I have five or six books by French author, but naturalised Englishman, Hilaire Belloc but apart from his book of humorous poetry ‘Selected Cautionary Verses’ I haven’t read any of them, reading this makes me want to pull the others off the shelves. My copy is the 1947 first Penguin edition, so 75 years old, and I can’t find any currently available editions which is a shame as it is a genuinely great read. Although written in 1925 it is set in the future of April 1953 and the basic conceit of being in the future, at least as far as the author is concerned, is that there was no longer the need for passports for British citizens entering the UK, although how you proved you were British and therefore didn’t need a passport is conveniently glossed over. It is vitally important for the plot however as the character we come to know as Mr John K Petre has no documentation on him with his name having arrived from America and losing his memory almost upon disembarking from the ship. He clutches at a barely remembered name ‘Petre’ as his own as he sinks into a nightmare of scratchily forming memories, but the name alone, whether it is his or not, proves his salvation, for it is a name of an eccentric multi-millionaire who thrives on being incognito.
There then follows a series of chancy investments, mainly by accident, but where the name of Petre works as a guarantee with no real financial backing, the first of which nets almost eighty thousand pounds and the second over a million but without our hero having any real knowledge as to what he is doing. The first is a simple boosting of the stock market which follows the knowledge that the great John K Petre has invested in a moribund stock which massively boosts the value, at least for a few days at which point the agent he had met at a dinner party cashed in for him and simply sent a cheque for his profit to the hotel he was staying in. This has some of the least likely plot lines in the novel and also some of the most dodgy mathematics as try as I can I cannot get a profit as stated in the narrative from the vague hints as to what the story says happened. The depositing of the cheque into a random bank account set up to receive it is also highly unlikely as no evidence is either requested or presented that the cheque has not been stolen or that the depositor is indeed John K Petre. The second transaction is however, oddly, far more believable despite netting over a million pounds when the character had nowhere near the required collateral for the property purchase involved but as he sold it straight away for far more than the agreed purchase price I can see this as quite possible, it is just a matter of timing payments.
I don’t want to give too much away, these two transactions occur in the first half of the book and Mr Petre has far more to go through before the end, but it is a brilliant novel which really draws the reader into the plot line both in feeling for our hero, who clearly has no idea what he is doing and is just led along by advisers, and also joy in the sheer blind luck he has in getting away with random investments much to his own surprise. What really surprises me however is that this 1947 paperback appears to be the last edition available, searching though abebooks and biblio, which represent the vast majority of online second hand book dealers, I cannot find a more recent copy apart from print on demand. I cannot understand why such a superb book has been effectively out of print for seventy five years, please if any publishers are reading this can we have a more recent edition? If anything due to the financial shenanigans so prevalent nowadays the book is more relevant then when it was first published almost a hundred years ago. If you can find a copy I suggest getting and reading it you won’t be disappointed.