Other People’s Money

 

All last week Mister Litlove came to bed irritated, and it was my fault. For his birthday I’d bought him a non-fiction exposé about tax havens and it was annoying the hell out of him. I’ve been mining a seam of books for him about the banking crisis, and they have been fascinating in a car wreck sort of way. Did you know, for instance, that in America, the country’s wealth is concentrated in so few hands that measured by other standards it could be taken for a Communist country? And when the markets went down in London, what kept the banks afloat? The money from drug trafficking. I tell you, it is not pretty out there. This latest book about tax havens explained how law, politics and commerce have combined to allow the super rich to stay that way, whilst the rest of us wallow in economic depression. The injustice of it all was making my usually even-tempered husband angry.

I’m not quite sure, then, whether or not to pass onto him Justin Cartwright’s latest novel, Other People’s Money. Although this is a highly topical novel with an eye to the sorts of events mentioned above, it is essentially a comedy of manners and an extremely entertaining read. The Trevelyan family find themselves in severe embarrassment in the wake of the world financial crisis. For generations they have run Tubal & Co, a private bank which has been a byword for all that is safe and secure about the old boy network. However, when steely patriarch Sir Harry Trevelyan is incapacitated through illness, his son, Julian, forced into banking despite his wishes, has to move fast to cover up the huge losses they have made on their toxic hedge funds. Whilst Sir Harry has clearly been a bit of a brute in the private sphere, his banking methods were sound. Nice Julian, however, was lured into the market for derivatives with disastrous results. If he can sell the bank to an American entrepreneur quickly, they can hide the shady dealings they’ve done to prevent themselves from going under.

The circumstances of the novel have a vaguely blockbustery feel to them, although the prose is too insightful for this to be anything other than literary fiction. In the glamorous villa in Antibes, loyal secretary Estelle tends to the stroke-befuddled Harry, whilst his fluffy second wife, Fleur, avoids him in London and dallies with her private trainer. Julian and his second-in-command, Nigel, rush around the family vaults, and fly to Chicago, Switzerland, Antibes, in a desperate last-ditch attempt to prevent scandal, Julian finding it hard to lay eyes on the adorable innocence of his small children without bursting into tears. And a small newspaper in Cornwall is contacted by an anonymous whistleblower with a grudge, determined to bring the story into the public domain before the sale goes through.

The lives of the wealthy are balanced by an unusual secondary character, an elderly actor and playwright, Artair MacCleod, who was once upon a time Fleur’s first husband. Artair relies on a small grant regularly given by the bank (a sort of consolation prize from Sir Harry) to stage his children’s plays whilst he works on his magnum opus, a five-hour play on the life of Flann O’Brien, in which he is determined that Daniel Day Lewis will star. When the grant is mysteriously suspended, he moves into diva mode, kicking up a fuss that contributes to the Trevelyan’s difficulties. One of the pleasures of Cartwright’s writing is his ability to conjure vivid characters into being, and Artair MacCleod turns out to be a real treat, a man described as ‘one of those higher loonies, whose whole life is a paranoid performance.’ But as the novel unfolds, his eccentricities become rather endearing and his first wife Fleur ultimately decides that ‘Artair has done something heroic: he has kept faith with art and its power.’ Art features in this novel as a necessary restorative, a way of giving men back their souls when the sordid financial world threatens to suffocate them.

All in all this is a highly enjoyable novel, a perfect holiday read. My only quibble was that, after all I’ve heard about the bankers and the crash, Cartwright lets his characters off very lightly in the end, rather as if he had grown too fond of them over the creative process to punish them severely. I could have stood to see a bit more retribution. But there is also another truth here, that banks are protected species, and the dangers inherent in their collapse means that lawyers and governments mobilise fast to kick dust over the traces. And for all that he pulls his punches in the closing sections of the novel, Cartwright does manage to end on an utterly charming surprise that made me laugh. If only our real life economic troubles could be so elegantly managed…

 

[Just in case anyone is interested, the non-fiction books Mister Litlove has been reading are: How Markets Fail by John Cassidy, All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Banking Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, and Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World by Nicholas Shaxson.]

 

21 thoughts on “Other People’s Money

  1. Poor Mr. Litlove. I avoid the kinds of books he has been reading becasue just reading the reviews of them makes my blood pressure go up. The disparity of wealth in the U.S. is very bad and those who have it are always accusing those who complain about it of instigating class warfare. It’s really disgusting. Occupy Wallstreet go people’s attention but I am afraid it isn’t enough to get change going. One can hope though! As to he book under review, I might have a wee bit of trouble feeling any kind of sympathy for the characters.

    • Stefanie – I had forgotten Occupy Wallstreet – how foolish of me! I am hoping that change will come about the way it does at my college. To begin with there is massive resistance, and all those in favour of change have to put up with all sorts of flak. Then everything dies down. And then a year later, the proposals go forward to the council again and it all goes through without a whimper. I really do feel that banking HAS to change – it is such a cesspit.

  2. LOVED this review … and the book sounds delightful, as if it stepped a bit to the left it would be satire, but it has the flavor of satire without actually being satire, if that makes any sense.

    • And you nail it exactly! It is a sort of delicate satire, light-footed, featherweight, satire-lite. Quite possibly because banks don’t need active satirising – they do it all by themselves.

    • I can warmly recommend the economics books Mister Litlove has been reading. They seem to be very thoroughly researched – even if that does make them a little depressing!

  3. It even looks like a holiday read…what a great cover. Although I am not one, I do not begrudge the wealthy their wealth (as long as it is honestly gained, of course. It certainly isn’t okay to get there via corruption, graft or some other sleazy means to be sure). But I really don’t see why I should disdain someone who has either worked hard and earned it, or was lucky and won it, or found it, or even inherited it. Not everyone works that hard, or is that lucky, or selects their ancestors that well, etc. In those ways, there will never be equality. Life is very random in many respects. But if and when I begin to feel envious, I remember that many (perhaps “most” – since I have no statistics) of the wealthy give generously to charities and use their money to good purpose. Not just in the area of poverty, but also in scientific research, and the Arts,and historic preservation, and education, whether it be through charitable trusts or direct giving or bequests. My parents were middle class folks with gritty determination to do the best they could for their children. It wasn’t always easy, and even with hard work they struggled at times. But they believed that the American dream of success was possible for anyone who worked hard. I do as well. And although a great many people are much more financially successful than I am, I am content enough in what I have worked to achieve that I don’t get the urge to grumble.

    • I can see you feel strongly about this Grad, and I completely agree that if people have worked hard, they deserve the rewards. I think some of the issue here is that if wealth is concentrated in a relatively small number of people, then there is just not the diversity of charity or philanthropic donations. When only a few people have the power to make things happen, the only things that happen are those that please the few, if you see what I mean. And alas, so much of the great wealth acquired is dirty money, one way or another.

      But the other side of the coin is Oliver James’ book Affluenza, which points out that more money does not make us proportionally happier. In fact, once we have enough income to enjoy an average standard of living we actually get much more pleasure out of time spent with loved ones, on hobbies and sports and recreational activities, and in just watching the grass grow!

  4. Partner-who-drinks-tea has been similarly upset by the tax haven issue this past week, Did you know there are some Cabinet members who have their MP’s salaries paid into accounts abroad? If Mr Litlove doesn’t know that you’d better not tell him.

    • Oh ouch! Perhaps we’ll keep that just between ourselves, oncealibrarian! And I send sympathies to partner-who-drinks-tea. These things are upsetting!

  5. I sympathize with Mr. Litlove–I can’t stand to think about the unfairness of it all. Interesting how the novel combines good writing and blockbustering, a publisher’s dream perhaps?

    • Wouldn’t you think! I can handle the banking crisis at the level of narrative – I end up steering clear of reading the books because I usually hear it from Mister Litlove anyway!

  6. I can become somewhat enraged by all this too, but what can one do? ‘Twas ever thus I suspect. And surely it is authentic for there to be not overwhelming retribution – if not in fact why in fiction?

    • Bookboxed, I feel sure that we are standing on the cusp of a lot of banking-related novels. I have another one sent me to review by an author I liked a great deal last year, only she has set hers on the floor of a stock brokers (or something similar). I think it will be interesting to see how it plays out. Fiction tends to be the place where we make up for the wrongs done in the real world, or at least pay homage to them. So I’m hoping that in time we’ll get narratives that really point out what gets lost in these situations, in such a way that we see it strikingly brought home to us. But maybe that’s just me!🙂 No there’s not a lot we can do, except remember that more money doesn’t actually make us any happier, once we have reached a basic standard of living. After that we do much better to tend to our souls….

  7. Your post here reminds me of the Oscar winning documentary of 2011: “Inside Job”. This is a must see if Mr. litlove and you would like a more visual and succinct but well documented film on this subject. Lots of interviews with the financiers and consultants themselves, revealing much. Also, you’ll be surprised how many of those who’re presidential advisors on economic policies in the U.S. are linked to the Academia, and their counsel aren’t as ‘neutral’ as they appear. I highly recommend this film.

    • The film sounds fascinating and I will definitely see if Mister Litlove wants to watch it (he will, I’m sure). I am quite sure that academics in economics are not neutral – there is alas no such thing as a neutral theory or argument. Language itself is always so full of emotion and ideology that we are always making an argument whenever we speak. (Camus was particularly interested in trying to create language that was at the ‘zero degree’ of argument but he never managed it – The Outsider was the closest he came). But I don’t think that economics experts have to do that part of our literature course!🙂 Still very interesting to see.

  8. That novel does indeed sound like the perfect combination of blockbuster story telling with a relevant theme – how nice that the writing was good, too! That doesn’t often happen.

    I understand your husband’s frustration with the division between the haves and have-nots. It’s getting wider every day, and the injustice of it is maddening.

    • Becca – I like novels with topical themes (but then I like the eternal themes too, I guess I am just easily pleased!). The economic issues are maddening, though, and the resistance of bankers to accepting their guilt and responsibility ever more so.

  9. I think if I were reading the books Mr Litlove was reading I, too, would be feeling disgruntled and annoyed. Usually that’s why I stick to fiction.🙂 Be careful of using the C word in relation to the US and how things are run here–to some groups, those are fighting words. Just a whiff of communism, socialism, whatever ism and you will be branded the most odious form of liberal you can think of. This is one of those topics that is important to know about and understand but is so upsetting to know too many details.

    • Oh dear! It’s never a good moment to realise I’ve offended half my audience! I had no idea that the C word was still such a touchy subject – I was just quoting the book. Oh dear. Well, the novel is certainly much easier reading, and not upsetting at all, and certainly not very punitive, so it’s a way of reading about the topic without being distressed by it.

  10. I think I’d have to wait a few years until I’m a proper grown-up with emotional maturity before I read a book like this. I pretend that I am fair and balanced but in just a few seconds the words ‘banker’ or ‘offshore account’ or ‘tax looplhole’ or ‘cuts to benefits’ can send me into such a visceral RAGE I shouldn’t be able to do justice to Cartwright’s book. Not that I want vengeance, in fiction or real life – because I can’t actually think beyond my RAGE! Which is a shame because I expect I’m missing out on an excellent novel.

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