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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

At Home and Away on the Caledonian Road

There are lines from poet Philip Larkin that have been worn thin by heads nodding in agreement:

    They may not mean to, but they do.   

They fill you with the faults they had

    And add some extra, just for you.”*

Larkin goes on to exhort: “Get out as early as you can”

But novelist Andrew O’Hagan finds others lines in Larkin that are more apropos in 2024. They occur in the poem, Home is So Sad, and picture the hallowed place as suffering abandon. O’Hagan thinks Generation Z’ers, at the end of the alphabet and perhaps the planet, have decided never to move out. They want to stay home and think about how mum and dad  made them what they are. O’Hagan, fifty-six, a  Scottish expat in London, left home as early as he could. In an article in the Guardian, he tells of his wonder when his son told him he may never go off and pitch a tent of his own. O’Hagan’s perplexity led him to write a 641-page novel, Caledonian Road, published April 4, 2024. The novel, being about the UK today, is all about money. However, O’Hagan never insists on one obvious reason why kids stay put. Home is where the money is. Maybe that explanation is too simple. In any case it would have cut down the number of pages of Caledonian Road and spoiled the fun of what is an impressive state-of-the nation-now novel. (State-of-the-nation, i.e. what’s happening in London). It would also have gone against what the central character, Campbell Flynn, fifty-two, also a transplanted Scot, thinks is our worst error, a refusal to admit that there are more than two sides to every question.

The thoroughfare Caledonian Road seems surprised to run out of the new centre of London that has arisen like a mirage of modernity in the vast former railroad yards behind Kings Cross Station. What used to be the dingiest of red light districts and playground for druggies on their last stagger has been built anew, properly sanitised, and made worthy for the headquarters of Google, Expedia, Facebook and other global bloodsuckers. There’s a sprinkling of miniature parks and places to sit for tired consumers. Caledonian Road then takes off north and gets back to its century-old self of post-industrial debris and London-yellow-brick gone dirt brown. Veering slightly east, it ends at the top of Islington. That  borough suffered gentrification in the Tony Blair era, leaking a wild rise in property values and an upper-class invasion. Social mixes resulted that couldn’t be harmonised. Around the Cally tube station on the Piccadilly Line, the native poor, proud and bigoted, share space with various newcomers, just as poor, but with a different skin colour. Off on the garden squares in architectural gems refurbished to match their new owners’s incomes, the black-cab riding class try to smile away with liberal well-wishing the immense gap in incomes.

One of these householders, Professor Campbell Flynn, lives in picture-perfect and sheltered Thornhill Square. His home is his castle with one flaw. It came with a sitting tenant in the basement apartment, Mrs Voyles. The law that protects sitting tenants dates from a social-conscious London, now a quaint memory. Such tenants can’t be displaced if they wish to remain no matter the wealth and might of a new  landlord. In a novel full of questionable people that use their cash and social standing to finesse the law, Mrs Voyles is an exception. She is pure malice of an inexcusable, bullheaded, bolshy, near insane sort. She is also what Anton Chekhov called the storyteller’s gun. Introduced as bric-a-brac early on, it will be fired before the curtain falls.

Campbell Flynn is  not only  a university professor, he’s a public intellectual and a famous writer on art and its social connections. His rise from humble family circumstances in Glasgow has been spectacular. He married into the British aristocracy and has a multimillionaire for a friend. O’Hagan saddles Campbell with what a less accomplished and more cliché-addicted writer would have called a midlife  crisis. Looking for a way through it by broadening his interests, Campbell teams up with Milo, a former student and hacker extraordinaire. He will clue Campbell in on internet mysteries like  cryptocurrency and the dark web. Milo had a beloved Ethiopian mother and an Irish father, both  wounded by imperialism. Not on Campbell’s side, Milo is out for vengeance and uses his hacker genius to expose the powerful who are profiting amidst the current lost efficiency, prestige, and decency of the United Kingdom.

Campbell Flynn’s collapsing figure will be the novel’s touchstone with every inadequacy of once- great Britain. His personal anxieties are those of the West’s Third-Millennials. Caledonian Road is like reading the unspoken gen behind the sensational headlines in the morning press. It’s also an absorbing tale. The novel is  precise about its beginning on May 20, 2021. Lockdown of the Covid pandemic has just ended and the downside of Brexit appeared in all its horror.

What ails Campbell is the novel’s starting point. The guff about males in their fifties finding themselves out of breath and unable to find their second wind is too simple to explain his inner confusion. Guilt, yes. The fact of betraying his working-class beginnings has begun to weigh on him. But why just now? Memories of his dead mother trouble him as never before. Yet it seems it wasn’t anything he failed to do for her but the tough, bitter woman’s refusal to accept that there’s never satisfactory payback for the sacrifices you make for your children. Campbell’s son has surpassed him in celebrity and moneymaking.  One of the novel’s themes is the conflict between fathers and sons. Has the strain of that struggle got too much for Campbell? That a trusted friend  has been revealed a crook and a rapist can’t help but upset him. Campbell’s taste for luxury has  led him to accept questionable loans and to lose control of his finances. He has never thrown off the fear of poverty brought with him from Glasgow.

Up-to-date liberal and influencer that he is, Campbell sweeps  his  insecurity and general disarray under a self-help carpet. He announces that he’s going to loosen his necktie,  take risks, and turn over a new radical leaf. He writes an article to that effect:

“We participate in the systems that oppress people, we thrive on them, and we think that by going on festive marches and tweeting slogans to our like-minded friends we are somehow cleansed. Welcome to the orgy of white contrition.”

But Campbell’s personal catastrophe is only an echo to that of the United Kingdom’s. O’Hagan sees it as having “levitated on a sea of dirty money” and now, post mismanaged pandemic and  after Brexit, crashed to the hard earth. The sordid liaison with the oligarchs who at the fall of the Soviet Union became rich “beyond the dreams of avarice" couldn’t survive the war in Ukraine. His Majesty’s government could hardly assault the Kremlin with Churchillian rhetoric on the one hand and take Russian money with the other.

Caledonian Road goes over the whole shameful story. Oligarch’s money bought members of the House of Lords of both parties. British aristocrats who curtsied before the Queen and played along with royal folklore were hired as facilitators. London had become the world’s money laundry. Tax havens sheltered by the Union Jack were the apple of every international criminal’s eye. Russian money not only kept metropolitan elite social life whirling, it supported the arts and  hangers-on to them. Tainted money had created a many tiered crime syndicate whose efficiency far surpassed that of the the crumbling lawful system. People smuggling supplied worker slaves to keep the sweatshop sewing machines humming and the cannabis growth-houses green.

The venom of his sitting tenant, Mrs Voyles, drove Campbell Flynn out of his mind and to his ruin. Campbell, at the nadir of his crackup, says to himself, through the smoke of a joint, “Only disconnect”. It nullifies “only connect”, the liberal watchword that E.M. Forster gave us in Howard’s End of 1910. Just as Ethiopian-Irish Milo knew, the well-meaning, well-heeled connected are complicit in “the sprawling web of it all,” the roiling evil engulfing the world.


This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   

    They may not mean to, but they do.   

They fill you with the faults they had

    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   

Who half the time were soppy-stern

    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

    It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

    And don’t have any kids yourself.


Home Is So Sad

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,

Shaped to the comfort of the last to go

As if to win them back. Instead, bereft

Of anyone to please, it withers so,

Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,

Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:

Look at the pictures and the cutlery.

The music in the piano stool. That vase.


Leaving home used to be a rite of passage, Andrew O’Hagan on family, freedom and a generational divide” March 30, 2024

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