There is this myth of the “golden age.”
I used to work in advertising. Proper Advertising – a floor full of bearded hipsters called Creatives writing TV scripts involving wrestling crocodiles and other floors full of harried, overstressed executives trying to sell said scripts to creatively disinterested clients. A favourite memory is of a manager of mine earnestly trying to explain to a client on the phone, face in hand, why a wrestling crocodile was the ideal choice to drive unit sales in the major supermarkets. But more of that another time. Dotted around the building at irregular intervals were the gin-pickled survivors of the Golden Age of Advertising. Grey heads would shake sadly in memory of what once was – a non-stop champagne, awards and cocaine-fest where clients hoovered up wrestling crocodile scripts day after day. There weren’t many of these still around; Adland (a real term) is the territory of the young – but they spread the myth of the Golden Age with great effectiveness. I believe this is the case in many professions: gold-tinted rememberings of yesteryear where the money flowed and noone came back from lunch. But thanks to US TV show Mad Men, Advertising is particularly linked with this mythic past.
One of the threads of The Engagements recalls an advertising agency in those heady fifties/sixties days when advertising was all martinis and misogynists. The problem is, Sullivan didn’t seem to reach much beyond the slick world peddled by the grey-hairs harking back to a better time. The books consists of a number of threads to which we go back to in turn, stretched over a roughly fifty year time period. In the manner of these books, the connections between them are only thematically linked until near the end when some more concrete links are uncovered – a bit like Let the Great World Spin, but that is an infinitely superior book. The primary link, as the title suggests, is engagement – engagement rings and the stories spinning off from there. There is little romance, given the primacy of this theme – the book is really dealing with broader themes of family, love, money and work – but it has nothing particularly interesting to say on any of these subjects. From the gay wedding in 2012 to the money-strapped paramedic in … I forget when … the book is readable, but little more. It was – frankly – a bit boring.
To be fair, I read this in the early weeks of motherhood, in a blur, on a small screen, in snippets, at night. But it didn’t offer anything to cut through the fug. If you don’t wish to go beneath the surface, you’d be better hanging out at a few choice central London bars and buying martinis for the grey-haired old admen with some tall, but golden, tales to tell.
p.s. Happy Christmas, y’all.