“Nearly but not quite” – When We Were Rich by Tim Lott

When I started reading When We Were Rich, the latest novel by Tim Lott, I had competing voices grumbling in my head. The first voice admitted that we liked Tim Lott, that we’d enjoyed the books by him we’d read previously. The second voice – whilst acknowledging yes, we’ve liked Tim Lott books before (particularly Rumours of a Hurricane and The Scent of Dried Roses) – took issue with the apparent oddness of crafting a sequel to a book written twenty years ago (When We Were Rich takes up where Lott’s previous book, White City Blue, published in 1999, left off). What’s more, a third voice chimed in, the novel is set between 1999 and 2007 – a lot has happened since 2007. So this is a period piece, albeit in relatively recent history, written in 2019, about a time that now seems a million years ago. Curiouser and curiouser you might think. By the time I actually started to read (and I must admit, I procrastinated a little with When We Were Rich, knowing I would read it, but impulse reading other things first), the opening of the book centring on a New Year’s Eve Party, the voices in my head were sounding out an uneasy pitter-pat: is this a book that has missed its time, is this a book looking to recreate those heady days of Brit Pop, is this Tim Lott’s version of what Jonathan Coe has done over the course of The Rotter’s Club, The Closed Circle and Middle England? Hmmm I thought. And hmmmmmm. And hmmmmmmm again.

If you’re familiar with that earlier book, you’ll recall the group of friends who we pick up with again here: Frankie, an estate agent, his wife Veronica (called Vronky by all who know her), their mate Colin (lonely computer games creator, starting to make some serious pocket change), their other mate Nodge (a slightly left leaning gay man in a relationship with an older, buffer, more outspoken left winger called Fraser). The novel spends a 100 or so pages in the company of these people at the turn of the century, spends another hundred or so pages with them in 2003, then 2005, 2007 and finally 2008. Slowly, you start to see what Lott is doing. He’s talking about now. Right now. 2019. The state we’re in. He’s looking to explore how we got to where we are. It’s subtle. There’s a phone, for instance, at the turn of the century. It’s a curio. People crowd round. It’ll never catch on, someone says. It takes pictures. The pictures are crap. It’ll never catch on, someone says. We see Frankie leaving his job, setting up on his own, overextending himself. Banks are falling over themselves to lend. Ah, ah, ah, we think. These guys are heading for a crash. This will not end well. But there are other intersections too: terrorist attacks, protest marches, Labour Party meetings.

Fine, you think. Lott is silencing my inner voices. There is a point to this. This is a novelist’s attempt to explain how we got here. How we got to Brexit and Farage and Johnson and all of that mess. This is Lott back in Rumours of a Hurricane territory. Playing to his strengths. Although – it should be said – When We Were Rich is not quite as good as Rumours of a Hurricane. The reason it’s not quite as good is that there are characters here who arguably needed a bit more work (Fraser is a cartoon that gives Lott the opportunity to explore some of the problems the Labour Party is having right now with anti-Semitism – but there is no complication, no sense of the fuzzy line that exists between being pro-Palestinian and anti-Semitic, Fraser is just a rabid anti-Semite). There are also threads of the narrative, particular arcs, that could work harder (so, for instance, Nodge eventually meets a nice young man called Owen – Lott could have made more of the burgeoning sense of tolerance and understanding that existed at the beginning of the century, knowing full well that readers in 2019 would see that all of that tolerance and understanding made way for a burgeoning ugliness among those people who need someone to blame for their woes).

What are we saying then? We’re saying that we started to read When We Were Rich with some serious doubts, doubts that were in turn silenced by Lott’s skill as a writer, doubts that eventually resurfaced in albeit diminished form by the time we reached the end of the book. There is undoubtedly a book to be written about the state that we’re in right now. No doubt. Brexit and Farage and Johnson (and Trump and his toadies across the water) are all reasons to be frightened about the future. At the same time, though, there is a greater plurality of voice than there has ever been. People are being heard who were not historically heard. Yes, the plurality of voices upsets some people (and in turn feeds the awful, race baiting, fuck everyone else Tory mindset) but the plurality of voice is an unassailably good thing. To write a novel that gets into all of this, you have to acknowledge the good and the bad. You have to attempt to navigate the choppy waters of extreme complexity in a way that brings the reader with you. When We Were Rich does not quite manage it.

Any Cop?: It’s a nearly but not quite this time out from Tim Lott.


Pete Wild

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