REVIEW – Alex Preston In Conversation with Oliver James (Edinburgh Book Festival)

Thursday 19th August, Scottish Power Tent

Alex Preston’s first novel, “This Bleeding City”, nominated for The Readers’ First Book Award, has been presented as a novel about the credit crunch, with Preston being accused by the press of making a case for bankers and the City of London. Psychologist Oliver James, author of ‘Affluenza’ – which claims that as our wealth increases, we tend to be less happy – chairs an interesting discussion with Preston about his experience as a city trader in London and his motivations for the writing the book.

In his defence to the previous claims, Preston argues that he is interested in exploring human motivations and morality, dependencies, and how things move in cycles. James adds that he believes the book to be a “rites of passage” novel: the book explores themes of transition to parenthood; the “safe” community of University to the real world of work; what people rely on to get them through life; and ultimately, how people fall into cycles driven by greed.

Preston reads from his book, describing in detail the cold realisation of the protagonist, financial trader Charlie Wales – whilst at work in the City – that he has left his two-year old son Luca in the car – in a multi-storey car park. It is a moving description, conveying the anxiety and fear Charlie feels as he races across London streets to recover his son.

The novel follows Charlie Wales as he studies at Edinburgh University, moves to London to work in the City, experiences the financial market crash and then descends into a “moral abyss”. Although the book is based on Preston’s own experience, he didn’t go to University in Edinburgh but came to love the city through friends and family studying here. Preston recalls his surprise at the proliferation of middle class English students, and a seemingly endless round of dinner parties. In contrast, his own experience of eating food at University was confined to “queueing at kebab vans”.

Preston was profoundly affected by James’s book, ‘Affluenza’, claiming that it was “like looking in a mirror”, and “a complete “epiphany” for him. His wife was pregnant with their first child at the time and he realised that he didn’t want his son to say, “My daddy is a banker”. These events became the catalysts for writing the book.

The session culminates in a second reading, describing how Wales returns to work in finance after the crash, with the slow, horrible realisation that the cycle is repeating itself: the same repellent people entering employment, fat bonuses offered to greedy bankers. This time Wales cannot stomach it, the only thing sustaining his survival in this world, “the crazy delight” of his son Luca’s “gummy smile”.

The stimulating question and answer session touches on the nature of our capacity for greed, and how society makes this acceptable. With Preston and James, we ponder the question of whether morality has changed for the better, post credit-crunch. Preston is ambivalent, admitting that the “siege mentality” of the investment banking set is still prevalent, and concedes that until there are fundamental changes in how people think, and how governments act, such positive changes may continue to elude us.

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