John Lanchester (2012) Capital.


The Prologue starts with a mystery, who is this man and what’s he doing?

At first light on a late summer morning, a man in a hooded sweatshirt moved softly and slowly along an ordinary looking street in South London…Pepys Road.’ He posts cards through people’s door: I WANT WHAT YOU HAVE.

Here’s the message Lanchester is trying to get across (without being didactic) houses by late 2007 were no longer just a place where people lived, but an investment opportunity, a barometer of wealth and indeed of Britain’s collective well-being.

This happened at first slowly, gradually, as average house prices crept up through the lower hundred thousands and then… in high hundred thousands, and now they were in seven figures. It began to be all right for people to talk about house prices all the time.

I WANT WHAT YOU HAVE. This is an old-fashioned morality tale told by an old-fashioned omniscient narrator, not only does the reader get inside setting, the different houses that make up Pepys Road,  the Yount family’s luxurious three-million- pound family home to the linoleum of the oldest resident in the street, Petunia, but we get inside their thoughts too. Petunia’s daughter, Mary is well-off enough to live in a house worth three- quarters of a million, but it’s her mum the clichéd ‘no spring chicken’, who did nothing more than stay put whose wealth outstripped her daughter and most other people in Britain. One of the kind of in-jokes of the book was that making such houses bigger by adding a basement effectively cost nothing because by the time the builders had finished burrowing and emerged into the light house prices had risen so high that it had cost nothing and effectively paid for itself. Everybody likes to get something for nothing.

Roger Yount works in the City for Pinker Lloyd in the currency exchange market. Bears and Bulls and all that. Lanchester the author of How To Speak Money a dictionary that decodes City obfuscation and financial weapons of mass destruction is in familiar territory here, and we know from the biography of his mother and father who was also a banker, that who you know can be more important than what you know. Roger Yount doesn’t really need to know all that much about computers and spreadsheets because those serving under him have Phds and the skill-sets of Mississippi steam-boat gamblers that never lose. Roger has the right public school accent and has lucked in with his ability wear a dinner suit and know where the silver spoon goes and to look the part, leader of a team that is on their way to achieving a £100 million profit for the company. Timing is everything and the book is set just before the financial crash of 2008.

Big City Bonuses separate the boys from the men and Roger is thinking ahead of the million pound extra that will bring to his annual salary because he needs it. Mr Micawaber’s dictum –   “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” – in this world can seem utterly Dickensian, especially when other traders such as Eric the Barbarian are making hundreds of millions of pounds for themselves. I WANT WHAT YOU HAVE.

Arabella Yount, Roger’s, wife’s religion is the conspicuous consumption marked by the passage of nannies to help with childcare, makeovers and treats because that is who she is. ‘No Plan B’ as Roger realises at the end of almost 600 page journey. In a morality tale the reader knows that she is no good and she’ll come to no good. In a way she seems so ridiculous, unable to change her three-year-old child’s nappy, for example, she seems one-dimensional.  Roger, in comparison, seems two-dimensional on the page, a collection of stereotypes rather than a character.

But perhaps the reason for this lies with the reader, rather than the writer. This is what people like Arabella Yount are like in real life.

There’s a Shallow Grave moment when the builder, Zbigniew, whom Arabella calls Bogadon the builder (think of a Polish Bob the builder) because it’s easier to remember, finds £500 000 cash, a suitcase full of ten-pound notes, behind a false wall in Petunia’s house which he is renovating, for her daughter Mary to sell for windfall profit after her mother’s death. Nobody knows about the suitcase or is looking for the money. The dilemma whether to keep it (a yep vote from me) or give it back is decided by the Yount’s Hungarian nanny, Matya, whom Zbigniew has fallen in love with, (as has Roger). It’s the most amount of money Matya has ever seen or is likely to see, but walking up any street in London and most people will be able to see similar amounts in the bricks and mortar of a one-bedroom flat, perhaps even in a parking space. Doing the right thing is the right thing because he finds out the notes were old and worthless. But such is Lanchester’s knowledge of finance that Mary and her husband have another dilemma because old notes have to be honoured by the Bank of England, but they will ask some hard questions of where the money came from and why they should pay out.

There’s lessons of other sorts for the other main characters. No good deed goes unpunished. The Kamal family that live above their shop on Pepy’s road are Muslims. When one of the brothers Shahid, who lives somewhere cheaper in London, is tricked into giving an acquaintance Qbal a couch to sleep on and an internet connection to play with it seems inevitable that he’ll turn out to be a terrorist. Similarly, Petunia’s grandson Smitty, a kind of Banksy figure, in the media-related London art scene is outed and with it his stock plummets, but it allows him to tell who is behind the I WANT WHAT YOU HAVE campaign. The most hated figure in Pepys Road, the traffic warden Quentina Mfkesi from Rhodesia is working under false pretenses and under an assumed name. She is an asylum seeker, holed up, waiting for her life to begin , but now liable to be deported back to a country where the authorities have promised to rape her to death. Nobody seems to care. Freddy Kanu, one of the other residents of the street who signed a professional contract with a prominent London club (Spurs or Arsenal) faces a different journey, and a payoff for ‘not being able to do the thing he loves’ which is to play football. But it’s a happy ending of sorts. In morality tales there’s always hope that the good will prosper and the bad will be punished. Capital is fiction. In your dreams.





John Lanchester (2007) Family Romance: A Memoir.

family romance.jpg

This is a triptych of father, mother, son and ghosts of life. And his parents die in that order. Father, Bill, first, unexpectedly of a heart attack not long after retiring from banking. Then mother, Julie, unravelled by strokes until there was nothing left. This is where the story begins and ends, because it allows John, their only son to bind himself closer, and find out more about their earlier life. His life too comes under scrutiny, but it is also a meditation on truth and lies, and how we construct the characters we become and how they inhabit our own lives.

Lanchester suggests that ‘very few things in life are a revelation’, but his mother’s secret life, the longest and most compelling part of the book, must have come as a shock. He comes to the conclusion that if his mother ‘had not lied, I would never have been born’. In other words if it hadn’t happened, he couldn’t have made it up.

‘Julie Lanchester, who died on 6th August 1998, aged 77 years’ had shaved ten years off her age. Her father Bill when he got engaged and married her (she was already pregnant with son John) believed most of his life until his death at 57 that his wife Julie was ten years younger than she was. That when he married her, she was thirty-years old and not forty. Bill, as an only child, with knowledge of all that entailed, wanted to go on to have lots more little Lanchesters; something she also wanted. John, their only child, later found out his mother had suffered four miscarriages. But suffering was something Julie was practiced in.

Bill had no reason to disbelieve that his wife’s name Julie was also a lie. She was born Julia Gunnigan was born on 5th December 1920 in Lurgan, Ireland. Her father Pat was a subsistence farmer and her mother Molly (Mary) was the wife of a subsistence farmer with the family wed to the land. This was most graphically shown at the age of sixteen when Julia, a postulant nun, returned home from Sister of The Good Shepherd (made infamous by Peter Mullan, The Magdalene Sisters) to convalesce and decided not to go back or take her final vows. Her father and mother punished her by ignoring her and sending her to Coventry, but until an Uncle found her an escape route, she remained in the religious garb of the novitiate. Part of the reason for this was economical. She had by that time five other younger sisters. Four of whom also became nuns. And there was literally no money, but they could scrape enough to eat. But there seemed also to be something of the branding of the one that disgraced the family, the equivalent of Hester Pyrnne in The Scarlett Letter.  And this experience John believed helped mark his mother for life. But perhaps more surprising is after a man she was engaged to in a sanatorium died of tuberculosis, which she also contracted whilst working there as a nurse, at the age of twenty-six, she joined another order of nuns, the Presentation Sisters in nearby Lurgan. She took the name Sister Eucharia and after taking holy orders was able to get herself sent to Madras in India, which she ran as head teacher of a Catholic school attended by the up-and-coming classes in that region.

John knew nothing of this part of his mother’s life, and was surprised to discover he had Catholic relations. But he comes to the conclusion: ‘some of the most important things that can happen to people can happen before they are born.’ This sounds decidedly to me like the importance of money and wealth and good connections – something Lanchester went to write extensively about for example How to Speak Money, and his recent television drama series on BBC 1 based on his book Capital. His father was a living example, a man who found his work boring and repetitive, but like many other ‘found it impossible to give up money’ and the need for financial security, ‘where money is concerned, [there’s] no such thing as enough’, something he’d learned from his own father.  The boarding school John was sent to as a ten-year old, before taking a First at Oxford in English, was decidedly Anglo-Protestant. But Julia/Julie his mother had an almost preternatural way of hiding things she didn’t want to talk about or confront. ‘Julie wanted to be her own crypt’. And his father Bill, although an international banker, travelling the world, also didn’t like confrontation. In many ways they were made for each other.

Julia Immaculata Gunnigan became Bridget Teresa Julia Gunnigan, or on her passport B.T.J Gunnigan before her marriage by applying for her younger sister Dilly’s birth certificate and getting an Irish passport issued in her new name. This is very John Le Carre, where I think I first read about this trick. But then after marriage B.T.J Gunnigan become B.T.J. Lanchester. Julia/Julie felt she had to cut all ties with her family in case this lie became revealed. But B.T.J. Lanchester’s ability to compartmentalise her life had other costs. As Count Pierre Bezukhov comes to conclude in War and Peace, in order to be happy we must have the ability to imagine happiness, John’s mother had the ability to imagine she was not there and her son noted this absence whilst she was present. ‘Ways in which as a child my mother wasn’t fully present’.

The psychic cost was something he became familiar with. After his mother and father’s death he suffered from panic attacks. But that’s too bland a description. ‘I couldn’t breathe, let alone see straight or think straight. I felt as if my mind broke. I wasn’t just going to die, I had disintegrated.’

The remaining death in the family was his mother Julie/Julia’s career as a writer. She had published a short story ‘Minding Mother Margaret’, about a young nun taking care of an older nun that is nearing death, which was broadcast by BBC radio, and the story is reproduced in her son’s book. But Julie/Julia had published it under the pseudonym Shivaun Cunnigham. But after marriage Julie covered her tracks so effectively that she never alluded to that time and never wrote again. Her son mourns that great loss. In the words of Virginia Woolf, she had the time and the space, a room of her own, but as keeper of a secret identity left no wiggle room. John Lanchaster, of course, was their reason for being and he has successfully picked up that baton. ‘Language is an intimate betrayal.’