Thursday, 3 March 2011

A Week In December by Sebastian Faulks

Faulks is a writer of considerable acclaim, but I have to admit that I struggled with A Week In December. A state of the nation novel that weaves together several plots, Faulks covers politics, banking, the evils of reality television, skunk cannabis, mental illness and Islamist terrorism with the end result that no box is left unticked.

By the time I got to the final day in the book, hedge fund manager John Veals is about to pull off a deal which will bankrupt several banks, starve millions in Africa, bring the economy to its knees and swell his already bloated wealth by billions of pounds. Student Hassan, pumped up on righteousness, is on his way to bomb a civilian target in South London, and Sophie Topping is throwing a dinner party for her newly elected MP husband, Lance, inviting the great and the good. Among the guests are the reptilian Veals and a walk on part, Roger Malpasse, a former city lawyer who has now retired to the countryside and the bottle:

Roger was reluctant to leave the countryside on a Saturday, as his routine was one to which he’d grown attached. An early dog walk, then an hour’s vigorous gardening and a game of doubles on the all-weather tennis court of a village neighbour gave him a righteous thirst that beer, gin and tonic and a half-bottle of white burgundy, in that order, exactly satisfied.

Sadly he’s got to go to the ghastly dinner party at the Toppings on this particular Saturday. His wife issues a word of warning before they leave for London:

“Just don’t drink too much, Roger,” she said, cracking a lunchtime breadstick and sipping her aperitif. “I don’t want you getting pissed and making a scene at the Toppings’ tonight.” “Would I ever?” said Roger.

I suppose it depends entirely on what you’d describe as drinking too much:

In Roger’s vocabulary, there were many different kinds of drink. A ‘primer’ was a preparation for a social event, or ordeal. Essentially philanthropic, it’s aim was to render him benign, so that from the moment he arrived he could be a good guest. A ‘phlegm-cracker’ would be the first of the day, and not a serious one – a small glass of white wine, perhaps, left over from the night before, taken after mowing the huge lawn in the country. A ‘heart-starter’ performed the same function, but a shade more vigorously; it often entailed gin. A ‘sharpener’ preceded food. Roger’s favourite drink was a ‘zonker’, and his evenings at home would consist of two zonkers before dinner, then wine with. The zonker itself might be a champagne cocktail – a finger of three-star cognac, a lump of sugar, a single drop of bitters and a tumblerful of very cold biscuity champagne; or it might be a dry or martini or a straightforward whisky with ice and soda. The zonker was the king of drinks; its opposite was the dismissive ‘just a pub one’, which involved barely dampening the bottom of the glass.

He’s also not wrong about the evening being an ordeal, luckily, he’s had a crafty second primer (almost a zonker) before leaving home and feels in fine fettle, ready for combative conversation as the wine starts flowing.

Roger had promised himself to drink no more than three glasses, but since the level had never dipped below halfway he could technically say he was still on his first. But whatever the exact volume of wine that sat on top of the double-zonker base and half a bottle of champagne before dinner, it filled him with exuberance and geniality.

Unfortunately, he’s now sitting opposite Veals and doesn’t miss the opportunity to take him to task for effectively committing fraud. As the chatter quietens around the table Roger informs Veals that in the aftermath everyone else will suffer, except for the bankers and hedge fund managers, which is ironic, because they should be in prison for what they’ve done. I have to say, I’d come to that conclusion about halfway through the book, without the assistance of a single primer or even just a pub one. O tempora! O mores!

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