Posts Tagged ‘books’

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.

Hello

January 23, 2010

Hello and welcome to EmilyBooks, a blog about books and me – Emily. I hope you like it.

I thought I’d begin by writing a bit about where books and me overlap. Perhaps it helps to think of ‘EmilyBooks’ as a kind of graphic. There’s me, ‘Emily’, walking along (by the way, there will be much more about walking to come …) and then, wow, there’s ‘Books’ standing there in the way. And Emily can’t stop in time to just look at Books, say a friendly hello, give a little wave; she can’t keep any distance from it at all – there’s no space, no full stop or dash, not even a hyphen. Instead she goes smack into the side of it, and is now stuck there, unable to disentangle herself.

And that, Best Beloved, is how Emily became attached to books.

I’m not entirely sure when that first moment was. I don’t think, in real life, the collision happened quite like that. Looking back, I can see that my particular attachment to Books changed as I grew older.

I always read a great deal when I was young. I spent a great deal of time on my own when I was growing up – although I have two brothers, they’re much older than me – and I soon became aware of the magic that lay dormant in the pages. As soon as I started reading, I was no longer sitting around in my bedroom, a bit bored, vaguely wondering when it would be dinner, or putting off doing some piano or cello practice (more on cello-playing to come …). No, once the book was open, I would be on my way to Redwall or Deptford or Willoughby Chase; I’d be entering a Secret Garden, or a Midnight Garden, or hiding from German planes in air-raid shelters; or sailing, on an expedition, drawing a map. Who needs a wardrobe with fur coats, when there are books? At that age, books were my brilliant escape routes, ready to transport me from a rather dreary suburban bedroom to far more exciting places.

I have to confess I didn’t read quite as voraciously when I was a teenager. There was lots of homework from my rather pushy London day school, plus cello practice – I’d given up the piano by then as there wasn’t enough time – and meeting friends, and, of course, boys. In fact, when it came to choosing A-levels, I very nearly didn’t study English. I’d become completely fascinated by Biology, so had chosen everything based around that: Chemistry and Maths to back it up, plus Economics, which I’d added on at the end, thinking that it might be useful. However, my parents, in a typically North-London-neurotic manner, sent me to see an educational psychologist, who declared that half of my intelligence was rotting away as I was relying too much on memory, rather than really thinking. He said I had to do something like English, where there was less need to memorise and more scope to think for oneself, in order to get that bit of my brain working again.

So I accordingly did English A-level, instead of Economics. It was very peculiar mixing science and arts subjects. All the science lessons took place in one building, and all the arts in another, which was a good seven-minute walk away. We only had five minutes between lessons, so I was always slightly late for a class, and, as barely anybody else was in the same predicament, I was the only one who was consistently late. Anyway, I shall speed through those years … the only really important thing that happened was that I decided to apply to do English at university, rather than psychology, which had been the original plan.

I managed, despite a horrible interview, to get in to Oxford to read English and I was given a Gap year. That year was when I really started reading again. I emailed my tutor to ask for a reading list before I went off travelling, and I couldn’t believe how long it was. We were expected to cover all the Victorians in just a term, and then the Moderns in another! Not to mention all the cryptic otherworldly lines of Old English …

I took a few of the bigger Victorian tomes away with me – Middlemarch, Bleak House and the like. Luckily the classics are the easiest books to find in paperback exchange bookshops all over Asia, so I managed to get through most of them. It was a very weird experience to be reading Eliot with a torch, during a power-cut, in a village in Nepal. (I expect there will be more about that to come too …) It was a strange reversal of the escapism of reading children’s books. I was no longer leaving England and travelling to far-off lands, this time I was in the far-off land, surrounded with everything strange and unknown, and being transported back to foggy London, or England at its most bucolic.

And then there was Oxford. So much reading, so much thinking, so many hours spent in libraries. Nobody really bothered going to lectures as it seemed as though – in fact I’m pretty sure we were told in the first lecture of the first term – we were there to read, that’s why people say they’re reading English rather than studying it. Every time I went into the Bodleian, right up to the end, I still felt that thrill, an involuntary small sharp intake of breath – complete wonder at being surrounded by them all. Books then weren’t escape routes at all. They were riddled with terribly important meanings, clues to a shiny elusive truth that could only be discovered through long meandering essays.

When I left Oxford, I had absolutely no idea what to do with myself. Eventually, mostly through talking to one of my older brothers, who is rather authoritative about things like jobs and CVs, I decided to go for journalism or publishing. According to him, they’re the only things an English student can really do. I did a few bits of journalism but ended up getting into publishing. I then spent two and a half years working for one of London’s biggest publishing houses.

It felt strange, and rather intrepid, to move from reading books to making them. At once they were no longer merely vessels for stories or information, but became complicated beautiful objects. They had their very own lexicon, and I soon learnt about ‘leading’, ‘endpapers’ and ‘running heads’. Things that had never occurred to me before were suddenly really of great importance – making paragraphs end neatly, not leaving just one word on its own line; being consistent with capital letters and Oxford commas; and not italicising the ‘the’ in a newspaper title, unless it’s The Times. One of the most peculiar things was having to think in sixteens, if possible in thirty-twos, to make sure that there weren’t lots of blank pages left at the end of a book, which is made up of thirty-two-page sections (perhaps with one sixteen if you really need it). One day I was taken to a printing press, to see how a document, last seen as PDF, is transformed into an actual book. Enormous sheets of paper are printed on, then folded, cut and stacked, and then the edges roughed up, glued, covers stuck on … bundles of pages in various stages of manufacture are transported around an enormous warehouse via a conveyor belt. It is a complicated and absolutely astonishing process. The strangest thing is that each book starts its life as a conjoined twin – an identical copy is glued head-to-head with it. It’s only at the very end of the process that they’re neatly spliced in two.

Books took on another transformation when I began to write one. Ideas had been oozing around my brain for a few months and then suddenly, one evening in that peculiar period between Christmas and New Year, I was in the bath (there will definitely be future discussions on the merits of baths) and bang, it had suddenly crystallised. I spent a year waking up very early, writing for an hour or so before going to work, but then, when it came to working on a second draft, I decided I couldn’t keep both things up at once. So I took a deep breath and dove out of the publishing house and into a part-time job at a bookshop, where I’m surrounded by books and have more time to write.

So I am now a bookseller, a writer, and still a reader. And it is as this bookish conglomerate that I will be writing EmilyBooks.