For Jewish News Life magazine September 2023
It’s sometimes said that if you want something done, ask a busy person.
Such a one is ITN’s singular political editor, Robert Peston, who is opening the High Holiday season with a flourish. Not only does he have a non-fiction book coming out later this year, but the second in his fictional trilogy starring his possible alter ego, Gil Peck, hits the bookstores in September. And, together with long-time business journalist Steph McGovern, Peston is launching a podcast, to be known as The Rest is Money, part of the wildly successful Gary Lineker Goalhanger stable — including The Rest is Politics and The Rest is History.
All of this is in addition to Peston’s regular workload, including his eponymous must-see Wednesday night politics programme on ITV.
So it’s not surprising that in order for us to talk at all, Peston has had to break into a holiday in Corfu; and laughing, he admits that he’s not quite sure how he managed to write The Crash, the follow-up novel to 2021’s The Whistleblower. That first book was written during lockdown when Peston, like everyone else, was unable to travel as much as usual and so had previously unanticipated downtime in which to write.
For The Crash, offering an unrivalled insider’s eye on the global financial meltdown of 2008, Peston substitutes the fictional NewGate bank for the real thing, the collapse of Northern Rock, which caused an unprecedented run on its bank branches. Peston’s clear explanations, and scoops as to what was happening at the time, gripped Britain.
Reading The Crash is to get a new insight into the murkiness of the financial world. With a wink, Peston has one of his characters tell his fictional hero, Gil Peck, that he should explain the complex financial situation as though he were talking to his grandma. All I can say is that Peston’s grandma must have been a very wise woman.
This massive onslaught of work — two books and the podcast launch as well as his regular job — has led to “a completely mad and frenetic time” for Peston. His “Jewish New Year resolution”, he says, is “that next year I’m not taking on any big projects, I’m just going to concentrate on family and the people I love”.
The year 2008 ought not to seem so far away in time, but in The Crash, Peston sites the reader firmly in a different world — one where Gil Peck is massively dependent on his BlackBerry phones, when iPhones were barely a dent in the market. And Peston is keen, too, to offer a guide to the thinking man’s wardrobe, with talk of Duchamp ties, Charvet shirts, a black Lacroix jacket “with an intricately embroidered floral lining” and Paul Smith suits. Sad to report, many of these garments are ruined during Gil Peck’s adventures.
Peston says: “I was so totally immersed in the world of the financial crash that it felt like escapism to go back to it, I lived and breathed it at the time”. He has spoken before about “the growth of amorality in public life” and the lack of accountability by politicians. Without providing spoilers, it’s fair to say that in The Crash, Peston delivers rough justice to some of the political voices we first met in The Whistleblower —and since the planned third book in his trilogy will bring us up to date and include the Corbyn years, I can scarcely wait to see how he wields his fictional sword.
It was in fact thanks to the Jewish News’ Justin Cohen that Peston was introduced to the people who run the Goalhanger podcast operation. He had originally been toying with the idea of a podcast partnership with Jewish News in which he could explore Jewish identity: but during a meeting with Goalhanger’s co-founder Tony Pastor (alongside football pundit Gary Lineker), Peston suggested that there should be an economics and business podcast — and offered himself as one of the presenters.
When it came to someone he could work with, Steph McGovern’s name came up. The consumer and business journalist, known most recently for her Channel 4 daily show, Steph’s Packed Lunch, had been, by coincidence, Peston’s producer on the BBC when he was first reporting on the 2008 financial crash. “She was my producer, and we’ve stayed close friends. She was very excited”.
Giving a name to the proposed podcast was easy in Peston’s mind. “I felt very strongly it should be The Rest is Money because money is something everyone can relate to —and it allows us to talk about anything in the broad space of finance and business. We’ll start with Steph and I talking about three or four different issues that really matter to people, such as the cost of living, the battle against inflation. Then there’ll be other business stories —for example, I’m completely obsessed with Artificial Intelligence at the moment, and there’s an extraordinary amount of money into AI development and what effect that is going to have on people’s jobs”.
Despite assumptions, perhaps, Peston is fiercely Jewish, once a kibbutz volunteer — and his curiosity about Jewish identity seeps into his novels about Gil Peck. In this second book, even more than the first, Peston’s own upbringing as the son of a couple who had been brought up in observant Jewish homes, but who had virtually abandoned observance in favour of assimilation in wider British society, is clearly examined.
He says: “As a child I grew up in a household where my father [the Labour life peer Baron Maurice Peston] was militantly atheist. He became this arch-rationalist at the London School of Economics and decided that all religion was hocus-pocus. Although there were all these behavioural things in his case that he never shook off — he could never bring himself to eat bacon or pork sausages, for example. The only thing he would cook for himself was cholesterol on a plate (this turns out to be worsht and eggs)”.
His mother, says Peston, “was a terrific Jewish cook and baker, who made the best chicken soup I’ve ever eaten in my entire life, the best latkes…she was more agnostic, but he was militantly anti-religion. And they were also desperately assimilating, going up in the world. That was our nuclear family, but then if you met any of my aunts, uncles, cousins — they were all committed to the faith. So it was a bit like growing up with a split identity. There were all these emigré characters: my mother’s grandfather was still alive when I was young, and he was an eccentric old man who shuffled around and spoke Yiddish all the time. So I had this very confusing experience of our own family, and then being surrounded by people who were not that far from the shtetl”.
Because of such mixed messages, he says, the adolescent Peston “devoured” books by Isaac Bashevis Singer or “almost every Jewish author on the planet”. So Jewish identity, for Peston, “is a big part of who I am, but working out exactly what that is has always intrigued me”.
He has a final, gnomic message summing up his feelings about Yom Kippur: “Guilt follows me around like a stray dog, though I can never name the dog or the guilt. Atoning is liberation for me — and the dog.”
The Crash, by Robert Peston, is published by Bonnier Zaffre books on September 14; The Rest is Money podcast with presenters Robert Peston and Steph McGovern launches in September.