I’ve been moving house, for the second time in sixteen months. Bad enough once every two or three decades, and not to be recommended. Six containers arrived out of storage, and four men to unload and carry up to the top floor, with the remainder of the Stuff being directed into the tandem garage (one of the flat’s selling points, along with the secluded balcony and vistas of far hills and West Coast skies).
The next stage – unpacking the evidence of various lives already lived out of my nine. Reacquaintance with myselves has been a mixture of pleasure and upset. What might be lurking inside the next taped-up box?
Some of one’s history seems fated and inevitable, other parts of it wayward and chance. In certain respects the younger ‘I’ was clearer-headed, more confident, more astute. He wouldn’t have thought inexperience a handicap, and – if granted foresight – might have found this future self a stranger to be humoured, or to be sidled past.
My current languor, physical and mental, has been alleviated by increasingly lengthy escapes into Ron Butlin’s new novel. It so happens that Billionaires’ Banquet features a number of characters when young(ish) and idealistic (1985) and later (2005, with an Epilogue in 2016), when mature and seemingly fulfilled but in fact beset with personal doubts.
It’s Midsummer’s Eve 1985, and we follow our narrator…
‘Barclay Towers was a split-level flat, four storeys above the Edinburgh streets. Four wearying flights of hard stone steps. The tenement was well over a hundred years old and when northerly gales swept down from the Arctic, its floor timbers shook, its large windowpanes billowed in and out like sails and, like a crows’ nest lashed to the tallest mast, the whole top floor shuddered in the storm. That was in winter. Come summer the flat entered calmer waters.’
Hume is a philosopher (unemployed) with the whole world to order and put right. But ‘his ticket for a seat on the academic gravy train’ has thus far failed to turn up. His paper ‘The Appearance of Reality and the Reality of Appearance’ has, alas, not whetted the curiosity of readers of the journal Thought; meanwhile piecemeal (beneath-the-radar) teaching to the unreceptive in assorted local crammers just about keeps body and soul together. ‘Being paid cash-in-hand supplemented his Supplementary Benefit.’ Hume is the book’s lead. His catchy catchphrase is ‘A modern ethics for modern times’.
One of Butlin’s achievements is to allow his characters the fourth dimension of their hopes for themselves. ‘Last class finished, he decided to treat himself: he’d take a bus for once, and get home sooner. Sitting in the upper deck front seat, he looked down at the wet street with its even wetter pedestrians being blown round corners, battling with umbrellas, sheltering in doorways – but saw nobody, nothing. For him, there was no wind, no rain, no city-centre at all. Instead, there was a lectureship at Edinburgh University that further along Princes Street became a professorship at Oxford. By Woolworth’s at the top of Lothian Road, this turned into a specially created Chair at Berkeley, UCLA. Between times, he was appointed to head a government think-tank, host a TV show and, as they turned right at the Tollcross clock, discovered he was under consideration by the Nobel Prize committee. He was still drafting his acceptance speech when he got off the bus. The Barclay Towers stairs were taken at a run, every step bringing him closer to the letter that was going to change his life.
Key in the door.
No post on the mat. On the kitchen table, maybe?’
Brilliant! The placing of that final comma – hesitant nervous – confirms that our man is hopelessly deluded. This is someone whose accommodation in the flat – ‘low-rent low maintenance’ – is a claustrophobic cupboard space beneath the stairs.
Fellow tenant the Cat is a little younger; a gifted mathematician, she is easier with abstractions – at which she’s a wiz – than with the messy complexities of human relationships, especially hers with Hume.
Who else occupies the flat? A Catholic seminarian drop-out, nicknamed St Francis, is being slowly sucked into neurosis when not tackling his Mammoth Book of Crossword Puzzles. Electric Boy (born into the world ‘fully wired’) and girlfriend the Coconut are a peripheral couple, making music overhead as the thump of bass attests. There’s a wild card, named Diana (how 80s can one get?) but known as DD, an accidental guest who shows up at the Midsummer’s Eve hash cake party out on the roof-top leads; a not-quite rich girl she has landed on her feet nevertheless, playing Chopin on the piano for a well-heeled elderly matron ensconced in the genteel quarter of the Grange, who has granted her protégée a grace-and-favour live-in summerhouse of her own.
Working with these dramatis personae and an Edinburgh background, Butlin constructs a suavely compelling, ceaselessly inventive entertainment, which is to make light of nothing less contemporary and parlous to human survival than ‘global chaos’.
I spent last summer, when I was (temporarily) hankering after country life in the Highlands, trawling through home reports which, without exception, referred to dampness in its various degrees: from occasional/ historic to all-too-actual/dire. I can’t recall a Scottish novel so imbued with weather as Billionaires’ Banquet. In large part it’s rain and hail and ‘razor-edged’ winds, although the summer – when it comes – is all the better appreciated for the reprieve it offers from the familiar.
‘A grim autumn afternoon, Scottish-grim. Darkness falling. Grey sky and sagging clouds. Heavy, heavy rain. A cutting east wind. A rawness in the air, a chillness that threatened sleet. Dirty rainwater was puddled in the dips and cracks of the uneven pavement; oily-looking sludge oozed blackly up from between the loose-fitting slabs. Scrunched-up chip-papers and pizza cartons blew the length of the street.’
Meteorological conditions colour the characters’ thinking and their actions, as decisively as any philosophical argument or mathematical proof. The default greyness in this novel matches an accumulating – no, not fatalism – equivocalness in the characters, as they fail to settle for definite moral stances: they’re having to duck and weave their way in a world which has surrendered to capitalist values, where Big Money in very few hands calls all the shots.
Edinburgh and Scotland are no mere political backwater, at any rate not in 2005, nor during the never-to-be-forgotten few days when Gleneagles Hotel played host to the G8 Summit. Butlin gleefully, mischievously, recreates the mayhem in the streets of Edinburgh and up the motorway to Auchterarder, when the Lord of Misrule held court – George W. Bush arriving with his private army, and hordes of protestors disguised as clowns and fairies determined to outwit the marshalled ranks of armed police.
Twenty years on, Hume is a bona fide entrepreneur with a public profile, on the back of a notion hatched way back in Barclay Towers – Executive Service, butler- and domestics-hire (party organisers, in effect). Why not? Stranger things have happened. Hume, a Thatcher’s child, had had the nous to identify a gap in the market, and well and truly plugged it. New-New Town Edinburgh was only waiting.
The second half of the novel follows the personal transformations of our characters. It’s reviewers’ protocol not to give away the story, nor to provide SRB readers with Spoiler Alerts. Suffice to say, you won’t be disappointed.
The book’s title? Events build to this occasion. Against the background of the G8 shindig and Make History demos and heavy-handed police responses, and in front of the world’s TV cameras, Hume has plotted his own shamelessly self-promoting apotheosis. The Billionaries’ Banquet – well, forget protocol, I’ll tell you anyway – involves Edinburgh’s seriously rich; they have each paid £1,000 to either (a) win one of ten places in a lottery and to dine up on stage like kings and queens or (b) to gamely shrug off that missed chance and accept instead a ration of rice and water, such as countless millions will have to sustain them to another day. An outrageous conceit, yes, but in the author’s accomplished hands it’s delivered with delirious aplomb. Butlin is both a master farceur and a merciless satirist. Corporate philanthropy is exposed for what it truly is. Then, back to Hume. The man’s success has involved some maladroit past liaisons, and one of these is now more threatening even than the Banquet’s ramifications.
While Butlin sticks to his clever counterpointing – a ‘loud’ scene, then a ‘quiet’ – the action now moves as rapidly as it should in a model thriller. The book concludes with another jump in time. It’s 2016. The chameleon Hume has made another adjustment, he’s inside the same skin but that skin now has a year-round sun tan. The world is an even more dangerous place than it was; the global pot is stirred, and all the wrong hands to do it. Can philosophy help? ‘Kant’s concept of Perpetual Peace? Not a chance. All it takes is the profits of perpetual war. All it takes is hatred, a state of mind so very, very easy to manufacture.’ Even so, the final mood is hardly despairing. To the end, in Butlin’s fictional universe, unpalatable general truths are presented with an engagingly human frame to them. Why else would you wish for a book not to end?