Posts Tagged ‘banking’

Well Mabey I won’t go to the party

May 31, 2010

‘So doesn’t working in a bookshop all day mean that the last thing you want to do in your free time is read?’

The question was posed to me by a stockbroker at a rather smart drinks party where I was one of about three people there who weren’t bankers or lawyers. This question came after the stockbroker had already said how boring it must be to work in a bookshop and that he only read five or six books a year – all of them thrillers (‘like John Grisham’) and ‘only when I’m on holiday on a beach somewhere’.

So, given that it was more than clear that the last thing he wanted to do in his free time was read a proper book, even though his job wasn’t anything like working in a bookshop (although ‘it’s really interesting, it means I get to meet all these really important people and grill them about their companies’), I’m not really sure from whence his logic sprang.

He used the comparison of working in a biscuit shop, and no longer wanting to eat biscuits. I pointed out that if one worked somewhere like Harrod’s Food Hall, one would still want to eat lots of delicious food. And how could he imply that all books were as similar to each other as biscuits? (Although, to be fair, if he is used to only reading thrillers for two weeks a year, that might explain it.)

Last night was a peculiarly apt time for him to ask me that question. I shall try to explain why working in a bookshop makes me want to read more than anything else.

In yesterday’s lunchbreak, I finished reading the Review section, left over from Saturday’s Guardian. I’m sure I’ve already mentioned that this is my favourite bit of newspaper in the world ever. As I was coming to the end, I stumbled upon a phenomenal review by Ian Sinclair of Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, reissued for the first time since the early 1970s. It’s a fascinating article; you can read it here.

This book is an investigation into the wildness of London – marginal sites of dereliction where nature can once again take hold. And not always so marginal – Sinclair quotes Mabey, ‘The first summer after the blitz there were rosebays flowering on over three-quarters of the bombed sites in London, defiant sparks of life amongst the desolation.’ He describes The Unofficial Countryside as a ‘pivot’ between nature writing and psychogeography. A combination of walking and writing, exploring and documenting.

I jumped up after lunch incredibly excited. I had glanced the book in the shop and couldn’t wait to get back and have a closer look. A mere two minutes after reading the review, I held the book in my hands. It’s smooth cover was decorated with a pleasingly grimy picture of an electricity pylon surrounded by grey-green land. I flicked through – thick paper, several hand-drawn illustrations. I skimmed a few paragraphs of the prologue – Mabey’s account of the book’s origination, on finding un unexpected scattering of countryside by a canal in London’s suburbia, after ‘what they call a normal working day. Bitching at the office, brooding over lunch.’ He drew comfort from ‘a brilliant spike of purple loosestrife’, and the incongruously peaceful atmosphere that made it feel natural to exchange greetings with a bicycling worker, ‘as if we had been in a country lane’.

My excitement soared. Gosh what a beautiful object I held in my hands. How perfectly written. How hopeful. ‘The trees can live next to the cranes’, he writes. This is probably going to be one of the best books I will ever read. I rushed straight up to the till and bought it, with my generous staff discount.

I didn’t even go and stash the book away in my bag downstairs, but kept it out, next to the till, reminding me of what was waiting for me as soon as I finished work.

But, of course, I couldn’t hurry straight back home and read my new book. I had to go to this drinks party, on the other side of London. Can I really be bothered? I asked myself. Do I really need to go? I’m sure I’ll see everyone soon in any case. And wouldn’t it be just heaven to go home and read this book? Wouldn’t I learn more from reading it? Wouldn’t I enjoy it more than making small talk for a couple of hours?

No no no … I was firm with myself. It is ridiculous to not show up at a party at the last minute, with only the excuse of needing to read a book. I’d be giving up an evening of seeing my friends, of chatting to them, catching up, discussing ideas, gaining my own experiences rather than living vicariously through someone else’s.

And so I went to the party. And I got chatting to this stockbroker. And he really thought that being surrounded by books all day was boring. That talking about books all day was nothing much. And that spending so much time breathing in the books meant that I’d be desperate to escape them. If only he knew that I’d much rather have been reading the book I’d just bought. And that I was able to own this book – this magnificent, life-enriching object – so soon after discovering its existence, entirely thanks to working next to it all day long. I can only hope that he feels the same about buying and selling equity.

Enron and Peter Pan

January 31, 2010

I went to see Enron the other night at its new West End venue. There can’t have been such excitement, more energy, buzzing around the Noel Coward Theatre since its opening in 1903. Enron is a play that thrives off energy. A play in which the actors don’t stand around talking, but jump, dance, sing, play with lightsabers, sprint on imaginary running machines. The electricity rippled through the audience, who were all entranced, gawping at the display of power, longing to be part of it.

And yet, I was bored. I felt completely disconnected from the charade that was taking place in front of me.

I could see that it was a very slick production. And well acted. Sam West was fantastic as Enron’s president Jeff Skilling – transforming himself from an overweight geek to a magnetically arrogant, glisteningly intelligent stud. But I simply wasn’t interested.

It wasn’t that it was inaccessible. Indeed, I felt like I’d been given a remarkably lucid crash course in accountancy and financial lingo, from ‘black box’ companies to ‘mark to market’. But I didn’t really care.

I couldn’t understand why I was giving up three hours of my life to watch people pretending to be corporate whores, prancing around a trading floor, throwing wads of money in the air, backlit by the fluorescent glare of increasing share prices. I nearly left in the interval, but decided that would be churlish. Besides, I usually enjoy the second half of plays more than the first.

And I’m pleased that I stayed, because that’s when I had a minor epiphany.

Apologies to those of you who are reading this from the City, to whom this next bit might seem terribly obvious. It became clearer and clearer in the second half that what mattered, for Enron, was for people to believe in it, to believe in whatever Jeff Skilling told them. I was astonished that Enron’s share price kept on rising purely because of this belief, because Jeff Skilling went around saying naf catchphrases like, ‘we’re not just an energy company, we’re a powerhouse for ideas’. Enron wasn’t making money; it had mountains of debt. Skilling and his sidekick, Fastow, realised they needed to keep people believing in Enron. They proceeded to hide the toxic debt in a pretend company – a ‘black box’ – which did nothing except leech all the poisonous debt away from squeaky-clean Enron. And then, when a journalist begins to unpick the corporation’s façade, and panic begins to set in, all that matters to Skilling is keeping up the pretence, trying as hard as he can to stop people from losing their belief.

My epiphany, during the second half, was that I was really watching Peter Pan. Where else is make-believe so all-consumingly important?

When I then sat down to re-read the children’s classic, it became clear, by page 2, that Peter Pan warrants a post-financial-collapse reading.

First of all Barrie introduces us to the Darlings – Mr and Mrs, Wendy, John and Michael. And, of course, their lovable dog/nurse, Nana. But, what I’d forgotten, is that Mr Darling is defined as someone who:

was one of those deep ones who know about stocks and shares. Of course no one really knows, but he quite seemed to know, and he often said stocks were up and shares were down in a way that would have made any woman respect him.

Straight away we are told that ‘deep’ men know about stocks and shares, only to have this negated by the admission that ‘no one really knows’ about them. This important, manly, characteristic of understanding the stock market is just pretence. If a man plays that game correctly, he wins respect from women.

So money is in the male domain, from when Mr Darling does ridiculous sums to work out if they can afford to have another baby, to when one of the lost boys, Nibs, says, ‘All I remember about my mother … is that she often said to my father, “Oh how I wish I had a cheque-book of my own.” ’ Without wanting to be too feminist, what is implied is that when a boy has to do the dreaded thing and grow up, he will become in charge of the money, allowed to play this grown-up game of pretence about stocks and shares.

But let’s not think about grown-ups for a little while. After all, not wanting to grow up is Peter’s most memorable characteristic; this is what the more recent versions of Peter Pan seem to focus on. But what becomes more of a defining feature, when re-reading the original, is how hideously arrogant he is. As soon as Wendy sows his shadow back on to his foot, Peter assumes he has done it himself: ‘ “How clever I am,” he crowed rapturously, “oh, the cleverness of me!” ’ Barrie really spells it out: ‘To put it with brutal frankness, there never was a cockier boy.’ Throughout the book, Peter’s arrogance is highlighted, such as the many times when he ‘crows’ like a cock. It is this conceitedness that so drives Hook’s hatred of him. When Hook comes across Peter, asleep and defenceless, Barrie states that he would have turned away, he ‘was not wholly evil’, but ‘what stayed him was Peter’s impertinent appearance as he slept’, that his posture, even when asleep, was ‘such a personification of cockiness’. It is this which makes Hook poison Peter’s medicine bottle.

Peter Pan may be arrogant but he is also brave and intelligent. Coming up with the plan to pretend to be the ticking crocodile is a stroke of genius. And he is a leader; the Lost Boys unquestioningly obey his commands and so do the Redskins, once he’s rescued Tiger Lilly.

Another of Peter’s key traits is his love of make-believe. When it comes to food, ‘you never exactly knew whether there would be a real meal or just a make-believe, it all depended upon Peter’s whim … Make-believe was so real to him that during a meal of it you could see him getting rounder.’

Barrie goes along with this make-believe. The Neverland is a space where pretending, under Peter’s command, rules. He sets up Peter, Wendy and the Lost Boys as a pretend family. Wendy is referred to as ‘Mother’, Peter as ‘Father’, and the boys are their children. Michael even has to pretend to be the baby and sleeps in a basket. This pretence is so effective that when the Darling children do eventually return home, Michael, confused as to why John and Wendy have cried out ‘Mother’ on seeing Mrs Darling, asks his sister, ‘Then you’re not really our mother, Wendy?’

Is Barrie asking us to draw parallels between the two ‘families’ in the book? Wendy happily fits into her role as mother/house-wife: mending, cooking, administering medicine, insisting on bedtime – just like Mrs Darling. But what about Peter Pan and Mr Darling? I’m certain Peter would hate to admit to having anything in common with a grown-up. However, they are both arrogant – think of Mr Darling’s insisting on putting Nana in a kennel outside and refusing to admit his mistake until it’s too late. And, more importantly, they are both good at make-believe. Peter’s realm of make-believe is the Neverland; Mr Darling’s is stocks and shares.

Towards the end of the book, we are invited to imagine what would happen to Peter Pan, if he were to grow up. We are privy to the fate of the Lost Boys, adopted by the Darlings: ‘You may see the twins and Nibs and Curly any day going to an office, each carrying a little bag and an umbrella …’ But what about Peter? What if he were to accept Mrs Darling’s invitation to adopt him?

‘Would you send me to a school?’ he inquired craftily.

‘Yes.’

‘And then to an office?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Soon I should be a man?’

‘Very soon.’

Of course, he doesn’t stay in ‘the Mainland’. He returns to the Neverland and is a boy forever. But, what if? What if he’d agreed to stay behind? Would Peter Pan grow up to be an, admittedly more successful, version of Mr Darling? Like the twins and Nibs and Curly? Surely Peter would excel at the stocks and shares game of make-believe?

To bring us back to Enron, doesn’t Jeff Skilling, with his arrogance, intelligence, leadership qualities and remarkable aptitude for making people believe, really have very similar characteristics to those of Peter Pan? Perhaps all those boys who wanted to be Peter Pan cultivated those characteristics, and then, when they did inevitably grow up, they became very successful in the City. For arrogance, intelligence, leadership, and pretending – convincingly – to know about stocks and shares is a winning combination.

But Enron shows that make-believe doesn’t work as well outside the Neverland. There, you just have to believe in fairies and clap your hands for Tinker Bell to be saved from death; everyone can gorge on enormous make-believe feasts. But that is in the Neverland. In the City, however glitzily it is portrayed, excelling at make-believe isn’t quite good enough. The truth will out, and then Skilling, Enron, and all its investors and shareholders, come crashing down. And if the make-believe goes far enough, the global economy comes crashing down too.

So why is it that now we see bankers going to work, clapping their hands with glee at their bonuses, thinking, ‘yes, I believe’? Belief isn’t enough here. They are not in the Neverland; they grew up. And, as is clear in Enron, playing games of make-believe with stocks and shares doesn’t really work. And Peter Pan is also terribly forgetful. It would be awfully sad if bankers were already forgetting the horrific crash, the enormous wave of redundancy, the crippling consequences of corporate greed.