Alex Preston, novelist & banker
Alex Preston is a natural writer who speaks in wonderful long sentences with all the profusion of his adverbs, adjectives and subclauses in their correct places, and as a result I found myself struggling to keep pace with his easy eloquence as I scribbled frantically in my scruffy little notebook during our conversation over coffee at St John. In his choice of dual professions, Alex presents something of Jekyll & Hyde identity because while our bankers are the pariahs of the age, our novelists have always been one of the glories of the nation. Consequently, I was thankful to be having a conversation with Alex Preston the novelist.
There are many noble precedents, including Kenneth Grahame author of “The Wind in the Willows” who was secretary to the Bank Of England and T.S.Eliot who worked for Lloyds Bank, while Alex also cites Wallace Stevens who was President of the Hertford Life Insurance Company and Franz Kafka who dealt in insurance too, though I am not sure that the life of Kafka, in spite of the brilliance of his vision, is one that many would choose to emulate.
Alex is enjoying a productive Spring with his first novel This Bleeding City published last month and his second baby born on the night of the publisher’s launch party. He looked sprightly in an extremely well-cut suit as he arrived at St John and I was flattered that someone might choose to take time out from the world of high finance to speak with me. Living in Spitalfields, the City of London is on my doorstep and yet the financial world remains a blank enigma that I witness whenever I walk over to the Borough Market and find myself wandering like a ghost among the men in suits hurrying with such inexplicable purpose between the glittering palaces.“The city is designed for the abstractions it pedals,” explained Alex, “When you walk out onto a trading floor, you are walking from the real world into an abstract world of numbers that is deliberately unknowable.”
I was not any wiser. So I asked Alex how, like Charlie the protagonist of his novel, he came to work in the City after studying English Literature at Oxford under the celebrated liberal critic and writer Tom Paulin. Ten years on, Alex can admit, “I had my head turned,” with the candid qualification,“It’s ridiculous to make these decisions at twenty.” Alex’s novel is a testament to the seductive power of the City, a tale of an intelligent young man from a middle class background encountering an elevated milieu at university and then following his peers into the ambivalent world of finance. Somehow I was expecting a glittering tale of ambition and greed like “American Psycho” or “Bright Lights, Big City,” but Charlie in “This Bleeding City” has more in common with Leonard Bast the young clerk in “Howards End,” with a fragile emotionalism that retains the reader’s sympathy even as you question the character’s choices.
For a few years, Alex lived in Wilkes St and worked for ABN Ambro in the glossy new building on the site of the old Spitalfields Market. Now that he lives in Kensal Green, he looks back to this time in Spitalfields when he and his housemates celebrated their birthdays in the private bar at The Golden Heart, “I loved living here so much, nowhere else in the city does the fun life come up against the work life so closely. From my office I could look down onto Spitalfields Market and see people coming out of The Golden Heart. It was galling to be here when the crash came.”
“Having things fall apart among people who were so overworked, and putting in such long hours yet who had so little vocation or feeling for their jobs, combined with the necessity to blank out all the finer things, no time for their friends or family, meant that the fragile self-fulfilling optimism which existed turned to panic and despair very quickly.” said Alex darkly, evoking the psychology of the crash that he witnessed at first hand, in one of his famously erudite sentences.
As we walked past the ABN Ambro building where Alex saw it happen, I reminded Alex that this is also where they filmed the car commercial in which a lost young man carries the contents of his desk out in a box that breaks scattering his possessions onto the pavement, prompting him to break into song affirming the power of positive thinking, before he gets into his shiny new car and drives off to the Highlands of Scotand. Whenever I see this commercial, I always wonder what he is going to do when he reaches the wilderness. In confirmation of this notion, Alex pointed out the two shops selling bicycles and camping gear that he always noticed, strategically positioned directly opposite the entrance of ABN Ambro in case any employees should require a quick escape.
Beneath the bright surface of Alex’s intellect I detect a quiet melancholy that feels a little strange to discern in someone who has achieved success early in life. I think Alex lived a lot between the ages of twenty and thirty, years coinciding with the disappointing first decade of this new century and colouring his vision with an elegiac tinge that belies his youthful nature. As we walked through the narrow streets from Spitalfields towards the Bank of England to take the photographs, Alex talked about Kenneth Grahame both as a very successful banker and equally as someone who needed to explore that other world of Ratty and the whimsical riverbank characters in Cookham, far from the city – contrasting Grahame’s career with Eliot as the poet forced to do something grubby. Hearing Alex’s internal debate dramatised in this way, I was compelled to ask the obvious question, “Are you a novelist or a banker?”
Graciously acceding to my impertinence with a shy grin, Alex replied, “At dinner parties I am a novelist rather than a banker.” In a city as expensive as London, it can be a struggle to make a living as a novelist unless you are bestselling author, especially when you have a wife, two babies and a family home in Kensal Green to support, but with “This Bleeding City” creeping up the WHSmith top ten in Liverpool St Station I hope it will not be too long before the Dr Jekyll can triumph over the Mr Hyde in Alex’s career, even if he spends the rest of his writing life exploring their struggle within his own psyche.