The FT's "Lunch with..." column is one of the finest feature series in British journalism. The format is simple: take someone interesting or noteworthy to lunch, get them talking in an informal way about their work and life - food is a great disarmer - and report on the conversation, weaving in the details of the meal. Much can be revealed about a person by the manner in which they address a waiter or a plate of pasta. You will have your own favourite examples; mine include Robert Caro and Esther Duflo.
The FT's latest lunch is with Nick Candy, of the absurdly successful Candy brothers, two lads from Surrey who have become rich and (in certain circles) famous by developing property for millionaires and billionaires.
This particular 'Lunch' has been feted on Twitter as a subtle takedown of its subject. In fact, it's anything but subtle (if it really was subtle, there wouldn't be so many people proclaiming it as such). A hatchet rather than a stilletto is used to make Candy look like a pushy, shallow, boastful spiv.
But if you subtract the interviewer's evident animosity and scrape away the spin he puts on everything, it's hard to see why we should judge Candy as harshly as he clearly wants us to. The Candys didn't come from a rich or well-connected family. They made their fortune by the application of effort, energy, ingenuity and chutzpah, and as far as we know they haven't harmed anyone or bent any laws along the way. They have built a solid business: when the crash came, they came through.
Nick Candy has married someone who is by all accounts a strong-minded woman, and he is, as even this interviewer feels compelled to note, smitten by her. Though clearly a hyper-busy guy, his interactions with the waiter seem polite enough (real arseholes don't say, "Just excuse me one second..." when a call comes in). He acknowledges that a large part of his success is down to luck, rather than his own brilliance. Put it this way: Candy is no Donald Trump. (And if you want to hear about some really shitty interpersonal skills, read the Steve Jobs biography.)
Yes, Candy is flash - the interviewer uses the phrase "wide boy". He has the temerity to be wearing an expensive suit. He offers a long list of the cars he owns, namedrops like crazy, and (perhaps) overplays his relationship with the FT's editor. He's unforgivably vulgar too, ordering a glass of white wine for his lunch companion even though the interviewer ordered steak (although if the interviewer didn't want white wine, presumably he might have said so). None of this, of course, is evidence that he's unpleasant or morally degenerate.
What this really comes down to is that Candy doesn't possess, and hasn't felt it necessary to acquire, the manners and sensibility of the educated middle class. That makes it easy to despise his success, a temptation that we in Britain are always prone to - even journalists at the FT. In the week of Mrs Thatcher's death, this interview, and the reaction to it, are a useful reminder that in this country class still trumps money.
NOTE: It's not that I don't like takedowns, it's just that they have to be genuinely subtle to work, so subtle that you can imagine the subject reading it and nodding in approval, like this lunch with the conservative sociologist Charles Murray. Or take this, with Sean Parker. Do you come away from it thinking Parker is a prat? Maybe. But you may also think he's rather likeable, or a mix of the two. Either way, you don't feel the interviewer straining to impose his judgement on you. What both of these pieces do very successfully is convey a vivid impression of their subject's presence, which ought to be the highest aspiration of any interviewer. The reader should feel he has been sitting across the table from the interviewee. Pulling that off takes a high degree of almost novelistic writing skill. Hatchet jobs are easier.