London’s dark underbelly: Caledonian Road, by Andrew O’Hagan, reviewed

‘The Cally’s named after an orphanage for kids from Scotland or some shit. Didn’t we learn that in school?’ So says Big Pharma (real name Devan Swaby), drill rapper from the Cally Active gang – one of the many characters populating Andrew O’Hagan’s vast and riveting Caledonian Road. The novel opens with a 59-strong cast list, representative of contemporary London society. At the heart of this web, spanning aristocracy, gangs and trafficked migrants via an oligarch and the middle-classes, are the celebrity art historian Campbell Flynn and his student and hacker protégé Milo Mangasha. As with the Cally and its links far beyond the capital, so O’Hagan demonstrates that his

You are what you don’t eat

If asked to think about food preservation for a moment you might picture an aproned woman boiling oranges for marmalade in a large copper maslin pan; or vegetable scraps being turned into stock; or those recipes from wartime rationing using root veg in place of sugar; or even, with an eye to the modern, you might imagine a trendy chef preparing offal in a gleaming chrome kitchen to ensure the nose-to-tail credentials of his restaurant. Some of the attempts in the past to spin out the life of fresh produce sound positively disgusting But there is more to the history of preservation than preserves, and the obvious enemy, when we

Life on the margins: how China’s rural deprivation curbs its success

41 min listen

Too often our stories about China are dictated by the urban experience, probably because journalists inside and outside of China are often based in the big cities; Beijing specifically. Those who live in the cities also tend to be more educated, more privileged, and so able to dominate the global attention more.  That’s why I’m particularly keen to hear about the lives of those who still live in the countryside, or at least are still considered ‘rural residents’ by the Chinese government. They make up a sizeable proportion of the population, and you’ll hear that in my first question to my guest today, we discuss just how big this group

Rod Liddle

The real reasons children are going hungry

‘We’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.’ I listened to The Food Programme on Radio 4 this week, because the channel finder on my car radio wasn’t working and so I was stuck with it. It was, as it almost always is, four left-wing ratbags moaning to one another. As I’ve mentioned before, this is the template for almost the entirety of the station’s output: miserable women carping endlessly about everything. It is almost impossible to know what particular programme you’re listening to. You have to keep your ears tuned for key phrases which might give you an indication. If it’s a woman teacher moaning about

There was nothing remotely pleasant about a peasant’s existence

If we are to remember peasants, we need a definition. Here is an imperfect but workable one. A peasant is a person working on the land in return for a bare subsistence. Patrick Joyce’s peasants are smallholders making just enough to feed their families and pay the rent in a normal year. They are people without status, tied to the land even if they are legally free. They occupy the lowest place in society, people with no ambitions and no future, who come into the light of history only when they revolt against their condition, as they frequently do. Historically, there have been peasants who did not fit this mould.

Was the French Revolution inevitable?

In the middle of the 18th century, on the north side of the Palais Royal gardens in Paris, there stood a magnificent chestnut tree called the Tree of Cracow. In his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 2000, Robert Darnton explained that the name Cracow probably derived from the heated debates that took place in Paris during the War of the Polish Succession, but also from the French verb craquer: to tell dubious stories. News-mongers or nouvellistes de bouche, agents for foreign diplomats and curious members of the public gathered round the tree, which was at the heart of Paris’s news network, a nerve centre for transmitting information,

The immigrant’s experience of Europe

Meet Ibrahim, from Syria. He fled Aleppo just before the bombs began to fall. A clean $4,000 in cash to a smuggler got him a fake passport and, voilà, a ticket to Europe – briefly in Greece, then in Germany (‘the people, they looked different’), now in Spain. Immigrant life was tough at first: the strange language, the alien norms, the overt racism. ‘He was not on their level. Just a refugee.’ Then a lucky break. He starred in a homemade porn video that went viral: ‘100 per cent real Arab bull.’ Next, he’s earning close to a seven-figure salary, owns a flash car and has women dripping off his

Is Margaret Thatcher ultimately to blame for the current social housing crisis?

By the time she was 25, the journalist and broadcaster Kieran Yates had lived in almost as many houses. Having rented for more than a decade, I feel her pain. I’ve lived in flats that made me physically unwell (mould has a lot to answer for) and survived housemates whose approach to kitchen hygiene made every day a salmonella minefield. I would visit a former boyfriend whose bedroom was, essentially, a glorified crawl space in a cold artists’ warehouse. He was 6ft 6in and couldn’t even kneel up in it, but, aged 24, I thought it was cool. Now I see it for what it was: an indictment of London’s

What do we think of when we think of Essex?

Apparently much of the notoriety – or perhaps by now it has become allure – of Essex is my fault. In 1990, weeks before Mrs Thatcher was defenestrated, I wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph called ‘Essex Man’, in circumstances that Tim Burrows describes entirely accurately in this exceptionally well-written and intelligent book. Although the Iron Lady was about to be history, the part of England that had come to exemplify her achievement and her legacy was throbbing with capitalist energy more than ever – which motivated the profile of Essex Man and his hard work and ability to seize opportunities in a society where native ability counted for

The deathly malaise that’s crippling Russia

Now is a difficult time to empathise with Russians – which is why we need Maxim Osipov. We need him to bring alive to us what it means to live in Putin’s Russia – how the system finds ways to crush all but a very few. Even more, we need him to remind us of the kaleidoscope of qualities that a country like Russia inevitably contains – the humanity and generosity as well as the stupidity and cruelty. An author of great subtlety, Osipov would no doubt wince at such grandiose claims for his writing. Yet when the world is deciding how to deal with the aftermath of Putin’s (eventual,

Liz Truss should increase Universal Credit

Liz Truss’s plans for a two-year energy bill freeze, estimated to cost £100 billion, underscore three points. One, the incoming Prime Minister expects the energy crisis to be with us for more than one winter. Two, she grasps how lethal it will be to the Tories’ hopes of re-election if the Treasury doesn’t intervene in a big way. Three, she is prepared to run up government debt even further in order to mitigate a crisis that threatens people’s quality of life. This third point is the crucial one. When a neo-Thatcherite like Truss concedes the merits of transformative interventions funded by borrowing, it opens up a broader conversation. If the Treasury

Modern capitalism has failed my son

A light was on in the caravan site office so I went over to try and buy a gas canister. Come Easter the little Cornish seaside resort will be heaving. Now a stiff north wind blew in off the sea and it felt like the dregs of winter still. The site office was shut but a woman came out and said she was expecting a delivery tomorrow but she didn’t know yet how much a canister would cost. Nor did she know of anywhere open where we could get something to eat. She thought there might be a place down by the beach. Nobody had managed to get any seasonal

Why I don’t stick to football

In football, you are always stronger in numbers. With a shared focus, people from different cultures, nationalities, races, sexual orientations, political affiliations and religions can unite to achieve incredible things. When you pull on that national team shirt, rivalry subsides and is replaced with a shared desire to win. When fans step into that stadium, for 90 minutes they feel a part of something, a collective, able to leave any worries outside those turnstiles. To many it is a religion. To me, it’s still a dream. You grow up idolising figures in this game who turn out to be just like you and me. Human beings with human emotions and

Boris’s levelling up risks leaving behind London

Boris Johnson’s plan to ‘level up’ Britain sounds long overdue. It implies the creation of a less geographically unequal United Kingdom. What’s not to like? The motivating theory behind ‘levelling up’ seems to go like this: London, the beating heart of this relatively affluent corner of our nation, has had plenty of investment in recent years. It is now time to listen to the needs of the newly-Conservative ‘Red Wall’ and Leave-voting ‘left behind’ communities in the north of England. These areas have been ignored for decades, and recently voiced their displeasure at the ballot box. But the reality is rather more complicated – and there is a danger that,

Westminster and the truth about the class ceiling

I come from the Lancastrian town of Ormskirk, which, though pretty, provided little in the way of opportunity or aspiration. No one in our family had been to university. I qualified for free school meals. Expectations for my future were low. But I was lucky. I had great mentors and ended up in Downing Street. I also worked for a Prime Minister who believes in social mobility and put ‘levelling up’ at the very centre of his premiership. This was the reason I came into politics too. Boris Johnson understands that the need for social mobility is now more urgent than ever, as we emerge from lockdown. While the food

Nicola Sturgeon reinvents herself as a social democrat. Again

It’s the surest sign there’s an election on in Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon has become a social democrat again. Addressing her party’s spring conference today, the SNP leader vowed to double the Scottish child payment to £10 per week for under-16s in low-income families if the Nationalists are returned to government after 6 May. She explained:  ‘I want to make ending child poverty a driving mission for the next parliament. It is time to end the scandal of child poverty, and this will help us do it. And it is a down payment of what will be possible when we have the full powers over tax and social security that only

Trade not aid: spending more doesn’t mean we care more

Outside the Catholic mission I walked through rows of women in traditional hide skirts, squatting or sitting with legs astride, palms upturned in supplication. Many suffered from scabies and cradled emaciated babies, and all looked 20 years older than their true age. These are my memories of the Uganda famine in 1980 and these were the survivors. Africa is a different place today and so are the methods used to combat famine. But this was where I learnt about the contradictions of overseas aid. Aid is pernicious, and injudicious aid can destroy all before it. Take food aid. It is wonderful for saving those in extreme peril, but once the

Racism, poverty and the ‘controversy paradox’

It might seem puzzling that we have seen such a furore about racism and racial discrimination at this particular time in our history when all possible measures of racism indicate that there is less of it in Britain than at any time in the past 70 years. A decade ago, 41 per cent of us ‘-strongly agreed’ that we would be content for our children to marry someone of a different race. That has now risen to 70 per cent. In 2006, 55 per cent ‘strongly disagreed’ that you had to be white to be ‘truly British’. That has risen to 84 per cent. It may surprise many that blacks

Lives vs lives – the global cost of lockdown

‘There have been as many plagues in history as there have been wars,’ wrote Albert Camus in The Plague, ‘yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.’ So it was this time. The arrival of a new coronavirus blindsided governments of most advanced nations as they reached for a tool that few had ever really considered before: lockdown. It all happened too fast for a proper discussion about the implications. The biggest question — the extent to which lockdown will claim lives as well as save them — is one you can ask at a global level. We know the national costs. In the United States, there is

Susan Hill

Who can still make a Sunday joint last a week?

Sunday lunch was always roast beef and, in the traditional way, the Yorkshire pudding was served first with gravy, supposedly because if you were full of cooked batter you wanted less meat. Monday saw cold meat, jacket potatoes and pickles, while the beef bone went into the pot with lentils, pearl barley, carrots and onions and bubbled on the hob for days, the basis of every dinner until Friday’s fish and Saturday’s sausages and mash, before Sunday came round again. That is what everybody had and, like all housewives, my mother made the most of every morsel. Throughout and after the war, waste was a crime. I hate cooking and