“Are you interested in food?” John Lanchester asks.
We are at a table at the Dairy, a highly regarded restaurant in Clapham, south London, which is decorated in bucolic style to match its natural ingredients including vegetables grown on its rooftop.
It is a deceptively simple query, like others he later lobs at me during our meal. Lanchester’s most recent books – his 2012 state-of-London novel Capital, his 2010 account of the financial crisis, Whoops! and his new book, a tongue-in-cheek lexicon called How to Speak Money – relate to finance and the societal distortions it has created. But his first novel, The Debt to Pleasure (1996) was a Nabokovian mystery written in the form of a cookbook by Tarquin Winot, a prickly intellectual snob.
In other words, Lanchester, 52, is a man of playful humour and wide-ranging erudition. Born in Hamburg and brought up in Hong Kong, where his novel Fragrant Harbour (2002) is set, he attended a boarding school in Norfolk and then the University of Oxford, where he tried postgraduate research. Bored with that, he turned to literary journalism, working at the London Review of Books as an editor before switching to full-time writing.
In a mauve shirt and a black jacket, he looks like an off-duty bank manager of the old-fashioned kind, who would decide on your creditworthiness by looking you firmly in the eye and asking some astute questions rather than with a computer. His father, who died when Lanchester was 21, was a banker at HSBC in its colonial days, when its expatriate recruits lived in a facility called the Mess, midway up the Peak in Hong Kong.
We discuss the arrival of the Dairy among the bars of Clapham High Street where twentysomethings throng – a source of relief to Lanchester, who lives in the area. “I was worried Clapham had gone from manky to bankerised without the bit in the middle … It’s properly good here. It’s where René Redzepi [head chef and co-owner of the Copenhagen restaurant Noma] ate when he was in town.”
By “interested in food”, Lanchester turns out not to be asking whether I’m hungry, but if I’m familiar with Europe’s finest eating places. He recalls a visit to Mugaritz, a two-Michelin-star restaurant near San Sebastián in Spain.
“They’ve got these things that look like black stones and they are brought without an explanation. You pick one up and very, very tentatively taste it. It’s an incredibly potatoey taste and there’s an interesting moment where you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know what this is. Hang on a minute, oh my God, it’s actually the best potato I’ve ever eaten.’ ”
We examine the menu, full of small, complex dishes. He suggests ordering the four-course lunch menu and sharing. “The chicken liver mousse and the truffle Brie are brilliant. I’d be inclined to have the peas and the cheese. We must try the rooftop lettuce.” He glances at me. “What’s your position on octopus?”
I’m open to it, I respond guardedly.
“Because they’re said to be quite intelligent. I like eating them, but I was troubled by that.”
How, I ask, are they killed?
“You mean, if they’re that intelligent, why don’t they escape and why we don’t have eight-legged overlords?”
No, I say, straight question. How are they killed?
“I don’t know.” He muses. “It’s odd – the brain is distributed through the limbs. The central brain doesn’t co-ordinate.”
Like a peer-to-peer network? I suggest.
“Yes, so they’re actually quite thick.”
I ask how he became interested in food. “I think from being sent to boarding school. By and large, people don’t realise things. It’s a handy convention in fiction but, broadly speaking, no one realises anything, ever. But almost on the first day at school, I remember it was shepherd’s pie and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m trapped. I’ve been eating good food all my life [in Hong Kong] without knowing it.’ I was a picky eater until then and I was cured. It was like hand on your head.” He gestures like a priest: “ ‘Heal.’ ”
What was the shepherd’s pie like? He shudders. “Grey, viscous. You know, the kind of thing that has gone away, thank God, of full-on mince? English mince.” (In The Debt to Pleasure, Winot recalls a ladleful of school shepherd’s pie “steaming like fresh horse dung on a cold morning.”)
“This is your sourdough bread and a smoked bone-marrow butter,” the waitress says, placing them on the table. The fresh-baked bread is warm and wrapped in a linen bag. The butter is a pat smeared to the side of what looks like a baked potato. I tap it cautiously and discover that, in a reversal of the Mugaritz trick, it is actually a chilled stone.
“I wouldn’t go for it, although you probably have very good dental insurance at the FT,” Lanchester says.
We have each ordered a glass of white wine, and as they arrive, Lanchester holds his glass of Piedmontese Roero Arneis up by the stem, swirling the liquid and giving it an expert sniff. “Cheers,” he says. “At the risk of being old-fartish, I like old-school wines that taste the way the winemaker intended, as opposed to organic and untreated ones with more bottle variation. If I want to take a risk, I’ll go bungee-jumping.”
In How To Speak Money, Lanchester writes about what he calls the “reversification” of banking, in which the true nature of financial instruments is hidden by describing them as something that sounds better, such as debt being called “credit”. I compare this with the modern trend in cuisine, with professionals thronging to artisan restaurants. We all go to places where they’ve churned the butter, I say mockingly.
“Though try the buttered bread before you diss it too robustly,” he interjects. It is delicious, and I am munching it when the waitress returns, bearing a wicker basket. “Home-made curd with mushrooms, and honey from our rooftop bees,” she says, spooning out an amuse-bouche.
Lanchester tells me he learnt to cook as a graduate student. His mother wrote out some basic recipes and he found that he enjoyed “the magic of cooking. Everything is mechanical, orderly and predictable but there’s something surprising about the outcome.”
We should subject our assumptions about markets to very severe tests. I’m not sure we’ve met that intellectual challenge
Mention of his mother prompts me to say how touching I found his memoir Family Romance (2007), A big lie forms the heart of it. His mother, who was nearly 40 when she met his father, hid her age by using her younger sister’s passport, then cut herself off from her family to avoid detection. Lanchester was an only child, and she suffered four miscarriages as she tried to bear more.
“I think she saw it as a single decisive act, but a lie like that is like having a blackmailer. You’re blackmailing yourself,” he says.
In the book, Lanchester relates the hidden tension in his parents’ relationship to his own sense of anxiety, which spiralled in adulthood into agoraphobia, to the point where he could not cross open spaces.
Does he still think of himself as very anxious?
“Much, much less so.”
Could he walk across Clapham Common? I say, pointing out of the window of the Dairy.
“Oh, yes. Absolutely,” he says confidently.
When was the last time he wouldn’t have been able to?
“Around the time of the book: 2007.”
That was not long ago, and I remark that Capital, his novel about the struggles and tensions in a typical Clapham street in the bonus-obsessed age, made me feel anxious, so well does he capture the struggles of Londoners to keep up appearances in a world of escalating house prices.
“I don’t think of it as an anxious book but, now that you put it like that, I see it is. The thing I wanted to get is the thing of money and London pressing on people; that it’s not a neutral backdrop, it’s a press on people and not in an abstract, when-they-choose-to-think-about-it way. In a daily way.”
His memoir portrayed London as a grey, inhospitable city, hard for an outsider to penetrate, yet it now throngs with immigrants. “I think it’s changed amazingly,” he says. “It’s the level of change you get after a civil war or a revolution. Date it when you like, say 1974 or 1980 or whatever; it’s a different city. It’s like those bombs that leave the building standing. A new population has been brought in on the same set.”
I say that’s what I like about it. I grew up in London and this incarnation is far preferable, despite the strains it creates. People may look back in 20 years and remember this as a golden age.
“Yes, it is magic,” he agrees. “If you could hit the pause button, the things that are astonishing and wonderful about London thoroughly exceed the things that aren’t. But when you hit the play button, the trends are worrying … People from other parts of the UK look at London and see a city where all the rich people are. They used to have a sense that you could go to London to make your fortune and now they can’t afford to.”
After finishing our first courses – truffle Brie with walnut bread, and chicken liver mousse with rhubarb and apple – we have eaten two vegetable dishes. The food is delicious, and when the waitress arrives with more dishes I realise that I have out-consumed Lanchester, who has paced himself better.
“This is the famous intelligent octopus,” he says.
It doesn’t look very intelligent, I say.
“Exactly.” He addresses the cooked creature. “Who’s laughing now?”
“Galician octopus with tomatoes and fried bread,” the waitress interjects. “Cod with wasabi butter, sea spinach, and cucumber.”
The fish is as good as Lanchester promised, full of sharp flavours that meld in unusual ways. I ask why he delved into financial non-fiction in both Whoops! and How to Speak Money. Along with Michael Lewis, he has become one of the world’s most popular and accessible writers on finance.
“Whoops! was a spin-off from Capital. I had the research and wanted to place it somewhere. Then I said, ‘Right, I’m not going to write about this again.’ But I kept being asked to explain things and I finally concluded there was a door saying, ‘Push’, and I was pulling quite hard on it.”
I tell him I found the book entertaining and lucid – its brief explanation of the bond repo market is the only intelligible account I have read. Ultimately, however, I felt I learnt some useful things while enjoying myself, rather than being thoroughly educated about the world’s financial system.
“If that were entirely true, I think I would probably feel I’d failed,” he says cheerfully. “I think FT readers should explicitly be forbidden to read this book because they know it already. One of my ambitions is that, after you’ve read it, you can read the FT. I’m the training wheels.”
How many people without a professional interest can truly understand money? I ask. After all, a lot of modern finance has been made obscure by bankers to stop outsiders from competing with them, or customers being able to demand better terms.
Almost on the first day at boarding school it was shepherd’s pie and I thought, “Oh my God, I’m trapped”
“I think it’s unrealistic to expect they’ll understand derivatives in a granular way because often the directors of banks don’t. But the principles can be grasped. People may not know all the details but they can know what something is, and the arguments for and against … Under the Soviet Union, they had lectures on how communism worked. [Perhaps] we should have the equivalent.”
In the book, he suggests that “neoliberal” economics should be re-examined in the post-crash world. But do the failures of banks require free market economies to tear up all of the rules? “It seems to me obviously axiomatic that markets are not magical, that they’re organised in a range of regulated entities created by men. We decide in what we will have markets and we decide how the rules work, and how they’ll conduct themselves … I think we in the Anglo-Saxon world, as the French call it, should subject our assumptions to very severe tests. I’m not sure we’ve met that intellectual challenge.”
What worries him most about British society?
“Inequality generally – the increasingly obvious correlation between inequality and inheritability … When you have high levels of inequality, your life circumstances are likely to be inherited. It’s not exactly feudalism but it’s not the opposite that we’re heading towards. It’s odd that there hasn’t been a more thorough debate about the principle. Maybe it’s just because we Brits famously hate talking about first principles.”
The final courses come, although we are both full: rump of lamb with broccoli, anchovy and capers; and chicken oysters with wild mushrooms and asparagus. The chicken’s skin lies in crisp, folded layers and we examine it carefully to work out how the chef achieves the effect. “It must be dehydrated. They have a machine,” he concludes.
We eat all we can and order two espressos, unable to fit in dessert. I ask how Lanchester decides what to do next, given his eclecticism. Does he feel impelled to write a book quickly because he needs the money?
He looks faintly puzzled, as if despite his professional interest in finance, it has no personal relevance to him. “Oh, the money,” he says, pausing. “No, I don’t think that. I’m fortunate in having journalism as a sideline to pay the bills, and I essentially do it in order to take as long as I want with books. I hope it continues to be around.”
So what is he working on now?
“The next two or three things I’m planning are fiction. I don’t want to sound pompous about it but I did feel an element of citizenly obligation about doing this book. It was instead of a novel I wanted to get on with, and now I’m a year or so behind.”
Not another financial work? No, he says. “For me, a book is a room in your head that holds secrets. Once you’ve opened the door and gone in to take what you need, the door stays open. I took what was in that room and there’s nothing there any more.”
‘How to Speak Money’ (Faber) is published on September 4
John Gapper is the FT’s chief business commentator
Illustration by James Ferguson