The Dabbler Book Club Review: The Champion by Tim Binding

This month’s Dabbler Book Club selection was Tim Binding’s The Champion.
Here, Dabblers Brit and Toby Ash provide contrasting reviews after which Book Club member Audrey provides a tie-breaker…

Brit: Money stinks, is the message Tim Binding first appears to want to convey in The Champion. Literally so in this passage.

I’ve come to make my money respectable, give it a bit of breeding… It gets up people’s noses. It does that anyway…Did you know that? I read a book by one of them Great Train Robbers once, how they had all the money stashed in their house, how it stank the place out. Every time they opened the door the pong hit them in the face, like they had a stiff under the floorboards.

Money stinks and so do the people who pursue it. Foremost amongst these malodourous mammon-worshippers is Clark ‘Large’ Rossiter, a vulgar, charismatic bully who comes back from the City with a wodge of cash, to rule the roost in a small, class-obsessed Kent town. Not so pleased to see him return but nonetheless powerless to escape his magnetic draw is his school contemporary Charles Pemberton, the novel’s narrator, an emotionally-constipated chartered accountant who loathes the changes being wrought on ‘his’ town even as, in his capacity as Large’s finance manager, he helps to facilitate them.

Large is a familiar personification for the supposed excesses of Thatcherism, but he is no less fun for that. The Champion is a rollicking good read, ripping along at a good pace with plenty of nasty laughs and a handful of even nastier surprises. Two financial crises, both involving reckless betting on insurance policies, cast shadows over The Champion. The first is the Lloyd’s of London ‘recruit to dilute’ scandal of the late 1980s and early 1990s, in which the elitist reinsurance market allegedly began deliberately recruiting many more investor ‘Names’ in order to spread the hit it knew (but which the new Names didn’t know) was coming from an avalanche of asbestos-related illness claims in the United States. Charles’ father is one of these suckers, and, bankrupted, he ends up hanging himself in his wife’s greenhouse – a nasty surprise indeed.

The second crisis, interestingly, occurs after the book’s end. Large has borrowed recklessly to finance a string of luxurious elderly care homes, which relies for its soaring profitability on customers paying for policies which guarantee them places long before they need them. In the light of the Southern Cross story – the real-life retirement home chain which saw years of booming success followed by collapse in the 2008 global banking crisis – we can see that Large is doomed for a financial comeuppance.

Good-oh, we might say, if we have been rooting for the narrator Charles, who spends much of the novel sharpening his hatred of Large to a fine point. But this is where The Champion gets interesting. Money stinks, and so do its worshippers… and yet so does everyone else. This is a novel almost entirely populated by baddies, from Charles’ snobbish mother to the cruel beauty Sophie. And as Thatcherite bully anti-heroes go, Large Rossiter is surprisingly sympathetic. He also has a moral compass, or at least code of sorts.

Charles, we eventually discover, is the real anti-hero of the piece: a stuffed-shirt Iago who hatches a sneaky revenge plot far more tasteless than anything Large could devise. I won’t spoil it with details, but in the end I was glad Charles didn’t get what he wanted, and the last three or four pages – which consist of an eye-wateringly nihilistic, misanthropic rant – confirmed my growing suspicion that, as in Zoe Heller’s classic of the unreliable narrator genre Notes on a Scandal, we had been looking through the eyes of the true villain all along.

Toby Ash: I would be happy to wager a decent sum that Tim Binding wrote the first draft of The Champion about 15 years ago, decided it wasn’t up to scratch and stuffed it in a drawer. It might have been best to have left it there.

The book is set in a small market town in Kent in the early 1990s, although it is not an early 1990s that is entirely recognisable. People were not buying birthday cards on the internet then and the Bluewater shopping centre didn’t open until 1999, to cite a couple of examples of the chronic chronological dizziness that plagues this book.

Anyway, meet Charles Pemberton. He’s an unremarkable man whose father was governor of the local private school and a man of local standing. Unfortunately Dad was persuaded to become a Lloyds Name in the late 1980s and was subsequently wiped out. The shame proved too much, and Pemberton senior hanged himself in the greenhouse on the day they were moving out of the family home.

Just as this middle class family faces ruin, the vulgar, wheeler dealer Clark Rossiter, the council estate boy who managed to get a place at Charles’ private school, waltzes back into town. Flashing his cash, he buys local businesses and even the Pembertons’ old house. He is also married to Sophie, the object of Charles’ teenage longings.

The whole narrative feels a bit dated. It’s a cliché of the 1980s. The old order pushed aside by the brash barrow boys who made good under Maggie. There is nothing new here, despite the blurb on the back of the book straining to make a connection between the Lloyds debacle and the current economic crisis.

We are also repeatedly told that Clark’s businesses are leveraged to the hilt, a clumsy nod to the current debt-fuelled financial crisis and designed to give the impression that Clark’s voracious business expansion is bound to end in disaster. But the story is set some 15 years before the current crisis and the descriptions of cash-rich banks and investors throwing money around are inaccurate. In the early 1990s, banks were busy recalling loans.

None of the book’s characters are likeable or fully formed enough to be particularly interesting. Charles Pemberton is just plain dull. It is hard to empathise with an accountant whose idea of a good time is to celebrate American Independence Day alone eating burgers, buying cowboy shirts and reading Time magazine (do people like this actually exist?). Come on Charles why don’t you pack your bags, leave your dull little town and actually go to America! But alas, no. Charlie (sorry, Charles) is a small town boy simmering with resentment at the vulgarian invasion, yet also happy to take the new money that comes his way.

He duly makes his stand, burning wads of the odious Clark’s cash. He also shags the lovely Sophie. But by the end I really didn’t care much who won this depressing small town turf war. Of all the characters, Clark holds the most interest. Brash and flash he may be, but he is smart, worked his way out of the council estate and at least possesses a degree of awareness of his many shortcomings, confessing he wouldn’t want his daughter going out with anyone like himself. We also discover at the end of the book that years before his mother had to sleep with the ever-so-respectable Pemberton senior to get him into Charles’ school. The final indignity for poor Charles.

I lived in the home counties during the period the book was set and could barely recognise the rapid social upheaval and tension set out in The Champion. For fictional accounts of this time, I’m happy sticking with the likes of Amis and Hollinghurst.

Audrey: This is the world of the nineteen eighties and nineties as seen by a callous Adrian Mole. The trouble is that for those of us who are Adrian Mole’s contemporaries, it was easier to sympathise with those troubles of a provincial loser. However, Charles Pemberton, the outsider of this story, doesn’t elicit that sympathy, because he never seems real enough.

The trouble with the book is that although it wants to use recent history as a peg from which to hang the story, it’s frustratingly vague about real places and real dates, with the result that nothing seems convincingly remembered. We are somewhere in Kent, some time after 1987. Real events have real consequences – like the Lloyd’s Names scandal – but the historic events aren’t anchored by any of the trivial memories that should go with them to make them real. What did these people look like? Listen to? Watch? Read? I’m not saying that the novel should become a literary version of one of those Channel 4 “100 things you remember about the Nineties” programmes – but it lacks subtlety and texture.

For example, the house where Charles grew up is a focus for many of the book’s emotions: greed, envy, despair and loss – but it’s hard to see it clearly in your mind’s eye. It has “front stairs and back stairs”, and dark panelling, and a greenhouse, but lacks the small details that would conjure it up compellingly. It’s no Howards End, even if we understand the point that these days, Howards End is probably a footballer’s mansion or a care home.

The Champion has many of the faults I associate with Martin Amis: the anti-hero, Large, is sprawling, thuggish and macho; the women are mostly just ciphers, objects of lust with no coherent minds of their own. There’s also a casual brutality towards minor characters in the service of satire. One dies, for example, in a car crash on the way back from a booze cruise to Calais on the Euroshuttle. (Was it ever even called the Euroshuttle?)

The book’s premise seems to be that nothing good has happened, at all, since 1979; but it’s not sure whether what came before was any better – the old world of pubs and croquet lawns is as corrupt and false as the new one of wine bars and swimming pools.

You can buy The Champion from Amazon here. Next month’s Dabbler Book Club book is Rupert Thomson’s acclaimed memoir This Party’s Got to Stop and we’ve got loads of copies to give away… sign up free now.
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10 thoughts on “The Dabbler Book Club Review: The Champion by Tim Binding

  1. Worm
    June 7, 2011 at 08:37

    fascinating reading from all 3 reviewers – I wonder when we’re going to get a book that garners universal praise? The Champion doesn’t sound too bad – more the kind of thing I might read on holiday

    June 7, 2011 at 09:34

    It was always going to be odds-against that if, along with Nige, I enjoyed John Williams’ Stoner as much as I did, I would get little pleasure (save feverish page-turning) out of the collection of nasties that bestride this book. Arriving (back) in Blighty during the ‘Thatcher Years’ and meeting loads of Larges, and a smattering of Pembertons, I briefly became a player in that brittle world that laid the foundations for our present discomfort: in fact I have the dubious distinction of selling Barings £1.2 million of systems furniture a few months before Nick Leeson cleaned them out (yes, I did get paid). Does anybody remember the Audi ad’ where the ‘wide boy’ spiv arrives back on the forecourt having completed a test drive, tosses the keys back to the salesman, and spins on his heels with ‘Nah……not my style……!’ ? Ultimately, I found the characters too boldly drawn – it felt like panto’. Large was ‘large’; Sophie was every wet-dream girlfriend I could never get a dance with; and the one person who could have been developed in a gripping way, Pemberton, was too milk-and-water to be believable. I can’t be expected to accept that any man of his age would behave like such a complete tit, with a girl – even with parents like he had.

    June 7, 2011 at 10:29

    I’m with Toby and Mahlerman. Sorry Brit.

    I found very little in this book to recommend. Not a single sympathetic character, except, possibly, Large. None of them believable or fully developed. Charles himself is some sort of pathetic dweeb of a man – his mother isn’t snobbish, she just can’t, quite rightly, stand him – who has grand notions of his town and his family’s standing in it. Really? Minor public school, provincial mayors, golf clubs and Chambers of Commerce, are these the markers of class that a man will devote his whole sense of self to?

    And just to be petty in my cavilling; the standard of proof reading is diabolical. There is a typo, word missing or some other howler on almost every other page. In the end, it just gets annoying.

    June 7, 2011 at 12:47

    Thus far I’ve reached page 81. On a scale of 1 to 10, if the pace of Martin Amis’ Money is 9, then this is 0.5. I agree, Audrey, it’s no Howard’s End – even Howard’s Way was more gripping than this woeful tale of bourgeois snobbery, hypocrisy and corruption. But it’s a great bedtime read. You might occasionally be woken out of semi-slumber by the odd snippet, a mildly amusing description perhaps: “They had that indoor pasty look, brought about by years of game shows and instant gravy.” I liked the analogy of the repossessed furniture being, “wrapped in soft grey blankets, before being carried away like an injured racehorse.” Up to now, there’s one line that redeems the book to me – and it’s a great one: Charles’ description of a condom, “a loathsome object, revolting to handle, awkward to administer, demeaning and desperate. What could be more absurd than a little bulb at the end, ready to catch the futility of it all.” Must be a metaphor for something?

    June 7, 2011 at 15:05

    I thought the vagueness about dates was a deliberate novelistic device, so it didn’t annoy me.

      June 7, 2011 at 15:32

      In fact, reading the other reviews, it seems that we all basically agree, it’s just that I’m the only one who assumed the author did it deliberately!

    June 7, 2011 at 16:37

    I received a copy of this book from the Dabbler, and was keen to read it and let you know what I thought. Well, I enjoyed his Island Madness a few years ago, but this one? Not so much. I remember the 80s and the 90s pretty clearly (I was there) and this book didn’t really ring true. I had some sympathy with the unreliable narrator, but it looks like I wasn’t the only one who wanted him to pull himself together and move on.
    It is possible that I did not fit the target audience for this book, but I felt that while Charles’ parents were indeed a nightmare, he was not forced to stay put,and hold onto a lifetime’s worth of grudges against them, and I found his acts of rebellion petty and pointless. He let Katie down badly, failed with the others who were willing to give him a chance, and as a character was pretty annoying.
    The character of Large was a lot more sympathetically drawn in a way, and I ended up enjoying his excesses far more than understanding Charles. I agree with at least one assessment above that the female characters are sketched in rather an unsatisfactory manner; this is not a failing I remember in the previous novel but possibly this reflects the very different subject matter. I agree that this novel has a dusted off, joined together feel, and the narrative really doesn’t flow. I was baffled as to how emails had suddenly appeared as a method of communication, and this was not the only example of “exactly what time is this set in ?” moments. I have read books with far less literary pretensions than this who at least manage to anchor their story in a time or place. I think that I have a fairly good grasp of modern, well, history, but I struggled to place this book.
    Overall not a gripping, realistic book that I would rush to recommend. Its setting is not clear, its observation is ok but not marvellous, but I did finish it and found the characters interesting on the whole. It is a flawed book, but I enjoyed reading it and was pleasantly surprised how engaged I became in the narrative. Did the Golden Years scheme survive on any level, I am left wondering…

    June 8, 2011 at 09:04

    Didn’t anyone else think that time and place were deliberately vague, to remove it all a step from documentary? The town isn’t named; at one point Charles tries to tell Katie about the Brighton bombing and he can’t be sure how many years ago it was…says something like “10 years, or 12 years ago”. The whole thing is narrated by a warped man with an unreliable memory.

    jonathan law
    June 8, 2011 at 12:40

    As I read the early chapters of this book, I was overcome by a prickling sense of déjà vu: surely I had read something like this before – something very like but at the same time almost unimaginably different? I was most of the way through before it hit me. The sudden intrusion of a worldly, charismatic outsider into the closed society of a provincial schoolroom: the boys’ painfully mixed feelings of awe, disapproval, and envy, experienced most intensely, perhaps, by the narrator himself. Then the hero’s abrupt disappearance and eventful return; his pursuit of an enigmatic young beauty from a higher social class and its tragic repercussions …Yes, strange as it may seem, The Champion is in part a scabrous reworking of that classic of adolescent romanticism, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes – a work routinely described as magical, enchanting, spell-binding, and other adjectives unlikely ever to be applied to Tim Binding’s singularly charmless book.

    This idea may seem grotesque, but I think the names clinch it: Grand Meaulnes, Large Rossiter, don’t you see? (And come to think of it, you could bring in the ‘Great’ Gatsby here: another dodgy tycoon aspiring to love outside his class – and a book thought to have been inspired in large part by Alain-Fournier’s work).

    Suggestively, my edition of Meaulnes has a note in which the translator explains his decision to leave the hero’s soubriquet in French:

    No English adjective will convey all the shades of meaning that can be read into the simple word ‘grand’ which takes on overtones as the story progresses. Le Grand Meaulnes can mean the tall, the big, the protective, the almost-grown-up, even the great Meaulnes … But when the book has been put down, the phrase evokes in retrospect the image of someone not only tall or big but also daring, noble, tragic, fabulous. It is a phrase which has acquired a patina … [a] sort of nostalgic prestige …

    You could sum up by saying that if Meaulnes is about the various ways in which its hero is (or isn’t) grand, and Gatsby does a similar job with the word ‘great’, then The Champion asks us to ponder the ways in which Clark Rossiter, dodgy businessman and all-round jumped-up oik, is or may be Large. Big, bold, important – all of that, surely; but also ‘at large’ (like a serial killer or a wild animal) and with an unexpected dash of magnanimity (“that’s large of you”). To stray into J. Green’s territory, he also spends much of the book larging it and giving it large (boasting). And, appropriately for a book about money, isn’t ‘a large’ slang for a thousand quid? Ultimately, you’re left asking whether Rossiter is indeed ‘larger than life’ (a phrase that is nearly always some sort of euphemism) or just a big ugly lout.

    This is certainly the question that the book’s narrator, Charles Pemberton, asks himself obsessively – and, as most of the previous reviews have pointed out, this is where most of the book’s problems lie. Charles, you could say, is smaller than life: if he had a nickname it would probably be Small. This needn’t be a huge problem in itself. There is, after all, a fine literary tradition of using a passive, slightly colourless, looker-on to narrate the events of a novel – Seurel in Le Grand Meaulnes, Carroway in Gatsby, Nick Jenkins in Powell’s A Dance To the Music of Time. This can work well: the rather ordinary narrator acts as a stand-in for the reader, with his or her complex feelings towards the more flamboyant hero or antihero mediating and shaping our own. The trick is to let the narrator seem a little humdrum without allowing him to become a bore, and to hint discreetly at hidden depths: many readers finish the Anthony Powell books feeling that Jenkins, the perpetual on-looker, is perhaps the most fascinating character of all. There is no danger of this happening with our Charles, despite the melodramatic twists of the last chapters. Although he claims to reject the small-town values of his father – surely the biggest villain in a book full of absolute stinkers – he is, we realise, deeply infected by them. Underneath the nice manners and the golf-club bonhomie, the world of Charles’s town is one of sly graft, ruthless sexual predation, and an almost Hindu sense of caste. Charles sees this, but somehow can’t see (or act) beyond it. He’s not just a prig and a woos, but a bit of a shit. Large may be a bully, and doesn’t entirely escape being a bore, but he’s bigger than this.

      June 8, 2011 at 21:54

      Brilliant Jonathan.

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