Book Review: Billionaires’ Banquet

Billionaires’ Banquet, by Ron Butlin, is a wry tale of a group of Edinburgh students living in Thatcher’s Britain. They are on the cusp of the rest of their lives, ready to move beyond their years of drink fuelled casual sex in the cold and cluttered bedrooms of cheap shared accommodation.

Hume holds a PhD in philosophy but has yet to secure a permanent job. Cat is awaiting the results of her Pure Mathematics Masters degree and is expecting to receive a First. St Francis dropped out of training for the priesthood so is signing on. These three share a tenement flat, four stories above street level and owned by Electric Boy who has his recording studio in the attic above.

On Midsummer’s Eve, 1985, a Spaghetti Banquet is in progress in their kitchen. Electric Boy has brought his girlfriend. Visiting the flat for the first time is DD, a music student invited by a friend who failed to show. All are looking to their dreamed of futures while carrying baggage from their pasts.

As the summer progresses into autumn Hume comes to realise that his life is not going to travel its expected path. Cat has disappeared and DD is growing impatient with Hume’s stasis. If he is to move beyond pot noodle dinners and avoid turning into one of the homeless beggars beginning to appear on the city streets then he needs to take responsibility, grasp the opportunities supposedly on offer, and secure a decent paying job. He comes up with an idea, at once brilliant and absurd. With a few convincing lies, some help from his friends and a great wodge of luck he pulls it off.

Fast forward twenty years and the group’s life has undergone radical change. Some of Hume’s business associates may be dodgy but he has reaped his rewards. He has also discovered that such success comes at a cost.

Whilst the Occupy movement demonstrates against capitalism and the western powers shout about fighting terrorism, Hume decides to cast off his shadier connections and raise money for a cause. He will host a Billionaires’ Banquet, a high profile showcase to establish his business in the more ethical space to which he aspires.

There is a dark humour to the writing as the characters attempt to navigate a world where success is measured in wealth yet is defined as hard work by those who look with disdain on the faceless workers who keep the cogs of their businesses turning. The climax is a brilliant satire that invoked shades of Ballard’s High Rise. The ways of the world are understood by those who have experienced its seedy underside rather than by the idealistic intellectuals.

Within the context of a spirited story the author brings into focus the cost of a nation’s greed. An evolving Edinburgh provides the perfect backdrop. This is a contemporary parable that insightfully entertains.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

A City Break in Edinburgh

My elder son is currently a student at Edinburgh University. We drove him and the essential equipment that all students seem to need to his halls in September, staying a couple of nights in a hotel to make the long journey from Wiltshire more worthwhile. There was so much to see we determined to return and enjoy it fully as tourists. Thus, on Friday of last week, we boarded an early morning flight which took us north of the wall.

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Starting our break with an airport breakfast

The hotel we selected, Ten Hill Place, is owned by the Royal College of Surgeons and uses profits to train surgeons worldwide. It is situated close to many of the university buildings and within easy walking distance of the Royal Mile. It proved an excellent choice.

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A comfortable base

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Tasty food in the No. Ten Restaurant

I was delighted to find a lovely bookshop just around the corner. Blackwell Edinburgh is well worth a visit.

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With window displays such as this how could any book lover resist?

The weather started off cold and clear so we climbed both Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat to enjoy the views. The former is an easy ascent and provides a number of interesting constructions to admire. The latter proved more challenging. We tackled it on a frosty morning and the stone pathways were very slippery underfoot. I was grateful for my husband’s assistance in reaching the summit and then making our way back down.

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Calton Hill

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Arthur’s Seat 

The weather then turned dull and bitterly cold so we enjoyed some of the many indoor attractions offered around the Royal Mile. Having toured the wonderful castle on our previous visit we opted for Holyrood Palace this time around. The castle was better value, although we did enjoy our stroll through the palace gardens. For the cost of entrance there just weren’t enough rooms open inside, and all seemed too structured, impersonal and lacking in atmosphere. I suspect my lack of interest in the royal family, other than as historical figures, may be a factor in this assessment. I could not relate to the unctious tone of the guide.

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The ruined abbey and gardens were of more interest than the house

There are a large number of places to visit in the city centre, many of which are free of charge. We enjoy museums and chose to explore the Museum of Childhood, Museum of Edinburgh and The Writers’ Museum. These were of interest as much for the old town houses in which they are located as for the displays.

We also spent several hours exploring the National Museum of Scotland. There were many interesting galleries in this impressive building although their arrangement appeared somewhat eclectic which added to our entertainment as we pondered why.

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Writers’ Museum and National Museum of Scotland

We particularly enjoyed the Museum on the Mound which offers a history of money as well as a chance to crack a safe. We failed.

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Who would you like to see on a £20 note?

The most interesting place visited on this trip, and one which we regret not giving more than two hours, were the Surgeons’ Hall Museums, also owned by the Royal College of Surgeons. Avoid the pathology displays if you are inclined to hypochondria, but we found it fascinating.

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In the evenings, as well as eating in the restaurant at our hotel, we enjoyed delicious meals at Howies and Apiary. Each day we walked for miles around the city’s cobbled streets and hidden alleyways, admiring the impressive local architecture and grand buildings.

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Old College, one of the many university buildings 

The new Scottish Parliament Building with its bizarre modern architecture and eye wateringly expensive construction cost is closed to visitors on a Sunday, the day we had allocated for a tour. We had also been advised to visit The Real Mary King’s Close but ran out of time.

Edinburgh is a beautiful city and we feel fortunate that we had only the cold to contend with rather than the wet and windy weather that arrived as we left. There is still much to see and we hope to return.