At the time of writing, eleven politicians of varying standing and repute are pitching for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Some of the more strategically minded members of the right-wing commentariat are urging the Tories to broaden their appeal by addressing themselves to issues of social injustice. It is doubtful whether any of the hopefuls can step up to this task, and their reluctance is understandable. Traditionally, Tories seeking to advance the case for compassionate conservatism would invoke the vision of a ‘property-owning democracy’, wherein the iniquities of the free market would be mitigated by the fact that every member of society, rich or poor, would own a stake in it. In the decades since Thatcher, this vision has receded further and further away from objective reality. It is a pipe-dream, and everybody knows it.
It is an apt moment to be reading Will Wiles’ third novel, Plume, which is profoundly concerned with questions of property ownership. At its centre is an insufferable intellectual called Pierce who rails against the gentrification of London: ‘the city out of balance, lost to the rich, the oligarchs, the hedgies, the trust-funders’. Pierce has achieved literary fame as the author of a memoir about getting mugged, which he believes constitutes ‘the quintessential urban experience’. A portrait of middle-class self-loathing, he fetishises criminality as a bulwark against bourgeois hubris (‘It stops the Mumfords taking over’) and lives in a flat bought with inherited money. He is befriended by the novel’s narrator, a journalist called Jack Bick who is a long-time admirer of his work. Jack is not immune to urban nostalgia — passing through Dagenham Docks Station, he finds its ‘unregenerated name’ pleasing — but he is rightly sceptical of his literary hero’s fixation with authenticity: ‘It’s as anxious as the flannel shirt and the vinyl collection.’
Plume begins with a revelation: Pierce confides in Bick that his bestselling memoir was, in fact, a hoax; he had made the entire thing up. The story is potentially huge, and gives Bick, who is a chronic alcoholic and on the verge of losing his job as a staff writer at a glossy magazine in Old Street, an opportunity to resurrect his flagging career. Pierce’s confession prompts Bick to reflect on his metier, and the unreliability of narratives generally: ‘What was a story but a semblance of truth, a flavour of truth, applied to a collection of details that may or may not be true?’ Halfway through the novel, the two men are strolling through a container village of street food stalls, tattoo parlours and microbreweries — a pop-up festival sponsored by property developers and hedge funds, soundtracked by muzak covers of famous rock songs —when Jack has an uncomfortable epiphany about Pierce’s ‘lament for the dirtier, more dangerous city of thirty years ago’: ‘I was sympathetic to those angry, melancholy swipes against the rising tide of glass and waistcoated private security and Byron burgers… But that city had been before my time… I was fascinated by a prior London I had never seen myself.’
When he is not writing novels, Wiles is a journalist specialising in architecture and design; he is currently working on a nonfiction book about urban regeneration. Plume is punctuated with amusing and on-point swipes at both the PR industry and the property business: we encounter Shoreditch go-getters who say things like ‘Let’s later this’, and a property tycoon who sells his urban redevelopment plan with the tagline: ‘This isn’t just building, this is placemaking’. A PR executive handling an industrial disaster jovially declares: ‘We prefer to think of ourselves as working on behalf of the event itself.’ This linguistic horror-show reflects something of the moral character of the milieux in question.
The sardonic humour in Plume is in keeping with the novel’s overall mood, which is bitterly fatalistic: Bick’s alcoholism, described at length and with poignant insight, taken together with his political disillusionment and gnawing professional and existential self-doubt, leaves little room for light. Bick’s political ambivalence embodies the dilemma faced by progressively inclined liberals — the tension between the desire to see meaningful change and the need to engage with the world on its present terms. His is the peculiar gloom of frustrated zeal, and it will be all too familiar to anyone who has ever thought deeply about the iniquities of London’s housing situation and the seemingly immovable, literally safe-as-houses edifice of realpolitik that sustains it: it is the pessimism of structural impotence.