Tippermuir Books Ltd
I confess to not being a reader of fiction, but Ajay Close, who is the author of two previous novels and a play, fair blew me away with this book. Not that this is sheer fiction, like GB84 and others this book is bedded in truth and high insight.
Two parallel social universes, which overlap and intersect each other like ships in the night with almost subliminal consciousness of the others existence or meaning. One the embattled pit community of Faxerley Colliery as it firstly stands its ground as a private mine caught in the great struggle of 84/5, and in the subsequent years to survive the titanic changes in the power of power and class war. The other is the far off distant universe of banking, the stock exchange, finance companies and in particular hedge fund management and speculation. Far off that is in the sense of social proximity not in the sense that the fortune of one is tightly tied up with the other, unseen hands moving and manipulating the basic value of workers lives and their worth. There is something of the basic tale of Brassed Off here, plain men/women and their communities fighting the enemy that seems to be before them, while underneath and above forces move silently pulling fortunes this way and that. I have to say while I thought Brassed Off was very well observed this book takes the scenario far far deeper into the depth of the world of money speculation, market manipulation and the gross criminality of high finance and how it rips into peoples lives without so much as a nod in their direction let alone conscience. Trust would make an excellent film or TV drama.
What struck me most about this book was the author’s utterly believable mastery of the culture and language of both worlds.
“The colliery offices smelled of plasterboard and stale cigars. A copy of Women’s Realm on the desk beside the golf-ball typewriter. Voices next door. ‘Come In’ Kinsella, Gabriel and a man squeezed into a suit two sizes too small were grouped around a low table. The colliery manager extended a puffy hand with a signet ring embedded in the third finger. Terry Harrison…”it’s a geological lottery this game. Some seams it comes off like shit off a shovel, some it’s not worth the bother…Their top seam’s under bunter sandstone, which is gassy, water bearing and bloody hard. All we’ve got to worry about’s magnesian limestone and Mottershaw shale. We use drill and blast method. Pillar and stall workings. The machinery they’ve got makes us look like something out of the stone age, but ton for ton were a damn site more profitable…’ What you’ve got to bear in mind is, were all the same coalfield, but it’s not the same quality coal. West Drayton, gets twenty-four gigajoules a tonne out of Duddersthorpe.D’you know what they get out of us? He turned to Gabriel. ‘Go on have a guess.’
“Twenty nine point four”. She had done her background reading……
‘Our moistures seven percent.Sulpher and chlorine, less than one per cent, so they don’t have to worry about fouling the boilers. Ash fusion temperature’s over fourteen hundred degrees.’
In the other world. ‘You were dealing in sub-prime mortgages.’….What the media called a sub-prime mortgage; Gabriel called a leg up for poor black families in East Louis who couldn’t get a foot on the property ladder. And for others on the very bottom rung, paying crippling rates of interest on their credit cards and car loans. When those debts were consolidated into a second mortgage, the interest rate dropped by half…..You’ve never been to East St Louis. Nor have I. We can’t say whose going to default. There’s a risk a bigger risk than with a mortgage in Manhattan, so they pay a rate of interest reflecting that. And the investors buying packages of that debt receive a higher rate of return….When we were at Goodisons there was no such thing as a mortgage bond market. If we’d strung those words together, they’d have laughed. And then someone had the idea; why not sell parcels of mortgage debt? You’re a bank. You’ve got squillions of these things on your books. You know they’re going to pay them out over twenty five years, but you don’t want to wait. You sell them on, you get your money now, do something else with it. Next they’re selling parcels of health club subscriptions, credit card debt, car loans. A multi-billion-dollar market that hadn’t existed six months before. A left handed flick: ‘Nothing’ .Her right hand snatched at the air ‘Something’...Asset-backed securities. Collateralised debt obligations. CDO’s…the mortgage bonds that didn’t sell because they were rated as too risky, until someone had the idea of slicing them and mixing them up to spread the risk. “Debt coleslaw”... one minute it’s unsellable. The next the market can’t get enough of it….’Someone came up with the idea of a synthetic financial product, modeled on a real CDO. A shadow. It would perform exactly the same way, only instead of the actual loans or slices of those loans- which would actually pay out, it had a swap. Basically an insurance policy. Investors in the shadow gambled on loans in the real CDO being repaid. Investors in the swap reckoned there was likely to be a certain percentage of default. The two bets cancelled each other out, so there was no need for any of it to show it on the banks books…nothing on the balance sheet...there was actually nothing there? Fiendish isn’t it?’
The book goes into reams of exposure and exposition like this, which apart from setting the other world also explains a lot of how it works, or spectacularly doesn’t.
We find strand upon strand of conflicting and overlapping social interaction and conflict. Class on class, sexism, patriarchy, painful human relations and social postures, power guises, how the game is played between men and women in both worlds, and between worlds, and between women within and outwith their classes and social standings. Some if this is quite biting sharp as a blade.
‘At parties when Lexa was asked what she did for a living, she always said “I work in Cambusdyke…And they were so titillated by vicarious contact with Scotland’s most notorious housing scheme, it would have been cruel to deny them..It seemed to her everyone had a stake in the Cambusdyke mythology: politicians; suburban ghouls; the red top press; the residents, of course the army of carers and support workers and facilitators paid to improve it deprivation –index rating.
On her first visit she’d had to drive on to the pavement to avoid a three-piece suite on fire in the middle of the road. Cambusdyke was known for recreational arson and the stoning of the firemen who arrived to extinguish these blazes. Millions had been spent on brand new school, health studio, café and community complex ..and twelve state of the art, vandal-proof bus shelters, none of which had survived. Streets had been renamed to shed their stigma..and demolished…Actors in clown costumes toured the high school giving out free fruit and multi-coloured condoms. And still Cambusdyke led Scotland in heart disease, hepatitis B, registered heroin use, unemployment, mental illness, and a type of facial scarring known as the Cambusdyke smile’.
“They were led to a table with a view over the Clyde. The waiter unfolded Lexa’s napkin with a matador flourish and spread it across her lap. She looked around at their fellow diners. A couple of custom-tailored cowboys (haulage contractors? landfill millionaires ?) but mostly middle class managers in Hugo Boss treating their secretaries or girlfriends on expenses. There was a good deal of cleavage on show in various shades of toffee and buttermilk and tanning shop orange, all of it expensively wrapped”.
Apart from the sheer brilliance of the dialogue is the winding, inter-threading plot, which I will not of course reveal. Firstly the struggle for the pit in the strike and big politics, then the scrabble to find a buyer in the 90’s, save the pit save the community. Its at this point the story gets dark , and well intentioned ruthless roads to hell devised, for the pit itself held a secret, whose kept secret would steal the pride of survival. If survival it is.
Waxing lyrical on this book, not least by quoting its endless social pros would be over indulgent. Better you treat yourself to a ghost train of a ride through the haunted streets of the coal communities and nauseating self indulgent bankers and speculators of both sexes.