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Bond author Sebastian Faulks scorns internet culture

29-Aug-2009 • Literary

Sebastian Faulks tried to break with habit and move into the modern age several years ago, but he felt the times were too frivolous. “I couldn’t find enough that interested me,” he told the Telegraph.

Then something odd started to happen in the author’s once-Bohemian neighbourhood of Notting Hill. Instead of sharing a street with potters and publishers, he found himself cheek by jowl with very rich people who worked for Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch. Some of them were earning £5 million a year.

What intrigued him was not just these phenomenal sums of money, but that they seemed to be conjured out of nothing, through derivatives, and were unconnected with the normal mechanism of business or industry. “I mean, a friend of mine made £18 million a couple of years ago. I know people who had bonuses of £10 million. Just unbelievable. There was this sense of complete unreality.”

Faulks suddenly had his subject. The financial fantasy world, tilting giddily on its axis, and other alarming disconnections of contemporary life. Screens that have supplanted human communication, the alternative life of chat-rooms, internet information that saps the quest for real knowledge, reality television undermining reality. “We are living in a fractured society,” he says. “Everyone is doing their own thing. I do think this atomisation, to use a vogue word, is a threat.”

Starting in 2005, the best-selling author of Birdsong, Human Traces and Engleby wrote 50,000 words of his novel set in present-day London and then paused to dash off Devil May Care, an authorised sequel to Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. When he returned to the present, three months later, “the world had really changed”. The banking system was about to implode.

“The game was up. The writing was on the wall.” He quickly decided to anchor his book, A Week in December, in December 2007, “the last time people really believed they could go on with the boom for ever” — and to get it out as fast as possible.

Although the bloodless machinations of a hedge fund manager, John Veals, are at the cold centre of it, Faulks’s wider concerns about dehumanisation are explored through almost every other character, including a footballer and a student drawn to the ‘true message’ of Islam. “The sense of unreality in the financial world began to feed into other unrealities,” he explains. “What disturbs me is how increasingly reliant we are on this and this [he jabs at his computer screen and mobile phone]. When I went to France for the first time, aged nine, it was exciting. French fields! A French tree! But when my children go on holiday they don’t really notice the drive because they are texting or tapping. I’m not critical of them, but now everywhere is pretty much the same.”

Seeing his teenage son watch Chelsea on television, while simultaneously playing fantasy football manager on his laptop and texting his friends reinforced his anxieties about the creeping dependency on remote forms of communication.

Towards the end of the book, his potential suicide bomber, Hassan, becomes disorientated on Westminster Bridge and stops for help. Five times he tries to intercept strangers but they are all locked into their private worlds, listening to music or talking into hands-free microphones.

“They were talking to the air. All were listening to voices, talking back, but there were no people.”

For similar reasons, Faulks is ambivalent about the internet. “There is probably a net loss of knowledge inside our heads,” he says. “It worries me but I am trying not to sound despondent. The internet is good for quick checking or buying a pair of shoes but as a repository of deeper thought and wisdom it has some way to go.”

For the author of such a savage portrait of the times, Faulks sounds quite blithe and easy-going. His agreeably mournful face does not seem creased with anxiety. For every darkness he exposes, except perhaps for the psychotic effects of skunk, he has a counterbalance.

Online networking sites and addictive role-play computer games are worrying, but access to knowledge is easier. Not all bankers and hedge fund managers are as rapacious as the inhuman Veals.

“I am just saying: this is where we are. There are quite serious dangers. At the same time, I am not altogether despondent or pessimistic about how this will turn out because we are, if nothing else, an adaptable species.

“I am not preaching, in so far as I don’t have an answer. The only people who have answers are religious people and politicians. I’m neither religious not political. All I am offering is a vague humanistic thing. It may sound soppy to say love is the answer, it is more complicated than that – but it helps.”

The only time his big, bearish frame seems to droop is on contemplating the fuss he caused earlier in the week over his unguarded comments on the Koran as having “no ethical dimension” and being the “rantings of a schizophrenic” – an astonishingly inept reflection of his real position on the Muslim faith.

On Tuesday in The Daily Telegraph’s comment pages, he insisted that he wanted to broaden understanding, not inflame silly prejudices.

He says he researched Islam with just as much rigour as he explored the religion of money. No one reading the book, and seeing his affectionate portrait of a Muslim family, would doubt it.

That is the trouble with writing a contemporary novel packed with contemporary issues. You invite controversy. You do not get sackloads of letters overflowing with gratitude, as he did after Birdsong. You upset people. That is a new thing for Faulks and he doesn’t like it. “I am not the kind of guy who wants to upset people.”

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