Reversal of Fortune. April 2016.

Dear Rowley,

As political scandals go, weren’t you distinctly underwhelmed by the revelation that the Prime Minister had benefitted from his late father’s off-shore investments? Quite frankly I’d have been more surprised if he hand’t. Though all perfectly legal, there is a nasty smell of ammonia surrounding ‘noises off’ taxes for companies operating in the UK but registered in those sunny places for shady people.

The objection isn’t that the financially blessed can bat funds away from HMRC like Babe Ruth. No, what really sticks in our collective craw is that the rest of us can’t. Would that we could all exploit offshore tax loopholes and secure the services of  Shyster, Shyster & Dodge.

Have you ever had a dust-up with HMRC? I’d rather go up against the good people of Salem wearing a pointed hat and holding a broomstick than try to solicit clemency from the Inland Revenue. It matters not if you haven’t claimed a benefit in your blameless life. If you can’t pay – and pay in advance lest we forget – HMRC has powers that Goebbels would consider a bit harsh.

Life has always been precipitous for those seeking their fortune in London. You only have to visit Sir John  Soane’s Museum or the National Gallery – where William Hogarth’s cautionary tales in oils A Rake’s Progress and Marriage-a-la-Mode hang – to understand it has ever been thus.  In Hogarth’s London, having funds is almost as hazardous as abject poverty.

In A Rake’s Progress, for example, wealthy Tom Rakewell’s fall is told in eight paintings. In the first Tom is being measured-up for a new suit of clothing for town while spurning his country ladylove, Sarah, who he has debauched on the promise of marriage. We follow Tom to London’s brothels, gambling stews and prisons before he is abandoned; a naked and shaven-headed lunatic in the monstrous South London asylum Bedlam.

Marriage-a-la-Mode tells the tale of two ne’er do wells: the titled but poor Squanderfield and his wealthy bride. Hogarth portrays Squanderfield as a promiscuous wastrel and his wife as little better than a spoilt, well-dressed whore. We follow both descending into a hell of their own making as he contracts syphilis from a teenage prostitute and she conducts an affair with their solicitor Silvertongue. So you see, modern soap opera has nothing to teach an 18th century satirist.

Squanderfield is killed by Silvertongue when he ambushes the solicitor and his wife in a bagnio. The Countess’s lover is hanged and she takes poison. The last scene shows the Countess’s gold wedding ring being prized from her dead finger while a nurse holds a pock-marked infant up to her cold lips. The moral? Keep your legs closed and open an ISA or two.

Hogarth is telling us how thin the ice is upon which we Londoners skate. The city can play the cruellest tricks on all but those with the strongest minds and morals. The only difference today is that strong minds and morals can also be corroded by life in London. I salute anyone who remains afloat in London on earnings moral or immoral. But I also know all too well that anyone could sink as low as Tom Rakewell should Fate and Nemesis meet at the celestial water cooler and decide it is our turn.

London demands cojones of cold steel if one is to survive here let alone prosper. I don’t honestly see any difference between today’s capital city and the mid-nineteenth century when Thackeray gave us his delicious London anti-heroine Becky Sharpe in his novel Vanity Fair. I get Becky. She is an adventuress who has to live on her wits and, on occasion, hold her nose and do something morally questionable if she wants to survive.

Like many women of her era, Becky’s financial security could only be found in the breeches pockets of gullible men. She knows she is taking a risk marrying the dashing guardsman Rawdon Crawley on the promise that his wealthy aunt will endow them with her riches. When she doesn’t, Becky emulates Beau Brummell and lives extravagantly on credit until the tradesmen call in her bills and Rawdon is thrown into debtor’s prison.

All Becky has left in her armoury are a few pieces of jewellery charmed from admirers and banknotes hidden in the secret drawer of her bureau that she squirrels away rather than standing bail to free her husband. Thackeray has a grudging admiration for Becky Sharpe … as do I. She gambles her cunning against a mighty adversary – London – and almost gets away with it.

Thackeray finally abandons Becky to her fate as a notorious fugitive from London society haunting casinos in the shadier capitals of Europe in pursuit of new benefactors. I tell you, Rowley, there were times when I thought Becky’s fate was going to be mine. Then again like Becky, I have always believed there is another roll of the dice in the game of London life.

In A Rake’s Progress and Marriage-a-la-Mode Hogarth shows the pockmarked reality of his subjects’ lives rather than the powdered faces that they display to London at large. There is rarely a dinner party I attend or cocktail conversation I overhear that isn’t an eerie echo of William Hogarth’s London. It pays us all to be aware that survival is a blessing not a privilege when you choose the savage garden as your home.