Ben Elton’s 2009 book Meltdown is the story of the rise and fall of a City trader and his rich university friends. It is, as becomes apparent quite early on in the book, a story of the New Labour years from the view of the upper-middle class: the easy money, the convenient ability to earn bucket loads of cash while easing liberal guilt by telling yourself you are doing something which helps others, and the expectation that everything inevitably will continue getting better.
The central character is Jimmy Corby, a happy-go-lucky chap who stumbles across a career path that will reap him endless money. After the crash, however, his boss decides trading in his region, Eastern Europe, is too risky and he is unceremoniously shown the door. Having stupidly decided to use his mortgage to buy a street that is now worth nothing, he is up to his head in debt and his family are forced to live like paupers.
The other friends, while being distinctive characters, struggle to become three-dimensional. Given that all their get-togethers seem to turn into some sort of raging political argument, it is hard to see why they are all friends. They resemble dolls with a pull-out string, saying the same old things repetitively throughout the book. Henry the politician, felled by the expenses scandal, is always righteous and conceited, spouting absurd New Labour soundbites. Rupert, who has a suspiciously close resemblance to Fred the Shred (he is even nicknamed Roop the Boot) is perhaps the most impressing, with his drawl and his reactionary obstinacy. He is also the most perceptive of the characters, taking apart their virtue-signalling and upper-middle-class hypocrisy, for example at the 2005 Live Aid concert, when, observing the crowd behind their VIP seats, he tells the self-congratulating others:
“Just look at that, a sea of placard saying that those girls want to “make poverty history”. Do you see any placards saying, “and I’m prepared to pay more for my Gap clothes and my Nike shoes in order to make it happen”? Is anyone pleading for higher interest rates so that their banks can invest more in the third world? More expensive petrol so that Shell and BP won’t screw the poor African quite as fucking viciously? No! They’re bloody not. Because the people in that crowd want to make poverty history but not if they have to pay for it themselves. Not if it means sacrificing their cheap clothes, cheap food, cheap credit, cheap air travel and low taxes.”
The book comes across as rather contrived at times. It is unclear why, after losing his job, Jimmy cannot just get an office job he would certainly be qualified for instead of wandering around unemployed and applying to work in supermarkets. It is rather too much of a happy ending how the Corby family go in a matter of weeks from dreading the horrors of state schools to becoming best friends with asylum seekers through the son’s new state school.
As pointed out in the Guardian’s review of the book, its chronicling of the New Labour years is rather premature. It packs in Blair’s win in 1997, the cash-for-honours scandal, foxhunting, the expenses’ scandal, the bank bailout, bankers’ bonuses and more. Yet the central theme, that the wealthy all lost their money and prestige in the crash, seems rather strange a few years on.
Overall this is a funny and engaging book, and easy to get into, but it is not quite the parable for our times that it was perhaps meant to be.