn’s wing, begins the crux of much of Caledonian Road’s narrative. Unbeknownst to Flynn, Mangasha is a hacker on a mission to take down Flynn’s inner circle, leaking their crimes and ties to Russian oligarchs to the press. O’Hagan tells me of the deliberateness to this portrayal of intergenerational conflict. He sees Campbell’s crisis as linked to a malaise in the generation of the 1960s and 1970s, a ‘burden of failed revolution which they turned into a kind of self-celebration somehow’. Despite the fact that Generation X possesses control over almost all the institutions of modern Britain, Flynn cannot accept ‘he got it wrong’, he ‘can’t believe that the younger generation would blame him, he’d always been on all the marches.’ O’Hagan poses the following question to the reader: what would happen if you ‘woke up one day as an intelligent person’ to discover ‘you’re feeding at the same horrible trough as abusers and oligarchs?’

This interplay between these overt contradictions in British public life becomes a wider framing device to thinking about British society. Taking Tony Blair as an example, O’Hagan is scathing, ‘This is a guy who was a kind of liberal — you know in the post-war figure sense — who turned into a rabid ideologue in front of our eyes’. He explains, ‘it was an absolute kind of spiritual slap to the face of us who believed we stood against all that, to see that people on the left could be like that too.’ In the end, ‘the whole liberal house of cards takes a bit of a knocking, and it doesn’t get knocked very often.’

‘I’d tried to keep my anger out of the book as much as I could’, O’Hagan tells me when I ask him about the decision to write with such frankness about contemporary British politics. ‘This post-Brexit, post-Covid world we’re in needs talking about’, he continues, ‘So I quite like the idea that a novelist can sort of shake the building.’ O’Hagan refers to Scott Fitzgerald ‘who said the sign of a good novelist is their ability to occupy both ends of the argument simultaneously.’ And he reiterates the need for representing the wealth of contradictions he sees in British society: ‘I’ve always liked writers who run with the hare and the hounds; good novelists must. If you’re only with the hounds, you’re a propagandist. And if you only run with the hares, you might think you’re single-minded or morally focused, but you’re just one sided. You’ve got to give room for everybody.’

It’s nearly three o’clock and the sky has darkened. Our plates are empty, and O’Hagan sits with a half-drunk flat white. After having worked on this book for some ten years, O’Hagan tells me candidly ‘I do look at that book now and can hardly believe it exists’, he says, ‘things are created inch by motherfucking inch. Inch by inch. One day you get to stand back and go God there it is.’

Nearing the end of our discussion we talk, appropriately, about the end of the novel. I ask him about the pessimism of contemporary British life within this book, and I query what kind of hope he might see in future change to the status-quo. He talks to me about a scene near the end of the book between Moira, Campbell’s politician sister, and Elizabeth, Campbell’s wife. They are in Camley Street Nature Reserve, children’s voices can be heard as they gaze at the pond life, and O’Hagan notes that ‘there’s a sense of a light in the sky. These women reach the summit of the gardens’ and after very gently making a vow to go at things differently,  ‘very privately they hug each other.’  From the beginning, O’Hagan knew ‘corruption would be exposed and punished, some guilty people would get away, dreadful surprises would occur, deep divisions in society would be exposed, and horrors would be revealed.’ But he also knew that it would end with hope, ‘I think it’s a hopeful ending, in fact it’s so hopeful an ending, it’s not really an ending, it’s a kind of beginning.’

CHARLIE TAYLOR is reading for an MSt in Modern European History at Balliol. He is surprised his degree wasn't scrapped after 2016.


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