Source: Review copy
Publication: 15 April 2017 from Salt Publishing
1985, Edinburgh. Thatcher’s policies are biting deep – fat cats and street-kids, lovers, losers and the rest struggle to survive. Hume sets up a business catering for the rich and their ever-growing appetites. But by the new millennium, these appetites have become too demanding . . .
Powerful, challenging and very funny, Billionaires’ Banquet is an immorality tale for the 21st century.
I wanted to join the blog tour for Billionaire’s Banquet because Ron Butlin has been a figure in Scottish literary life for as long as I have been around and yet it is really only his poetry that I know.
So I was happy to dive straight into this rather witty and decidedly pointed political satire. Billionaire’s Banquet centres around 4 students in a 1985 Edinburgh that is instantly recognisable, from Morningside to Sandy Bell’s. This is a glorious evocation of Edinburgh and its well-trodden paths.
Our 4 are archetypal students. Hume, the philosopher (of course) whose philosophical dreams are mostly about becoming famous and rich, not necessarily in that order, as long as they get him the women his heart desires and preferment into the ranks of the political classes. In the meantime, though, he’s living in a cupboard with his 2 flatmates, in a flat owned by Electric Boy and which they call Barclay Towers.
The Cat is a pure mathematician. She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders as a result of an accident she was responsible for as a child. Now she studies pure maths and enjoys the kind of liberated sex, light drugs and pot noodles life we all thought we had invented when we were students.
St Francis was going to be a priest, but rather lost his calling. Now he plays with his furniture in an OCD kind of way and longs to be good, or to have sex, whichever works best.
Though no strings sex is the agreed order of the day, when Hume spends the night with ‘Damned Diana’ as D.D. calls herself in preference to her parents preferred, ‘Delightful daughter’, the Cat sees no way forward and quite literally disappears in front of their eyes.
Cat never reappears and Hume realises that he’s never going to cut that esteemed academic figure he dreamt of. Worse, D.D. expects him to fend for himself and to earn a crust. Fortunately, one day, whilst pondering quite how to achieve employment, a find in a charity shop shows him the way forward.
Move forward 20 years and we are just past the Make Poverty History marches and awaiting the arrival of George Bush to attend the G8 summit in Gleneagles. Political ferment and turmoil is rife, but surprisingly our key protagonists are still together and still part of Barclay Towers.
Hume is running a very successful Executive Services company with his now wife, D.D. St. Francis has done his bit for the homeless and is now living in Barclay Towers with his waif, Megan. Barclay Towers itself has undergone a refurbishment and is now a private club and, as we come to realise, a front for some serious money laundering.
On the eve of his biggest success yet, the Billionaires Banquet, which will see Hume raise a fortune for Making Poverty History, he is ready to stand back and contemplate what he really wants from life if it’s not making money. It’s probably the first philosophical thought he has had in 20 years.
But fate has other ideas and Hume is about to find that leading this lifestyle will have consequences he should have forseen.
Billionaire’s Banquet is certainly a witty, satirical and sometimes laugh out loud look at how easily dreams turn to venality when money becomes a ‘thing’ in one’s life. The humour is laden though with bleakness that belies the upbeat tone. What has capitalism done to those who would be followers of a more helpful and supportive path through life if not destroy them and make them more venal? What use is intellectualism is if doesn’t teach you to be street smart?
Are things really as bleak as Ron Butlin makes out? Sadly, I think he may well be right.
Just as well then that he raises this thought and interlaces it with the biting humour we have enjoyed throughout the book, though in the end, the aftertaste is still quite bitter.
Verdict: Witty but damning look at society
About Ron Butlin
With an international reputation as a prize-winning novelist, Ron is a former Edinburgh Makar / Poet Laureate.
Before becoming a writer,he was a pop-song lyricist (3 records and a brief appearance in a justly-neglected film.He was also a footman attending parties for the great and good, the rich and bad, a barnacle-scraper on the Thames and a male model. His work has been widely translated, and ‘The Sound of My Voice’ has been twice been awarded a ‘Best Foreign Novel’ prize as well been made into a rather short film.
He is a novelist, poet, children’s author, opera librettist, playwright – one of these, on a good day. He has been auctioned twice for charity, and put in a cage outside parliament for The Day of the Imprisoned Writer. All very character-building. He has given readings world-wide including at the House of Lords, John Knox’s pulpit in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, and an Arab tent in Bahrain.
He lives in Edinburgh with his wife, the writer Regi Claire, and their dog (Note – Nessie, as she’s called in the book, features in Ron’s first novel for early teens, ‘Steve & FranDan Take on the World’ which is due out this spring. She is great fun on paper and in real life).
See what others think of Billionaire’s Banquet. Look out for the blog tour.