Found: a banker not as hateful as Bob Diamond
Michael Bywater: Does the novelist Justin Cartwright know something we don’t?
People complain that novels don't engage with the real world but you can't say that about Other People's Money. Justin Cartwright's subject is the banking crisis, and he's done his research. I never thought I'd see the formula for Gauss's normal distribution "bell-curve" in a contemporary novel, but there it is, neatly set out on page 17.
That bell-curve formula is, as it turns out, the heart of the book. Everything pivots upon the false promise it holds that, somehow, by pseudo-mathematical conjuring, it would make risk risk-free.
Money could be conjured out of the air; and if the magic stopped working one day, it was only - as they cry across the trading-floors when deals go wrong - "OPM! OPM!" Other People's Money.
Cartwright is an experienced hand at the big novel of morals. Other People's Money concerns Tubal's Bank, trading under the Sign of the Leather Bottle since the 17th century, and now, thanks to a terrible cock-up with hedgies and quants and CDOs, circling the drain.
Former chairman Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal, lies stroke-struck in Antibes, gazing out across the bay to his yacht: sold without his knowledge to a revolting Russian oligarch by his son Julian.
Now chairman of Tubal's, Julian is about to embezzle the bank's deposits after some disastrous derivatives trading, before dumping it on an improbable American buyer, Cy. His mother-in-law's screwing the personal trainer. His brother's up a delta in Africa. His wife is as dull as a banker's wife can be.
The dishonest, false innocence of Julian - a liar, a thief and a hypocrite who deludes himself that he's hard done by - is familiar to us all over the last three years. Other People's Money is a compelling read, illuminating for a layman and embarrassing, I'd guess, for a banker, if there's a banker who can feel embarrassment.
The problem, though, is: where's the anger? Cartwright is a measured and forgiving man, but these two qualities which generally serve him so well seem, in this case, to weaken his argument.
Julian is, despite his failing, nice but dull. Sir Harry is almost a cartoon rich man, isolated by an inherited deference which he has come to regard as a right. Fleur, Sir Harry's much younger wife, is a proper little bitch - but Cartwright is far too kind to slap her or even to encourage us to slap her.
Undoubtedly bankers and those around them are human. I know a man whose bank went bust and he's no caricature but a man of honour. I know a quant or two, affable geeks. (I've even run across the odd hedgie, people who you'd not want to spend much time with but who have essentially gone mad doing a stupid job for joke money in filthily corrupt companies run by cynical sociopaths trading on the greed of whores and morons. Poor things.)
For a novel about banking to hold off on the raw hatred would seem to ask a lot of the readers. Even Mervyn King hates the bankers, saying how surprised he was that people weren't more angry, and then again, at the weekend, egging on the banking commission to twist their balls.
Personally, I'm with the Wall Street Journal in thinking that King believes in fairies at the bottom of the garden and presided over the Bank of England's deliberate transfer of money from poor pensioners to rich bankers, although he might be the other Mervyn King, the darts player from Ipswich, moonlighting as Governor of the Bank of England in a foam Mr Potato Face for a practical joke.
But... King hates them. We hate them. We hate the hedgies. We hate the CDO shills. We hate the squirrelly rugose trailer-park Bob Diamond of Barclays, with his cheap hairdo, bugger's ears and £6.5 million bonus ("smaller than his entitlement" and no jokes please).
We hate the - our - RBS's porky, smirking Stephen Hester, glossy as a Dickensian butcher, who took his £2,000,500 bonus on one of his many chins while claiming that things were "tough" and that he felt "beleaguered".
But Justin Cartwright, who has undoubtedly spent much more time over the last couple of years thinking about this than most of us, doesn't seem to hate them. Or at least doesn't want us to hate them. The question is, does he know something we don't know (like it's all Gauss's fault after all) or is he just nicer?
• Other People's Money by Justin Cartwright, Bloomsbury, £18.99. ISBN 978-1-4088-0388-2.
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