Reptiles, Sharks and Other People

Book review of The Spoiler by Annalena McAfee and Other People’s Money by Justin Cartwright

Mags to riches: Annalena McAfee’s “The Spoiler” lampoons the last days of print journalism

Fame and fortune elude most literary novelists and almost all journalists, so it’s no surprise to find two such writers lamenting humankind’s infatuation with them with particular gusto. 

Annalena McAfee’s satirical debut about the newspaper business and Justin Cartwright’s urbane tale of banking blunders bookend the New Labour era. While they focus on different industries, greed is endemic in both. So, too, is our modern obsession with celebrity, though any reader hoping for thinly veiled glimpses of McAfee’s married life with Ian McEwan will be disappointed. It’s precisely these prurient cravings that Spoiler sends up. McAfee does, however, draw on her experience as sometime editor of the Guardian Review. Vignettes run to back-stabbings at morning conference, an awards ceremony that degenerates into a bar-room brawl, and an editor snorting cocaine off a pair of pert breasts. 

The breasts belong to twenty-something Tamara Sim, compiler of featurettes such as “The Pits-Underarm Hair Horror of the Stars” for a newspaper supplement called Psst! One day, she receives an unexpected email from another section of the paper, commissioning a 4,000-word interview with an 80-year-old reporting legend named Honor Tait. “A great deal of typing would be involved,” she surmises. 

While Honor remains a mystery to grasping Tamara, we learn of the glamourous past and precarious present of the woman once known as “the newsroom Dietrich”. Now, she sips vodka for breakfast in her gloomy Maida Vale mansion flat, teetering on the brink of insolvency and receiving occasional visits from a beautiful, dissolute young man. 

Though the novel opens in January 1997, it is technological rather than political mileage that McAfee makes from this detail, imagining newspapers being sucked up from desks and cafés, gutters and recycling centres, “darkening the sky before shrinking to a shower of pixels and falling to earth as magic dust, minute particles of information that would shimmer in plastic boxes in every house in the land”. Change is on the way.Meanwhile, Tamara doesn’t get any more likeable, despite a sympathetic back story. Come the novel’s close, she’s still miffed when the subs edit out her reference to Honor’s friendship with Lord Byron. As Honor sniffs, “It was a double curse: confidence and ignorance.”

Though McAfee staffs her newsroom with characters whose names evoke Scoop, this is a tale without much affection for the inky-fingered days of print journalism. Evelyn Waugh — and Michael Frayn, author of that other Fleet Street classic Towards the End of the Morning — wrote with fondness. In Spoiler, everything seems spoilt already. 

The battle between old media and new is all but over in Other People’s Money, which is set almost a decade later, in the calamitous final days of Gordon Brown’s premiership. Tamara’s “poly” has become a “uni”, but a course in psychology and sociology hasn’t left Melissa Tregarthen much better educated. However prone she is to seeing “signifiers” everywhere, she still has to Google Blanche Dubois and Pauline Kael. 

Plump and perky, the 22-year-old blogs for a local Cornish newspaper. When she’s sent off to interview a local Gaelic playwright, she inadvertently stumbles upon a scoop — massive financial fraud at one of the nation’s most prestigious private banks. 

Tubal & Co’s history stretches back almost 350 years and its clients include Prince Andrew and the billionaire widow of the first man to invent perforated toilet paper. None of that has insulated it from toxic assets totalling $800 million. While its ailing former chairman, Sir Harry Tubal, fades away at his villa in the South of France, his son Julian must hide a £250 million loan from the ratings agencies, propping the bank up long enough to sell it. 

The name Tubal, Cartwright notes, “gives off the low humming sound of immense privilege”. Accordingly, he freights the novel with sensual surface detail, be it almond blossom tossing in a warm Provençal breeze, or menus of crayfish salad, noisettes of lamb, and clafoutis. 

Cartwright has a flair for the unsettling, too — Sir Harry’s scrambled post-stroke speech, for instance, sounds “as though he were speaking to parrots in their own language”. Yet there are no real villains in this wry parable, which humanises — and also philosophises about — the financial crisis. And so, when Julian lies awake at night, wondering where the money went, he knows it’s less of a banking question than “an existential matter”. The money simply vanished, if it ever existed at all. Who is to blame, then? Perhaps the hedgies. Perhaps the Nobel Prize-winning economist whose bell curve persuaded Julian that there could be such a thing as risk-free speculation. But most likely a particularly contemporary strand of greed — the kind that’s encapsulated in the novel’s title. 

The South African-born novelist also touches on something at once more local and more profound: “The English have lost faith in the idea of absolute standards,” he observes. It’s a sentiment echoed by Mc-Afee’s Honor, who notes that: “Truth has been reduced to the subjective.” Novels are intrinsically subjective — it’s crucial to their appeal — yet they are also respecters of universal truths. Happily, that remains unchanged regardless of the size of their author’s advance, and whether you choose to read them in their ink-and-paper or pixelated incarnations.

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