As a student studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, Justin Cartwright dropped the economics after his first flummoxing year. His 12th novel revisits the subject, gently satirizing the fate of a family-owned bank on the brink of collapse.
“Other People’s Money” unfolds during Gordon Brown’s premiership. As U.K. banks sink under bad loans and the country slides into its worst recession in decades, Tubal & Co. finds itself sitting on $800 million in toxic mortgages.
While Tubal’s former chairman, Sir Harry, fades away at his villa on the French Riviera following a massive stroke, his son Julian struggles to prop up the bank long enough to secure its sale. This entails siphoning 250 million pounds ($405 million) from a family trust in Liechtenstein and burying the loan in paperwork. It’s fraud, and Julian knows it.
“The financial crisis seems desperately simple,” Cartwright says over a late lunch and a chorus of piped cicadas at Cigalon, a Provencal restaurant around the corner from C. Hoare & Co., a private bank on London’s Fleet Street.
“Nobody really knew what was going on,” he says between bites of stuffed courgette flowers and pollock. “They got above themselves and thought it would go on forever, and it didn’t. What’s interesting is the impact on human beings. The whole point about this novel was that it should start with the characters.”
‘Weird as Snakes’
It was crucial, he says, that Julian be sympathetic rather than a “capitalist swine.” And he is, in a bumbling sort of way. Cajoled into banking when his older brother becomes a nomadic hippy, Julian reacts to the stress by dreaming at night of a boyhood pony that speaks to him. As his American wife observes, “These Englishmen are as weird as snakes.”
Cartwright, 65, was himself born in South Africa, the son of the editor of the Rand Daily Mail. With his weathered face and slight frame, he sits with a modest hunch in our large lavender booth.
Though his native country lingers in his vowels, he has lived in the U.K. since his student days. He was awarded the title Member of the Order of the British Empire for his work on campaign films for the Liberal and Social Democrat Parties in the 1970s and ‘80s. He calls himself the first spin doctor.
He knows very little about banks, he confesses. To research the book, he nosed round a Tubal-like institution to pick up physical details and quizzed friends in finance.
One had worked at Barings Plc when it collapsed in 1995. Another sent him to pick up a pair of shoes he had ordered from cobbler John Lobb. Sir Harry wears them, and their 4,000-pound price tag becomes shorthand for the tasteful excess that defines the moneyed.
Patina of Privilege
The Tubals have Jewish roots, and family portraits show them getting taller, acquiring a patina of privilege and illustrating Cartwright’s conviction that Britain’s class system is far more permeable than popular belief allows.
“We talk about the class system, but it’s more a system of snobbish antipathies,” he says. “When you meet very upper-class people now, you get the sense that they’re faintly ridiculous, an eccentric ornament.
“Clearly money is the new class. In that sense, we’re very like America; the only thing that’s missing is a sense of service.”
“Other People’s Money” is a state-of-the-nation novel, and its title alludes to a grasping culture that’s no longer limited to London’s financial district, the City, he says.
“The title isn’t exactly original but it does tell the whole story in three words. It was other people’s money: Nobody really cared until it all went horribly wrong.”
Money Versus Art
One recurring motif in the genre is the clash between money and art, he says. The latter is represented in this case by Artair, a septuagenarian Gaelic playwright who lives in a Cornish lifeboat station and was once married to Sir Harry’s trophy wife. The bank paid him off with a monthly grant, which Julian axes during the crisis. Before long, a local newspaper blogger begins investigating Tubal’s.
As the tension ratchets up, Julian finds himself becoming more like his father. Does exposure to immense wealth necessarily corrupt? Not at all, says Cartwright, though he would welcome the chance to prove it.
As if in preparation, he has worn what he calls his only suit, an Ozwald Boateng. Leaving the restaurant, though, he dons a parka and a motorcycle helmet, making him look more Artair than Julian.
“Other People’s Money” is published by Bloomsbury (259 pages, 18.99 pounds, $15).
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)