Excerpt

Caledonian Road

Andrew O'Hagan

June 18, 2024 
The following is from Andrew O’Hagan's Caledonian Road. O’Hagan, a Scottish novelist and essayist, is a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, a three-time nominee for the Booker Prize, the editor-at-large of the London Review of Books, and a contributor to The New Yorker. He lives in London.

The hall and the stairs, the front room and the kitchen and even the walk-in cupboard of the flat were covered in framed posters, newspaper stories and flyers for past political events. On the wall next to the stairs, two anti-apartheid posters provided a sunburst of clarity and engagement, along with a green tapestry in support of a united Ireland. Dotted between them were postcards of Hebridean islands, which his mother had loved, far-off Scottish places that became dreamscapes to her, represented on the landing by pink sunsets over the Summer Isles.

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Milo’s bedroom gathered around a mainframe computer. He also had a laptop, sitting open amid a sea of books and T-shirts. He’d stuck handwritten and printed slogans above his desk and along the top of his bed, between various photos. The Internet is now the central nervous system of our civilisation, and our task, our obligation, is to reverse the unnatural order, and civilise the Internet and improve the world.

He had a good relationship with his dad; he felt free to experiment and get excited by his own life. But Ray was in charge, even though he was quiet in his ways, the guardian of the family’s potential. They lived in that flat in a circle of pain about his late mother, Zemi, and in a state of deferred hope about the future. Since November, Ray had become a more remote person; other than to Milo, he said very little and saw very few. It was his wife who had animated him and now he was holding onto himself. But in that quieter manner, Milo knew his father retained the old strength and the old conviction. He was still the same guy, the same father who gently pushed at the walls surrounding them.

A small picture of Nina Simone hung next to a photograph of his mother, then one of him aged twelve with his best mate, Travis, both wearing Arsenal strips. On a white bedside cabinet sat keys and old phones. He used to do shifts in the phone shop at the King’s Cross end of Caledonian Road, and at Agelgil, an Ethiopian restaurant Zemi had liked. But now he worked for himself. He exchanged crypto-currencies online, having bought fifty Bitcoin in 2015 from money his mother had saved for him. He never touched that base amount. He knew the day would come when it would be his rescue fund.

There are no laws, only circumstances.

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He’d copied that from one of his girlfriend’s college texts and pinned it up.

It’s About Class, Stupid.

He saw Gosia’s face, her perfectly clear complexion. He picked up his phone and rang her, knowing she’d be at the salon.

‘Hey, babe,’ she said.

‘How’s the most beautiful woman in Islington?’

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‘Is that supposed to be a compliment?’

‘Sassy,’ he said.

She told him she was walking into the storeroom. ‘Listen,’ she said. ‘I was up for hours reading about that guy.’

‘What’s that?’

‘The guy who wrote the article in The Atlantic. Your current obsession.’

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‘Professor Flynn.’

‘Yeah. You know he lives in Thornhill Square? Like, five minutes from you?’

‘You’re joining me in this?’ he said.

‘I did a lot of looking,’ she said. ‘It’s all on socials and in news-papers and shit. His background. And there’s a shocker.’

‘What?’

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‘His oldest friend is that guy who’s in the news all the time.’

‘Who?’

‘Sir William Byre. Owns hundreds of shops, and the Angelique clothing line. He’s being done for corruption and whatever.’

Milo was silent for a moment.

‘They have all these connections,’ she said.

He’d sensed there was something going on. It was there in that Atlantic article. The guilt and the need for a cleanse, a way out.

‘So, what’s your motivation?’ he asked her.

‘Oh, just something I heard. Something closer to home. My brother. I’ll tell you later.’

He packed his rucksack for the day, taking a phone charger out of his sock drawer and a few books, including The Life of Vermeer. With one finger, he took his Moncler jacket off the hook and was out of the flat in two minutes. He went past Paddy Power and the grocer with its heaps of barbecue coals and fresh ginger, and saw Travis coming out past the Cheque & Pawn, parting the traffic on Caledonian Road with his arms, saying ‘Chill, chill’ to the drivers as he made his way across the road in a tracksuit and old-school Pharrells. He loved covering his face, not only for videos, but he took the bandana off when he saw Milo, as if to show he was smiling.

‘I need to keep a barrier between me and the germs, bro,’ Travis said. ‘But I’m taking it off for you.’

‘Pandemic’s over, man. Hope so anyway.’

They bumped fists. ‘Hey, where you been?’ Travis said.

‘I’m being assessed for my Master’s. I’m mad busy, you know.’

Travis looked over his shoulder, plucking a smoke from his waistband and lighting it with the Zippo already in his hand. Milo knew the stance from childhood, Travis looking left and right like that, always checking for the police. He said he and their friend Big Pharma had just got off the train from Leicester. They’d been up there selling weed. This was Travis Babb, Milo thought: selling drugs, doing crime, but like a brother, always. As Ghost 24, he was turning into one of the best drill artists in London, him and a bunch of rappers called the Cally Active, racking up a crazy number of YouTube views for their songs. He could practically see the swimming pool down the road where they’d spent their childhood summers. He hoped they’d be reminiscing until they were both rusty.

‘Listen, I’m gonna be late,’ he said. ‘Come and eat with me and my old man soon, Travis.’

His friend swayed on the spot, all loose-limbed.

‘I’d like that,’ he said.

‘Yeah?’

‘And get up on Sunday to the bando,’ Travis said. He was having a birthday party up in the abandoned flats at Copenhagen Fields. As he said this, Travis was jigging, looking at his two phones. The digital ads on the bus stop were turning from one to the next: ‘Make Today a Wins Day with a Scratch Card.’ Then a Givenchy ad spun round. Then a thing about shopping in New Bond Street.

‘I’ll try,’ Milo said.

*

It was nearly empty on the bus. Twigs from the roadside trees were flicking off the windows. They passed Housmans, the bookshop where Milo had bought his latest find, a very Zemi-like book called Policing the Black Man, which was in his rucksack next to the professor’s Vermeer. His laptop was in there too. He put his hand in and touched the cold metal. He was devoted to ethical hacking and looking for vulnerabilities, and he always felt focused when his laptop was near. When he was fifteen, Milo had hacked the payment system of an arcade in Leicester Square. He also made advert-free Spotify accounts for his friends and learned how to divert payments being made for local government parking fines into random donations to food banks in North London.

At the top of Trafalgar Square, two long banners read: ‘The National Gallery’. When he gave his name, a guard led him up a flight of stairs and they emerged into a long room, where his footfall, the squeak of his trainers, travelled up to the ceiling and its painted angels. In Room 22, the professor was talking into a microphone held by a BBC producer in headphones. Flynn had the look of someone who cared about himself: the expensive-looking haircut, the tailored suit and the fuck-off shoes. To Milo, guys like Flynn were finessing themselves to look superior, but he understood that, and smiled at it. His own friends were much the same and so was his dad, though when he stepped closer the whiff of aftershave coming from the professor was like a whole different thing.

‘Astronomy was of course a huge local industry during the Dutch Golden Age,’ he was saying, ‘and it’s no coincidence that the telescope was invented there. Nonconformist Dutch thinking reached everywhere – stargazing was a means of working out who we are in the universe – and if we look closely at Van Deuren’s young astron-omer, what we see is evidence of great curiosity.’

Flynn walked forward and the interviewer followed him. ‘I’d like to show you a portrait in the next room by Isaack Luttichuys,’ he said. ‘A brand-new acquisition. It’s been here a mere four weeks.’ Following them to the next room, going against the arrows on the floor, Milo took in the paintings, trying not to see them as something corrupt. He looked at the labels: Portrait of a Man in his Thirties, Self-Portrait aged 24, A Family Group in a Landscape. White man, white family. ‘This oil painting,’ the professor was saying, ‘was accepted by the nation from the estate of the banker George Pinto, in lieu of tax.’

‘I bet it was,’ Milo said out loud.

‘Okay, can we pause?’ the interviewer said, looking bothered. ‘Sorry, who is this?’

‘This is one of my students,’ Flynn said. He nodded at Milo in a courtly way and put a finger to his lips. ‘I’m afraid you have to shush. Unless you wish us to make a podcast about the evil marriage of art and business.’

Milo shrugged like he was born to shrug.

‘I’m up for it.’

‘Okay. Rolling . . .’ the woman said.

‘We come away from Rembrandt,’ the professor went on, ‘that tomb of browns, with the cataclysm of years that is to be found in these portraits, the artist’s sense of ruin – and we find this, an altogether brighter palette.’

Flynn went up close, his left leg touching the rope. ‘The sitter’s . . . sensitive pallor, and Luttichuys’s amazing technical work on the lace edging . . . it’s truly a marvel. There’s a touch of moisture on the child’s lip. This is a new religion of particularity, the individuation of one person as distinct from another, and it was to be massively influential on what we understand by the representation of social reality. The first Luttichuys painting to enter a British collection, this has a great deal to tell us about costume and outward gesture and the meaning of personality in a social setting.’

Milo liked the way he changed his voice for the microphone. It was all performance, he reckoned, everywhere you looked.

‘In the religious paintings, we see images of eternal life, but in this kind of painting, and in Vermeer, we see brief lives, local and time-limited – though, of course, we have thrust eternity upon them.’

Milo wandered over to him when the recording was over, hitched his rucksack onto his back and smiled. ‘Miles Davis said there were only two categories of thinking: the truth and white bullshit.’

‘And I’m an admirer of both,’ Flynn said, putting out his hand. ‘Welcome to the National Gallery.’

‘National bullshit.’

‘Come on, Milo, you can do better than that,’ he said. ‘You have as much that joins you to the girl in that portrait as joins you to Miles Davis.’

Milo was stung. ‘How’s that, then? My mother was Ethiopian.’

The professor did a sort of half-turn to the picture.

‘This girl has red blood inside her, same as you. And one can see that. That’s what makes the painting a work of genius. She’s a human being, in and of herself. She cares about what she wears, and has a mind of her own, like you.’

‘Don’t get triggered,’ Milo said. ‘I’m only talking.’

‘Pictures crack,’ Flynn replied. ‘Like we do.’

They walked into another room.

Milo began to talk about Suppose, the UCL literary magazine. He was at odds with the editors. They were all into striking hipster poses.

‘So, you’re proposing a special issue on Dead White Males?’

‘Nah, we’re all beyond that. Though I’m not gonna lie, you’re pretty dead and all of that.’

‘Thanks very much.’

They found a bench. Milo pressed his phone and started a voice memo. ‘So, I’ve got the Professor of Cultural Narrative sitting here—’

‘Narratives,’ Flynn said. ‘Plural.’

‘Cool,’ Milo said. ‘So, tell us about this room. What is this room we’re sitting in and what does it mean, and all of that?’

‘Well, this is Room 19 at the National Gallery, given over to Dutch landscapes. Like any Western gallery, it’s a zone of contention, but it’s also a centre of learning, conservation, cultural signifiers and human drama.’ Milo noticed Flynn wasn’t all that old: he had unlined skin and clear, trusting eyes. And a lot of assumed gravitas or whatever. He swept his arm around the room. ‘As much as anything, these paintings speak of the economic life of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century; they will tell you about the pride of the middle classes, of relations between men and women, and Church and State. They will show you the artist as a participant in a nation’s self-creation.’

‘And how did they come to be here?’

‘Van Ruisdael’s view of Amsterdam is on loan. Others were bought by the gallery in the nineteenth century. But I think you mean something else.’

‘Yeah. Stolen. From one culture by another.’

‘If you like, yes. The market does that. But I would maintain, from a conservation point of view, but also from a civic one, that it is better that they land here, in a well-maintained gallery open to the public, than in a private home, where so many of the world’s masterpieces languish in conditions of pride.’

Milo was pleased with that answer. He could see it as a stand-out quote in Suppose, and knew that it would play well. They stood up and walked through to A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, and Milo handed Flynn the phone, so he could open The Life of Vermeer and quote something. ‘“Vermeer is the patron saint of individual merit,” you write. “For thousands of years, privilege and power, determined by birth, were the drivers of history. But with this mysterious woman, standing at a musical instrument or reading a letter in the common light of day, we find that it is merit and individual consciousness, the personal power of ordinary people that rules the world. What is this human being thinking about? What in life is behind her? What brought her here? What is this letter? Again, Vermeer catches human differences at the moment of their occurrence, in situ. He is human like us and bows to no power beyond the power of the single mind.”’

‘Human like us?’ Milo said. He felt he’d been storing up energy. He wanted to challenge Flynn. ‘Do you really believe all of that?’

‘More or less.’

Milo looked at his notes. ‘It’s kind of empty, isn’t it? “The personal power of ordinary people.” Are you having a laugh?’

Game on, he thought.

‘Say more,’ Flynn said.

‘Not everyone has the “opportunity” to see their potential. Maybe you wish it was true, and so do the people who bought your book.’

‘I believe in meritocracy.’

‘And I believe in Santa Claus.’

‘It may be idealistic,’ Flynn went on, ‘but art is allowed that. Breaking down barriers is not in itself an evil act.’

‘It’s motivational speak,’ Milo said, ‘that uses art as a posh prop. I don’t hear you talking about the people who can’t be in the picture, who are not even likely to see the picture, unless some special magic happens. It’s all a fancy delusion. You surf on an idea of equality that simply doesn’t exist.’

‘That’s a bit of an assumption, isn’t it? The National Gallery is free to all. You can simply come here and see Vermeer any time you like.’

‘You can simply come here?’

‘That’s right. Seven days a week.’

Milo walked back to the bench and put the book down. ‘You have to know it’s here, Professor. You have to know how to want it. You have to know where to begin. Social mobility is a fantasy upheld by guilty rich people.’

‘That’s good,’ Flynn said.

‘Are you patronising me?’

Milo stared him out.

‘No offence, Professor,’ he said, ‘but I’m betting you’ve never risked anything in your life, never really set out to upset anything.’

‘That’s—’

‘No, you haven’t. You wrote that article two months ago. But have you ever jeopardised what you possess or really questioned your success?’

The professor looked at him, surprised. There was something transgressive in the conversation, the tone of it.

Milo took a step back, dialled down the intensity.

‘So, why did you become a writer?’ he asked.

‘To reach people.’

He found himself asking another question, and he felt emotional in that split second. ‘Are your parents alive?’

‘No.’

‘What were they like?’

Flynn seemed to stare into the picture of the young woman at her musical instrument. ‘Eident,’ he said. ‘It’s an old Scots word. My mother was eident. They both kept their heads down. Sewing, in my mother’s case.’

‘She was a manual worker?’

‘Perhaps that surprises you,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you’ve already made your mind up about everyone you meet.’

Milo tried to balance his words. ‘So you believe in, like, decent conditions for workers and things like that?’

‘Of course,’ the professor said.

There was a silence, but it wasn’t uneasy. They stood again in front of the Vermeer. It was cool the way her quiet gaze, her self–sufficiency, seemed like a trick. The professor went back into his art critic mode, talking about the symbols of love. Milo rubbed his head and interrupted.

‘The world’s changing, Professor Flynn. It’s due a complete reset. Meanwhile, you’ll spend your life worrying about what a girl in a Vermeer painting sees in a letter she’s holding.’

‘Or I’ll learn to inhabit her stillness. That’s a life’s work.’

They stood staring at each other. Milo took it all in. ‘Just paint. Just a girl. Just a letter,’ he said with a shrug.

‘Just life, if we can only know it. But if life is changing, if the world is resetting, I’m interested. I’m ready.’

Flynn looked at his watch, an old Rolex, Milo thought.

‘I have a lunch appointment,’ Flynn said.

Downstairs, he told Milo he never socialised with students. ‘But I like the quality of the conversation we’re having. Perhaps you’d join me for a drink. Tonight?’

‘Sure, yeah.’

The professor looked shy, like he was taking a risk. ‘That way we can go further into this fascinating stuff.’

Milo nodded.

Flynn suggested somewhere called the Fumoir Bar at Claridge’s.

‘Where’s that?’

‘Brook Street. Ten o’clock.’

__________________________________

From Caledonian Road by Andrew O’Hagan. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton. Copyright © 2024 by Andrew O’Hagan.




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