Just finished Justin Cartwright’s masterly satirical comedy of manners Other People’s Money. It’s the story of an ancient British bank, Tubal & Co., which is on the brink of going under in the wake of a the 2008 credit crisis. The ancient head of the bank is on his death bed, and his son is frantically trying to secure the future of the place by moving money in from external trusts to prop up the balance sheet and get a sale with an American megabank through on the never-never.
The financial stuff is great, but the real energy of the book is in the characters. There are few monsters or angels, just recognisable human beings struggling through extraordinary crises (I’m a sucker for this stuff – the reminder that even people with extraordinary power are still subject to the same rules of comedy, anxiety and depression as the rest of us). The comedy is very good indeed, if at times pretty dark; the picture of a local newspaper in Cornwall (read the book if you want to know who they become involved) and what happens to it is accurate, funny and desperate all at the same time. Anyone who’s ever worked for a newspaper, or thought of it, should read this book.
And there are dozens and dozens of light, witty and lucid descriptions. Some of the stuff I highlighted:
Despite the tardiness of his leg, he doesnâ€™t at a distance present a figure of pity.
For Daniel he lights the candle and drops a splodge of boiling wax on to the envelope â€“ some falls, inevitably, on to the remains of an Asda quiche.
All night Melissa heard the sound of police and ambulance sirens, heavy rumbling from beneath the streets like furniture being dragged in another room, the detached shouts of drunks and, from the hotelâ€™s pipes, anguished moaning, followed by clunking and juddering and also there was muffled speaking in tongues â€“ maybe of sex between strangers â€“ and below and around all this, a constant thrumming from deep beneath the crust of London with mysterious electrical and gaseous qualities, as though she could hear the power lines and gasworks and sewers all in constant flux and surge and spurt.
I haven’t read any Evelyn Waugh for a decade or more, but this clever, witty and elegant book reminded me pretty strongly of some of Waugh’s work, not least in its ability to be very angry and very funny at the same time. Given the subject matter, it seems ironic to say it is in fact very, very English, in a very, very good way. Deft, in a word.