The Fall and Rise of Gordon Coppinger, by David Nobbs, HarperCollins, RRP£14.99, 424 pages
David Nobbs is the author of 19 novels, has adapted several of them for television and is one of Britain’s best and most venerable comic writers. But he will always be known, whether he likes it or not, for Grot, hippopotamuses, CJ and “a bit of a cock-up on the catering front”. Nobbs didn’t get where he is today without Reggie Perrin.
It is something he acknowledges, indeed plays on, with the title of his latest novel, The Fall and Rise of Gordon Coppinger. Sir Gordon Coppinger, however, has little in common with the hero of Nobbs’s books and 1970s BBC series, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. The latter was a middle manager at Sunshine Desserts, a man who became alienated by the pointlessness of his existence; if Sir Gordon is alienated by anything it is by enormous wealth.
Sir Gordon is a Midlands-born industrialist/financier who through ambition and charm has become the nation’s favourite self-made billionaire, an amalgam of Sir Alan Sugar, Sir Richard Branson and Robert Maxwell. He owns a middle-ranking football club – Climthorpe United (the name of Perrin’s home suburb), which has a manager called Vernon Thickness and a Bulgarian striker named Raduslav Bogoff who misses more than he scores; he runs a charitable foundation; boasts an impressive art collection even though he knows nothing about art; and has an even more impressive roster of mistresses (he knows plenty about women).
Sir Gordon delights in the fruits of success, whether it be Coppinger Tower in Canary Wharf or the ostentatious pile in Surrey, ironically named Rose Cottage, with a sitting room so large it has an east and west fireplace. He doesn’t, however, delight in his now slightly tarnished trophy wife. Christina is a former patisserie worker and beauty queen (Miss Lemon Drizzle 1980) whose legs, according to a gossip column, are not as slim as they used to be. She is as prickly towards Gordon as the roses she now breeds; they do not get on. As she points out in a rare moment of communication: “You’ve become very secretive lately, Gordon. Particularly in the last 17 years.”
Among the things he has become secretive about, apart from his lady friends, are some of his business arrangements, which are on the Stygian side of murky. These include “dodgy audits, price-fixing cartels, treating sales of fixed assets as profits”. Worst of all is a Ponzi scheme Coppinger set up in the spirit of enquiry rather than greed, a financial and legal void above which hover his legitimate enterprises.
There is an emptiness underlying Sir Gordon too: he has little interest in other people – not even in his children – and no proper friends (the closest approximation is his elder brother Hugo). He wings it with human relationships just as he does in business. Both the public and private person are built on confidence and when that is questioned they start to totter. Events take on a momentum of their own and the skeletons he has hidden – less a cupboardful, more an entire ossuary – start to rattle unstoppably.
As Sir Gordon begins to fall materially he starts to rise morally. A series of small epiphanies takes him by surprise, whether that’s showing concern for an employee’s sick child or being moved by a Remembrance Day special edition of The Antiques Roadshow. He begins to look afresh at his disappointing office-worker daughter and artist son, and even at his wife. It is not enough, though, to do anything to halt the car crash that is his business empire. The fact that it is a chauffeur-driven car crash makes it all the more gripping.
Sir Gordon is a vibrant creation: a man touchingly bemused by his fallibility but who is rude to waiters and whose idea of tact is to jettison a lover immediately after consuming a portion of her home-cooked boeuf en daube, two of chocolate roulade and a pre- and post-prandial serving of her body. Nobbs has great fun with Sir Gordon, not least in the interactions with his butler Farringdon, a man who moves at “the speed of a tortoise that is sickening for something”. When Sir Gordon asks him for ideas of what to think about in order to quell erotic thoughts the suggestions become a running gag: biscuits, Little Chefs, Post Offices, suggests the butler; Quorn, Kettering, Wellington boots, counters his master.
If some of the jokes are a tad laboured (a buffet that includes “five moist whole salmon that had once been wild, six stuffed trout that hadn’t been too pleased either”) Nobbs’s default voice is unforcedly droll. His broad brush hides some surprisingly fine strokes. The jokes are deftly subsumed by the deepening story and Sir Gordon’s more caricaturish aspects soften into all-too-human frailties as he finally realises where “the itch to have rather than just to be, the urge to conquer, the need to acquire” have led him. The segue is so adroitly handled that it takes a while to realise that the comic romp that seemed to be developing has become something far richer and even affecting. For Sir Gordon, unlike for Reggie Perrin, leaving his clothes in a pile on the beach is not an option.