Janet van Eeden - 2011-06-08 Untitled Document
Title: Other People's Money
Author: Justin Cartwright
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
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Review by Janet van Eeden
Justin Cartwright’s latest novel enters the normally arcane world of international banking. At the beginning of Other People’s Money the head of the prestigious Tubal & Co Bank, Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal, CBE, BT, is nearing his final days as a captain of industry. After serving his time as head of the respected bank which has always been run by his family, he’s been sequestered to his holiday home in Antibes. Here he lives a semblance of a normal life after a severe stroke three years previously. His faithful secretary, Estelle, is at his side, tending to his every need. She even keeps up the appearance of a daily dictation of “urgent” business messages to be sent to Sir Harry’s son, Julian, who has taken over the running of the bank. Estelle interprets Sir Harry’s mumblings into whatever she thinks he is trying to say.
Meanwhile, the young Lady Trevelyan-Tubal swans around London, having a passionate affair with her personal trainer. She stays as far away as she can from her decaying older husband.
Julian, Sir Harry’s heir apparent, tries to juggle the needs of the bank in the midst of an international financial crash. He and his partner think they have found an ingenious way out of the mess by borrowing from one of their own hedge funds to shore up the bank itself.
Far away from London, in Cornwall, a newspaper editor with a grudge, Edward Tredizzick, gets a sniff of Tubal & Co’s insider trading which he hopes will allow him to expose their nefarious dealings. He’s waited a long time to get his own back on the moneyed establishment which betrayed him years before.
Into this heady mix of high power and deep grudges wafts the appropriately named writer and theatre director Artair MacCleod, who has his own artistically-inclined agenda.
Other’s People’s Money is, in spite of its apparently serious subject matter, a romp of a read. It’s entertaining from the first page as the characters leap to life in spite of their attempts at being taken seriously. There are two extremes: Sir Harry, whether he likes it or not, is a metaphor for the demise of the traditional banking system; and Artair MacCleod resonates with all the philosophical air-headedness of Socrates in the ancient Greek play The Clouds. The characters in between create a delightful diversion with their frailties, insecurities and ambitions.
For the artists among us there is poetic justice in the fact that art wins over money. Unfortunately this novel is about the real world in which money inescapably conquers truth. Justin Cartwright has written a cracking good read, one which I’d recommend highly, especially to those who are planning to invest a large amount of money in a bank.
Q&A with Justin Cartwright
Photo: Jaime Turner
Justin, well done on your latest novel, Other People’s Money. Although it’s about a serious subject matter in the light of the huge financial crashes of banking institutions in 2008 you managed to inject humour into the narrative in such a way that the novel becomes a satire of sorts instead of a tedious tome on financial matters. Was this your aim, to write about the slightly casual and apparently hit-and-miss side of what we’ve only ever viewed as very serious financial matters?
No. I was intending to make this a novel about people and characters affected in various ways by the crash. I didn't paint the bankers as totally evil; my aim was to make all the characters totally believable.
You have obviously spent a great deal of time researching how banks such as Lehman Brothers and others work to create your fictional institution of Turbal & Co. You made their inner machinations more accessible, somehow. It also helps to understand how banks work when you colour in the characters behind apparently impersonal actions and transactions. Was this a deliberate choice, to create a sympathetic character in Julian Trevelyan-Tubal and his father Sir Harry, to put flesh on the bones of the faceless banking institutions, as it were?
See above. I wanted to make the financial details secondary to the plot and characters. Apart from anything else I probably could not have understood the more arcane practices of the financial folks, but then – it turns out – neither did they.
You start the novel by including the guest list from the “Service of Thanksgiving for the Life of Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal, CBE, BT, at St Paul’s Cathedral, in the City of London”. You create a very prestigious guest list which includes representatives from the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh themselves among various other blue bloods of British aristocracy, government, society and business. You then begin the novel with a dribbling Sir Harry, almost senile after a stroke. You describe his weakness in great detail. I wondered if this is a metaphor for the way financial institutions have collapsed over the past few years, or was this merely a story device to lead us deeper into the intricacies of the family woven around this fallen giant?
Yes, more or less. Sometimes as a novelist you don't make these comparisons consciously, but yes, I think you are right.
I really enjoyed the way your multiple protagonists’ stories all mesh together in the end. At first the apparently low-status characters seem to hold more power in their hands than the powerful upper echelons of society in this novel. Unfortunately, money wins over truth in the end, but you do throw a bone to satisfy the readers in allowing a bit of divine karma for your most pathetic character, Artair MacCleod. As a screenwriter myself who has written for many years with only a few rewards, I harrumphed along with the rest of the readers as he planned his great “breakthrough” into Hollywood. I’m not going to say any more in case I give the final denouement away, but could you tell me more about your creation, Artair? He is the artist who lives by his wits and survives by believing in dreams at which others only scoff. What exactly did this character mean to you? Did you relate to him as a writer and seeker after dreams yourself?
Insofar as Artair stands for anything, he is representing art against commerce. There are different ways to salvation and I am with Artair: art is transformative, art is a way of seeing and understanding the world, and I suspect will survive longer than many banks.
Your novel is also a gentle critique of the class system in the UK. Many Brits put people into categories of class themselves. For example, some UK scriptwriters I know deride anyone who sounds “posh” and regard certain activities that way too. Others who view themselves as better than the “common or garden Brits” wouldn’t be seen dead doing things which they regard as beneath them. Do you think Britain will ever be classless, as the politicians continue to call it? Or do you think class still matters to the modern Brit?
Oddly enough, I don't think Brits are as class conscious as they were. There are plenty of antipathies associated with accents and regions, and with groups such as CHAVS, but this is not strictly class based. Celebrity is way more important than class, so that, for instance, David Beckham is invited to the royal wedding despite the fact that he is from what would have been called the working class.
I’m intrigued by your history, as you were born in South Africa. As you may know, LitNet is a website for South African writing and we’re always proud of writers who make it overseas. If I’m correct this is your 11th novel. You’ve done exceptionally well in the UK, having been shortlisted for the Booker Award, won the Whitbread Novel Award, and being shortlisted yet again for this same award. You also won the Hawthornden Prize in 2005. Would you mind telling the readers of LitNet how you became such a successful writer in the UK? When did you decide to make it your permanent home? And do you find that Britain is much more supportive of authors and writers in general than our country?
I always thought in the back of my mind that I would write full-time. After university, at Wits and Oxford, I just stayed on in Britain, worked in advertising, and wrote the sort of books I liked. I had a pretty smooth ride, but I had to do many other things for some time to stay solvent: documentaries, commercials and journalism. I think writers in South Africa have done very well in relation to prizes and so on, as well as wide recognition. When you think of the relatively small numbers, it is extraordinary how many South Africans, from JM Coetzee to Damon Galgut, have been recognised.
You show your South African roots occasionally in this novel, by creating one of the minor characters as an ex-rugby player for this country. Do you ever find yourself drawn to write about this country anymore these days or is your creative focus wholly in Britain?
Complicated. White Lightning was my South African novel. I am perhaps more Brit than South African as a writer these days.
Do you miss this country and do you visit it at all? What parts of you, if any, will remain quintessentially South African?
I visit South Africa every year, have family in Cape Town, and have done journalism extensively all over Africa. I don't think you ever forget the landscape and the feel of the place. But I don't want to live there, because I wouldn't want to spend the rest of my life discussing corruption and other familiar issues.
Here is the dreaded question, so apologies in advance! What are you working on at the moment? Can we look forward to another novel from you in the near future?
There will be another novel, probably delivered by the end of next year, and in the meanwhile I am writing a screenplay of Other People's Money. It is possibly going to be a four-part television series.