Jeffrey Archer * The Fourth Estate Book review

This is quite an old book – imagine they still had desk phones and no mobiles! And people were buying newspapers to find out the latest news!
This is the story of two separate characters, Lubji Hoch (who renames himself Richard Armstrong) and Keith Townsend who battle to the death on the scene of big-media paper business in an attempt for world domination.
It’s the story of a self-made man who with his wits alone raises from rags to riches and opposed, his arch-nemesis, the millionaire who inherits his father’s papers and money. It shows what a good start in life can do to your future prospects and also what lack of scruples and ambition can help you achieve.
You end up hating both men in the end – based on the way they treat their friends and family, but you end up hating Armstrong more. It’s a cut-throat industrial achievement book – very similar to one of Archer’s other rise-to-fame narratives: As the crow flies.
Again, the story spans several decades and follows both men from their teenage years, all through the second World War and into the boom that followed. If you like a book that discusses mergers and board meetings and takeover bids, this is the book for you. If you find this stuff boring, then you might give it a miss. It’s a tale of tragedy and wealth and ambition – of biting more than you can chew and of letting personal preferences and adoration cost you millions.

It showcases mistakes and successes and I’ve learned three things from it:

  • never make a bid on a company without finding out how much the owner wants for it and negotiating a fair price
  • never believe what the new owner of a company promises you. I liked how both men, when setting up terms and conditions for a contract, they would leave a loophole. For example, promise to keep the top editor for 10 years (but no mention of what his yearly pay should be) so they would pay him £1/year until he was forced to quit.
  • if you have an opening, an opportunity, take it

The book spans the period from before the Second World War to the time when Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister of Great Britain. It deals with the persecution of Jews and the rise to power of one of them after his miraculous escape from capture. He began with nothing, the other character had everything, shades of Cane and Abel? I guess so. Both of the characters had trouble with the unions which could, and did, destroy many business.

I believe in the end it all boiled down to the question that one chairman asked himself: who should win? A guy with a booming voice, large jowels and no table manners (Armstrong), or a bloody immigrant? (Towsnend) They both were bad and in the end, it’s all about choosing the lesser evil. What a couple of sad men. I think that Archer could easily have named his characters Faustus A and Faustus B, for these are indeed a couple of extremely nasty – amoral would probably be not too strong a word – characters who seemingly have no redeeming traits whatsoever.

I would suggest this story to anyone with a fascination of business. The rough and tumble of so many great success stories and their outrageous twists and turns is not lost here. You may not admire all the paths taken, but you will be fascinated by them. I believe this tale parallels a true story which played out in similar fashion not too many years ago. It is a good read, well done.

Even the ending was quite a big plus for me. After all has been done and Armstrong dies (suicide) after failing to repay the bank 50 millions he borrowed (after siphoning the pension fund too), Townsend finds himself victor – barely having survived bankrupcy as well after placing a 3bn bid on a massive company. As his financial advisor enters the room, he is already spinning ideas on how he can use the surplus in his pension fund to cover the hole in Armstrong’s company and create a merger. After promising his financial advisor he would never make another bid for another company until he stabilizes what he acquired. After promising he will run all expenses over £2000 by her.

He looks her square in the eye and says: “I lied”.

Lovely ending.

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