JUSTIN CARTWRIGHT sweeps into the bar at Dublin’s Brooke’s Hotel full of apology.
His plane from London was delayed, so we’re meeting almost an hour late. It was worth the wait. Other People’s Money, Cartwright’s book on a posh London bank’s financial collapse is simply the best I’ve read all year. And the author is a charming companion, and is as full of intelligent insights in conversation, as he is in his writing.
The novel centres round the family who own the bank Tubal and Company. Harry was a superb banker, but he’s had a stroke, and has handed the reins to his son, Julian Trevelyan Tubal, who was not cut out for the life. He’s diverted hundreds of millions of pounds, temporally, ignoring his father’s daily letters of advice.
There’s far more to the novel than the financial scandal. We see England today through the eyes of a multi cast of characters. There are lots of quotable passages, which enable the reader to see elements of life in a new light. And that’s exactly what the author intended. I loved his quiet dig at old Etonians.
“They are definitely a tribe,” he muses, with a chuckle. “They have impeccable manners, but it’s as if they believe it is their patrician duty to appear to be listening. You very often have the sense, that they think you are pond life, but are jolly nice to you because that is their duty.”
Cartwright didn’t attend Eton. Born in 1945 in South Africa, and educated at a mock English type public school there, he then attended Trinity College at Oxford University.
“And when I arrived my vision of England was already formed,” he says. “It was mainly based on The Wind in the Willows, on Ratty and Mole. And they were a bit like that in Oxford. But in the wider world the English were more various than I’d been led to believe.”
After Oxford, Cartwright made a few documentaries and films, and has continued to do so in tandem to writing his novels. He worked with Kristin Scott Thomas, and this awareness into an actress’s world has been used to good effect in this novel.
Harry Tubal-Trevelyan is married to the beautiful Fleur, an unsuccessful actress he plucked from the arms of Artair — a writer reduced to producing Thomas the Tank Engine, whilst he dreams of securing Daniel Day Lewis to star in a film about the life of Flann O’Brien. When his alimony payment from the bank fails to appear, he mentions it to a young journalist, whose world weary editor plots to bring down the bank.
The theme for the novel was rather foisted onto the author. “It was strange. The editor of The Independent wrote a piece about the State of the Nation. Referring to a book I wrote in 1993, he said there were really only three people who could write a state of the nation novel. He mentioned me, and I noticed that the other two were dead! One was Dickens. I started to write it four years ago.
“I don’t work out my novels before I start writing,” he says. “I make notes, and I give all my chapters headings, but as I go along they change. The characters develop. I can’t claim that Artair was conscious and fully formed in the beginning, but he ran away with me. I set him up to be totally comic, but then I realised he was heroic. He’s struggling to produce art, and he has a certain nobility.
“I enjoyed writing the young journalist, Melissa,” he says. “I don’t know if producing a girl is as difficult as people always think. You pick up what you hear in the street. Someone said of the book, that all the woman have a hard time, except for Melissa.” There’s some truth in that. Fleur’s identity gets submerged, as she lives her life through men — and Harry’s assistant, Estelle, is desperate to be considered as one of the family.
Currently a judge on the bi-annual International Man Booker Prize, Cartwright is no stranger to awards. Shortlisted for the Booker for, In Every Face I Meet, he was bemused when he won the Richard and Judy prize for The Promise of Happiness.
“It was a shock,” he admits. “I felt quite queasy when they rang me; until they said, ‘do you know what this means? It’s way bigger than the Booker.’ And indeed it was. That book sold 150,000 copies.”
Other People’s Money could end up even more successful. It has already been optioned for film, and has had, so far, universally ecstatic reviews.
“I’ve had no bad reviews, and that’s a first. People do like books to be quite light, and that’s a lesson to me. Maybe there is a connection between selling books and making people happy when they read them.”
Is he happy?
“I’m very happy when I’m working, sitting in the London Library or the British Museum. There is a lot of angst in writing, but it only affects me really during the review period.”
His young granddaughter makes him ecstatically happy.
“She’s my elder son’s baby. He and his wife are doctors. She’s nine months old now and she’s enchanting. Utterly predictably I’ve fallen in love with her completely. It’s strange how you change. I didn’t particularly want children until I had them.”
Does Justin fear ageing?
“Not as long as I can still play tennis and my backhand is good,” he says. “I’m going to keep writing until I can’t. My dad was a journalist and I remember when he was 75 and a retired editor, he still had a column. He had the joke book out and I found he’d used the same joke twice. In the end they rang and said they didn’t want the column anymore.
“I’ve told my wife if, one day, she finds me with a joke book, she has to hit me on the head with a hammer.”