D J Taylor's novel tackles the state of England in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It introduces us to Scott Marshall, a young American working in a management consultancy office late in 1990. The story is minimal: we hear something about his childhood, his father, his sexual adventures in London and his office colleagues. He has an outsider's fresh eye and a quintessentially Eighties job.
He is a dislikable, delusional, misogynist hero, someone who describes secretaries as "lumpen, adenoidal girls whose muscular calves have the texture of liver sausage". Descriptions of sex are mechanical, cold and disgusted: Scott has memories of "the Hollys and the Pollys, the Rhoda- Jones and the Patti-Sues over whose gladsome forms I had sweated and yearned in college". Other men tend to be threatening, particularly when they are very upper class or very lower class. We meet caricature posh yobs, "dandruff sprinkled fatties", and scary Aryans, "blond giants who work as stockbrokers at Flemings or Smith New Court, with names like Hamish and Jeremy". Meanwhile, about to shatter the old cosy and corrupt way of life comes a new lower-class breed, vulgar, financially rapacious. There is an obsession with the contrast between urban squalor and luxury, with people making enormous sums of money who may easily end up living in a cardboard box "where the tourists never tread and there are only urinous walkways and winding streets".
Unfortunately, this doesn't tell us much that is new about England or indeed human psychology, other than that Martin Amis has had an enormous and largely detrimental influence on a generation of English writers who can't stop sounding like him. English Settlement is a roll-call of every Amis-ian trick. Everything is exaggerated and impatient, as if writing more delicately and accurately were for sissies. So we meet a character called Jack Devoto, a man with "a CV the length of an elephant's dong", and an upper-class woman called Henrietta Wriothesey-Taggard who doesn't like sex, is cold, snobbish and too much of a cardboard figure to hold our interest.
For a writer attempting to tell us something about financial culture, Taylor is sadly happy to repeat all the received wisdom of the age. "What happened in the 1980s? What happened in the 80s was that money won," Scott tells us. "Money broke down the Berlin Wall, not Gorbachev or George Bush." The business world is a joke, it is a casino, where people make incredible amounts of money very quickly without doing a stroke of decent work. They cheat on their expense accounts, drink too much, spend too much; it is a cross between a vision of excess in a Hogarth print and a diatribe from a radical left pamphlet. And then of course there is the inevitable hangover, the 1990s seen as our atonement for eating too much bruschetta and rocket in 1986: "There are streets full of houses down in Docklands that they couldn't give away and the smart money is leaving town." We'd be better off reading the newspaper.Reuse content