The Champion Tim Binding

Picador, pp.434, 12.99

In a market town in Kent at the time of Thatcher’s Britain, Charles Pemberton attends the town’s minor public school where his businessman father is a governor.

In a market town in Kent at the time of Thatcher’s Britain, Charles Pemberton attends the town’s minor public school where his businessman father is a governor. Back in the 1930s, his grandfather Clarence had had ‘the right idea’, which was to build an eight-foot wall across a residential road in Oxford to separate his family home from newly built council houses.

There is no such fortification available against the arrival at the school of Clark Rossiter, ‘a London chuck-out’ from a fringe estate, thanks to his sports scholarship, boxing being just one of his talents. ‘Large’, as he is soon admiringly known, storms the puny citadel and carries off Sophie Marchand, the maiden everyone desires.

Power simply rested in his half-clenched hands, his watchful eyes. Girls too he treated to the same skill. One round, two, he’d have them flat on their backs by the third at the very latest, bells ringing in their ears.

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School over, Large works first for the local council in park maintenance and then as a commodity broker in Canary Wharf. Milquetoast Charles, thoroughly educated in what Michael Gove would call the core subjects, abandons university after one term to become a chartered accountant. When Large turns up at Charles’s dowdy office with Sophie Marchand, now his wife, in tow, the scene is set for a long, convoluted, bleak, black, disquieting showdown between complacency and avidity, timorousness and hectoring bravado, greenhouse and Jacuzzi, Aga and induction hob, pursed lip and fat lip in a land where money no longer brings responsibility, ‘money was the responsibility’.

Binding has picked the scabs of poxy post-war Britain in previous novels, including A Perfect Execution and Anthem. The attack here is remorseless and even-handed (no one is spared), leavened occasionally by set pieces where you feel the author’s monstrous glee, as in the interview when Pemberton Sr becomes a name at Lloyd’s — with predictable outcome but of a morbid kind — and Large’s triumphant pee after he has faced down stone- throwing boys from a young offenders’ institution. ‘You could have sung a Bach cantata, played a Chopin étude at the onset and he would still have been pissing after the last note had been sounded.’

The institution becomes the old people’s home where Charles’s mother fetches up, and which Large buys in one of his get-rich-quick schemes — time-share on sheltered accommodation. There is not so much circularity of plot as a vortex. Sexual encounters play tag between generations and social classes and drag the many (too many) characters towards their various tawdry or tedious destinies. A sense of period as well as plot is underscored by reference to events like Thatcher’s forced resignation and Robert Maxwell’s fall from his yacht. Money to burn is more than a metaphor and the ‘utterly compelling’ nature of deliberate sin is explored in detail.

This Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh done as danse macabre has a kind of fascination. The author, Charles and this reader cannot help but warm to the odious Large. Well, he is nice to his mum.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, Britain, Fiction, Novel, School, Thatcher