Tuesday 3 January 2017, 12:03
Happy New Year! Listening to John Lanchester talking about his novel Capital - the programme is repeated on Thursday afternoon as usual - I was reminded of the force of a question he raised during our discussion with readers. How many of us live in a street where there is still someone around who was born there? It used to be common in London, even a single generation ago I’d guess, but changes in the capital have made that kind of community a rarity, and a thing of the past. In John’s account of life in one fictional London street - Pepys Road - just before the financial crash of 2007-8, there’s one resident (Petunia) who can say that she’s never lived anywhere else. It means that she catches something of the spirit of the whole story, which is partly about the growing sense of unease that precedes the coming storm, and partly about the sudden, even brutal, changes in lifestyle that Londoners have come to know.
As John put it to our readers, ‘She’s the daughter of a solicitor’s clerk and she’s the last contact with when it would have been a very different demographic, and a much more homogenous community. It’s part of the hollowing out of London where there are people who don’t feel rich but are rich by global standards, and the poor who serve them, and service them, and by and large they are almost in different cities. There’s a class of employers and the people who serve them and no one in the middle and it’s reflected in the 2011 census that the white British are now a minority in London. And as I was writing the book, I thought yes, I’m on to that.’
So it’s a novel that, through the prism of Pepys Road, looks at a city that was shaken by sudden demographic and financial changes that were beginning to affect everyone, even before the crash itself. As we discussed in the programme, there was a feeling of the kind that animals have when they sense a storm in the making...an edginess that John himself remembers very clearly (and perhaps alarmingly says he can feel once more, right now). It means that the character of Roger, the investment banker in the story, is inevitably a fulcrum for the novel.
The point about Roger, however, is that although he is a representative of trouble - inflated salaries, house price inflation at a daft pace, a financial system wobbling towards disaster - he isn’t a bad man. The less said about his wife, Arabella, the better. But Roger evoked the sympathy of our readers, as he does of the author. Roger has simply taken on the coloration of the world, as John put it to us, and absorbed contemporary values. It’s what so many people do, wherever they sit in society.
The cleverness of Capital is surely that it’s a moral fable without ever seeming to be preachy. It’s funny, quick and vivid, painting a picture that’s always throwing up a character or a problem that’s intriguing. You never feel you’re being told what to think. If you were, I think it would have been a flop. But instead it has been immensely successful, a story of our time that, as this month’s group of readers demonstrated, that has the capacity to make us think about ourselves. I do hope you have enjoyed hearing John talk about it if you were listening on Sunday or that you’ll enjoy the repeat on Thursday.
Next month’s author is the best-selling Barbara Trapido, and we’ll be talking about The Travelling Horn Player.
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