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Justin Cartwright - Other People's Money

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JUSTIN CARTWRIGHT:      I read a piece in the newspaper saying that we were really in need of a state of the nation novel and my name was cited as one of the people who might be able to do it, and couldn't help but notice that two of the others were dead!  So I thought this was a sign.  And the more I thought about, the more I thought: Yeah, we do need a decent state of the nation novel.  And I'd heard that in the dealing rooms when deals went down that the people shouted gleefully: Other People's Money or OPM.  And although that's not the most original title, it seemed to me to be, to catch the essence of what I was trying to do.

 

NICOLA BARRANGER:      What struck me as gripping in the book, is the fact that you've created characters that are not faceless bankers, these are real people.  Let's just talk a little bit about what happens in Other People's Money.

 

J C:         Well, yeah, I've decided really that plausibly, you couldn't paint all bankers as sort of unreservedly evil, but I would prefer to look at a family who'd got caught up in something they didn't fully understand and their bank was going down.  Instead of getting a Malmoth or somebody from Dickens in literature who was appallingly evil, I thought I'd see somebody sort of weak and confused.

 

N B:     This is Julian, isn't it?

 

J C:  Julian is the son of the dying Chairman of the bank, and he has more or less been forced into the job and really wasn't up to it, and like a lot of bankers, he didn't really understand what these new financial instruments were, and that's what led them into trouble.

 

N B:        And then we've got the comic tale.  It has been described as a thriller, though I would dispute that.  To me it's much more of a comedy of the two worlds -  of the banking classes and then what's going on down in Cornwall.  Let's just talk a bit about that.

J C:            Yeah.  In fact it was described as a thriller but in early publicity which, but that's unfortunately Internet age, you know -  I thought that was a mistake described as a thriller, but it's not a thriller.  And what really I've contrasted is the world of finance and commerce with the world of art, and the art is represented by one who probably my now favourite character in all the books I've written, who's -- everybody laughs when you mention his name who's read the book.

 

N B:     This is Artair....

 

J C:     He's a sort of heroic character, ridiculous on the one hand, but also heroic and he believes in the transcendence of art.  But he desperately believes that sooner or later he's going to persuade Daniel Day Lewis to appear in a major film or play that he's planning, while producing Thomas The Tank Engine in Cornish …

 

N B:  It has also been described as an 'Idiot's Guide To The Financial World', but beautifully crafted in literature.  Tell me about the research that you did to write this.

 

J C:  Well you know, I wouldn't pretend to really know the ins and outs of finance, but as one of the reviewers said: "He … Cartwright's obviously done his homework but I wouldn't trust my pension with him!"

I wouldn't trust my own pension with me!  But I did look at some of the things like CDCs and so on and hedge funds.  I sort of know how they work or didn't work.  And really the conclusion I came to is a lot of the bankers didn't know what they were doing.

Retail bankers really hadn't any idea what the investment arm was doing.  The investment arm  were the people who decided to dice up mortgages, fine and sell them on.  The idea was that if you chopped up mortgages into little packages and lump them all together you'd take the risk out.  It's absolutely crazy.  It's what Keynes called 'Casino Banking'.

And my impression after talking to a lot of bankers, is that actually really what happened was the believed that as long the money was rolling in, there was no need to look closely at the regulation or what underpinned it.

And as one banker said to me: "Well really, the worst that could happen to you is that if you made a horrible mistake and lost money you'd get a job somewhere else."  It wasn't their money they were losing, if they did lose money.  But they had a run of making money and they didn't want to stop the train.  In a way, understandably, but the whole ethos was a sort of testosterone-fuelled, you know, we can make money out of nothing.  And in a way I began not to sympathise, but to realise they weren't quite as mad and bad and evil. Although the consequences of what they did was appalling.

And the big problem with bankers is they're not, or not even bankers, people in the financial side of life, is that they're not really concerned about the social effects of what they do, that isn't their job. Their job is they believe they're on a sort of … they're doing the real business of society and life and the rest of us in arts or whatever are sort of wimps and almost irrelevant, they can patronise us.  But we're not really.  We don't really understand what's really going on.

 

N B:    Yes, as I was reading your book I suddenly thought at one moment of David Hare's play 'The Power of Yes', and there was a scene where one of the bankers was justifying being Masters of the Universe.  Did that ever spring to mind as you were talking to these individuals?

 

J C:     Yes.  I mean they did … my overall impression was that they really did think they were very, very important, and they didn't mean that just because they were dealing with the finance, they actually sort of thought they were connected to something that most of us didn't understand.

And..... arrogance isn't the word, but it's a kind of entitlement that obviously was bred in them for many years, 'cos what they were doing essentially, was dealing with enormous sums of money and taking a slice -- I don't mean illegally -- but taking a slice.  And they … what happened was they were so sort of confident in their own judgement, their own ability to make money out of nothing, that I think they thought if it was legal, it was fine, the ethics of it, so their social consciences didn't apply to them because it wasn't their job.  They actually thought their job was really kind of to create wealth in a way that the rest of us could only dream about.

 

N B:    Did anything surprise you as you were researching this?

 

J C:    Yes.  I talked to somebody who dealt in trusts and I asked him whether … cos I had the idea that the family would try and pad their assets in the bank when things went wrong, and I asked him if they would use their own money or use their customers' money.  And he said: "Oh, they'd use their customers' money" because it could be hidden for a very long time -- their clients as they call them in investment banking -- it could have been hidden for a very long time before the regulators, the rating agencies, the charity commissions has caught up with them.  So as long as you could rectify it say within two years it would be fine.  And apparently he seemed to think, and this is an example of one, but he seemed to think that that was pretty well understood in the City.

 

N B:  It is very different from anything else I've read of Justin Cartwright's.  Did you enjoy writing this sort of book?

 

J C:     I did enjoy writing it.  I mean I just had in mind these kind of solid, Victorian novels with plenty of characters, and so I didn't start … I'd actually read a few State of the Nation books as I was thinking about this, and I thought there's a problem if the finance dominates the story.

Finance  is really very, very difficult to understand, and by trying to make it authentic, some of the books I'd read, I felt they'd got completely lost in the woods, you know.

 

N B:    But you do balance it with the lovely, light hearted comedy.

 

J C:    Yeah.  I mean I didn't … I just … My central premise was that this bank was trying to pad assets for reason of trying to save the bank and get rid of it, and that's perfectly plausible up to a point.  But basically, my idea was, how did this financial collapse effect the nation from the top to the bottom, and the bottom is down in Cornwall.  Almost literally you always think of Cornwall of somehow downhill.  And you know, the idea of a heroic actor/manager trying to stage an improbable production with Daniel Day Lewis, as contrasted with these people up in London with their grand houses and their houses in Antibes and so on, trying to hide the facts. the balance was … I enjoyed it a lot, and I loosened my spays  slightly, I mean I had just an awful lot of fun with this book.

 

N B:    And film rights were zapped up pretty quickly.  I understand that there's a television production in the pipeline?

 

J C:       There is, yeah.  It looks like it.  It looks like being a sort of grand, sweeping, four part television production.  But I mean, you know, nothing's certain I the film world, but I think it's … judging by the reaction it probably will happen within a shortish space of time.

 

N B:    We'll look forward to seeing that, Other People's Money, Justin Cartwright, thank you very much.

 


Justin Cartwright tells The Interview Online, what he discovered about bankers' attitudes to  Other People's Money for his new book of the same title.

For his research he listened to city bankers about what they felt about making and losing money and whether or not the consequences would affect them.

In this revealing audio interview he tells Nicky Barranger about a shocking city culture amongst the banking community.

 

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Congratulations to Justin Cartwright - winner of the Spear's Novel of the Year Award For Other People's Money

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All images ©Nicky Barranger