Hazel McHaffie

moral choices

Amsterdam

Last week I mentioned the book I was carting round with me for odd moments of distraction: 1998 Booker winner, Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. In the end I couldn’t get into it with so much distraction, so I saved it for a free afternoon. Wise decision.

It’s a chilly February day. Two men, lopsided friends of long standing, attend the funeral of a woman they have both loved (with a family funeral looming this week this instantly resonated with me). Vernon Halliday is the fifth editor of a London newspaper, The Judge, doing his best to reverse declining circulation figures. Clive Linley is Britain’s most successful modern composer, searching for an elusive masterpiece.

Both were former lovers of the beautiful Molly Lane whose cremation they are attending. Molly – ‘restaurant critic, gorgeous wit and photographer, the darling gardener who had been loved by the Foreign Secretary and could still turn a perfect cartwheel at the age of forty-six.’ Molly – the speed of whose descent into ‘madness and pain‘ had become the subject of widespread gossip; and who lost control of both bodily functions and seemly behaviour.

Having seen Molly’s ignominious end, both men, harbouring secret fears about their own health, make a pact with the other that will have consequences neither intend or foresee.

Molly’s widower, George Lane, is a rich publisher given to wearing a silk dressing gown over his day clothes and favouring a ‘Buckingham Palace style‘ in house furnishings. He owns one and a half percent of the paper The Judge, but in reality knows little about the real world of business. His empire is built upon highly dubious and speculative publications.

The plot gathers momentum when incriminating photos of another of Molly’s lovers are discovered amongst her possessions. Foreign Secretary, Julian Garmony, is the man in question. His political star is in the ascendancy; he’s widely tipped to be the next prime minister, but Molly’s pictures of him reveal a very different story.

We know so little about each other. We lie mostly submerged, like ice floes, with our visible social selves projecting only cool and white. Here was a rare sight below the waves, of a man’s privacy and turmoil, of his dignity upended by the overpowering necessity of pure fantasy …

But there’s a small matter of morality at stake here. Should such private information become public knowledge? Can relationships survive disloyalty? Clive and Vernon both face serious moral challenges; both have reputations and jobs to lose. Greatness, genius, integrity, are ephemeral achievements, striven for over a lifetime, destroyed in an instant.

I approached this book with my usually cynicism about literary writing; I ended up agreeably surprised. At only 178 pages I read it in one sitting – always an advantage for holding the detail in my head. But better yet, the story has a message … and a plot … and was readable! … and by jingo! even a little dab of ethics!! Things are definitely looking up.

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