Over coffee at the well furnished UCL bar, Alex Preston recounts a remark made to him when, as a student, he went to visit some friends up in Edinburgh. “We ended up walking in the Cairngorms. It was absolutely beautiful, a crystal day, and we walked up this hill when suddenly the land below us unfurled. The guy next to me then turned to me and said ‘How much do you think it would cost to buy all of this?’ That to me just seemed to me to typify the attitude that I wanted to put across in the novel.”
That novel is This Bleeding City, which won the Spear’s Book Awards Best First Book Prize and Edinburgh Festivals’ Readers First Book Awards, along with gaining Alex the accolade of becoming one of Waterstone’s Best New Voices of 2010. The book charts the life of Charlie Wales, through his time at Edinburgh University and then with his forays into hedge fund managing in the City. Alex made the intentional decision to locate the university in Edinburgh rather than his own alma mater (Alex attended Hertford College): “I very consciously didn’t set it at Oxford because I think that would have taken too far in the direction of making it some kind of class commentary whereas for me it was much more about money. What went on was simply unmediated capitalism.”
Despite this, many of his own university experiences were channelled into the book, much more so than the City themes: “A lot of people ask about the autobiographical elements of the book and how much was taken from my experience and actually the City stuff and the hedge fund stuff is actually almost entirely made up. It’s taken from experiences that friends have had and stuff that I wanted to knit into this narrative, but the experience of university probably mirrors mine relatively closely. I definitely had my head turned very much in the way that Charlie in the novel does when he goes to Edinburgh and from a very bourgeois background, finds himself going to shooting parties and beautiful houses and flying down to the Cote d’Azur with these very glamorous people. That was kind of my experience… A huge amount of very, very good literature coming out of that experience, of young people going up there and suddenly finding themselves in a world that is glittering. A particular thread in the book is that a lot of people have difficulty in finding lives subsequent to university.”
Alex himself found a life as a hedge fund manager, which, although he admits was not all “one long nightmare,” he certainly paints a very bleak picture of as a career and lifestyle choice: “Most of these people [who worked in investment banking] were unfulfilled. Does anyone have a vocation to go into hedge fund management? I don’t know, but plenty of them certainly had other vocations which they repressed, and repressed because the economic consequences of them going to the City were so dramatic.” More tentatively, he continues: “I would suggest that one of the reasons that the collapse happened so dramatically was because these people were desperate to get out. People did sense this underlying depression and despair with the very cheap fix – materialist kicks – that people get from the City. It’s not a sustainable lifestyle, or one that enables people to lead fulfilling lives. You just get trapped in a cycle. I’m very interested in the psychological impact of that lifestyle.”
In the creation of protagonist Charlie Wales, the novel definitely seeks to set out a more complex picture of the investment banker than is sometimes offered in fiction and film – that of the greedy cartoonish villain, turning to the profession to obtain the wealth of the less fortunate. Charlie is a character whom readers sympathise with. Alex feels that the standard, flat character, “doesn’t progress the discussion at all, to see it in those one-dimensional terms.”
Instead, the book “shows a generation of people undone by growing up in a very materialist nineties, and so many people shouldn’t have gone into the City. That milkround culture I find hugely negative.” Alex has, of course, managed to escape the “milkround culture” and the subsequent lifestyle that he deals with in his debut novel. Currently studying for a PhD at UCL, his second book is soon to be published. What investment banking has lost, contemporary fiction has gained.