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Can money set you free?

By John Lanchester

Published: January 29 2010 16:50 | Last updated: January 29 2010 16:50

In 1982, partway through my first year at Oxford university, my father asked me a question that took me by surprise. He said, “Do you have enough money?”

It took me by surprise partly because it is somehow, in and of itself, a surprising question - not one that people often ask. What’s enough? We don’t ask ourselves that very often. I thought about what he’d asked for a moment and then said, truthfully, “I never think about money.” He laughed and said, “Then you’re rich.”

I remember this conversation so vividly partly because that seemed to me to be a profound truth: the definition of being rich is never thinking about money. But I also remember it because my father never talked about money. This was just about the only time we ever discussed it in a personal way. He could discuss it in the abstract, in terms of general issues or politics, but to talk about the effects of money made him unhappy. The issues it raised went too deep.

What was odd about that was that my father worked for a bank, the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, for 30 years until he retired in 1979. That time was spent in Asia, except for a two-year spell in Hamburg where I was born. So Dad was a banker but he couldn’t bear talking about money. That was why the idea of never having to think about money struck him as the very definition of being rich.

A preoccupation with money, and especially with what money meant, was in our family an inherited thing. My father’s father, Jack, who died before I was born, was very much possessed by the idea that money was freedom. His own father had drunk himself to poverty and death in his thirties, and this left Jack with the belief that making money was the only way of being secure. This conviction propelled him from an early life as a schoolteacher in Yorkshire to study dentistry. He travelled to Hong Kong to find more lucrative work and then, when the colony fell to the Japanese, spent four years in Stanley prison, a Japanese internment camp. When he came out, he worked as a dentist for a bit, then made a living playing the stock market, but his health never fully recovered from the camp and he died in his mid-sixties.

Looking over Jack’s life, I’m left wondering whether he realised that his belief that money equals freedom ended up with him in Stanley prison. It looks obvious from the outside but it never seems to have occurred to him, and he was determined to encourage his son to do something practical - something to do with money.

The strange thing was that my father saw this obsession clearly yet signed up to a very similar belief. He came to hate his job but he stayed at it for 30 years. The strong feelings, which in his childhood circulated around money as a means of control, made it impossible to talk about money in later life - but he didn’t disagree with his father about the centrality of money. He, too, thought that money was freedom, in and of itself. He made the bargain many people make, of trading their days for financial security. The happy ending was supposed to come when he took early retirement, aged 53. He was ready to live on the proceeds of the generous bank pension scheme he had helped to set up. Instead, with horrible suddenness, he died of a heart attack, aged 57. That taught me more than any words ever could about the need to live for today, and about the profound truth of Seamus Heaney’s elegy to Robert Lowell: “The way we are living/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life.”

It would be too glib, not a hundred per cent true, to say that my father’s career as a banker was what made me a writer. But it would be slightly true, and it was certainly the case that his work as a banker made me see that the trade-offs people make between their work and their lives are often badly skewed. Security is a complicated idea, and one with an immense potential to trap us - that was one lesson I learnt from my father.

Money isn’t automatically freedom. You need to look carefully at what you’re doing to earn the money before you can conclude that you are, in practice, free. This is a cost-benefit analysis we should all perform on our own lives. Don’t listen to what people say about freedom and security and money but, instead, look at the specific, actual bargains they are making with their lives. Dad’s example made me feel that, if I wanted to write for a living, I had an obligation to try and do it, and I’ve been writing full-time since 1996, when my first novel did well enough to let me quit my day job as an editor at the London Review of Books.

The philosopher Kierkegaard thought that “anxiety is freedom”. It is both the price we pay for freedom and the sign of freedom; the entirely secure are not anxious and they are not free either. This is an uncomfortable idea but it’s one I’ve always found helpful in being a professional writer. On the one hand, I have no boss, so I can’t be sacked - everything about every single aspect of my day and my work is entirely up to me. From that point of view, I’m about as free as it is possible for a person to be. On the other hand, I have no job security or protection of any kind. If people don’t want to read what I write, I have no income .

There is an upside to this lack of security. In my view, this is a lot closer to most people’s circumstances than they realise. In the modern world of employment, security is almost impossible to find, and the very luckiest of us is no more than a couple of pieces of bad luck from destitution.

Still, if you make the bargain to accept anxiety as the price of freedom, it helps to be as clear-eyed as you can about what you’re doing. From that point of view, my father’s example was a tremendous practical help because although he didn’t like talking about money in a personal way, he understood it and how it worked and was very good at explaining the fundamentals.

When I realised my interest was turning into a book - the mutant outgrowth of a novel I’d been writing for some time - I also became aware of just how much basic knowledge about finance I had absorbed from him. I was also aware that his kind of banker was very different from the kind who created the crunch. He would have strongly disapproved of people who thought they could create AAA debt out of mortgage repayments by first-time homeowners who had never had steady employment and never paid a utility bill. He would also have seen the dark comedy in it.

Now that I’ve written Whoops!, my book about money, about the single most common question I’m asked is why I felt able to write it, a question that strongly implies the alienation and non-understanding of most people outside the world of finance. The short answer is that if my father had been a fishmonger, I would have grown up having opinions about fish. Instead he was a banker, so I grew up having opinions about banks.

Having a father who worked as a banker both made me want to be free - made me want to write - and also gave me an invaluable grounding in the language, and concepts, of money.

For instance, the reason I had enough money while at university boiled down to something my father did for me. When his mother died, she left me a few thousand pounds. My father advised me on what to do with it. He disappeared into his study with the FT for a morning and came out with the advice to buy one particular US Treasury bill. I had no idea what a T-bill was but did what I was told.

It was in the early 1980s and I ended up with an investment that yielded some astonishing rate of interest. That paid for my modest, college-subsidised living expenses back in the days when the fees themselves were paid by the state. I suspect I was the only undergraduate in the English faculty at Oxford who knew what the T-bill yield was.

An Asian childhood was a help too. You would have to have been very thick indeed, growing up in Hong Kong during the 1960s and 1970s, not to see how the territory was in the grip of an economic transformation. It was the Wild East, with very little in the way of legislation and nothing at all in the way of safety nets, but a lot of energy and opportunity and self-transformation. Crucially, too, people were risking their lives to get into Hong Kong. The idea that people were dying to cross over from communist China was one that made an impact on me as a child.

I get the impression that people who grew up in Britain in the postwar years came to see the economy as a troublesome, permanently unsatisfactory fact of life, like the weather. You couldn’t grow up in Asia and think that.

There was no escaping the impact and omnipresence of money as a force in human affairs. Accepting this idea in principle doesn’t make it any easier when economic forces come knocking at your own door, though. It’s easier to get a clear sight of economic momentum when it’s acting at a distance. In the case of one’s own life, it’s much harder to separate signal from noise, random chance from a more meaningful pattern. I thought that becoming a writer was simply a matter of writing books and then hoping that people wanted to read them.

What I didn’t understand was the way economic forces were at work in writing too. I left university in 1986, planning on a career in literary journalism while I got going on the book I wanted to write. That seemed a natural ambition at the time but looking back it seems like a precise snapshot of a moment in history. The breaking of the print unions had opened up all areas of the press; you could now set out to try and write pieces for the papers without the formal training of a diploma in journalism and time spent in the regional press. Five years earlier, and my ambition wouldn’t have been even thinkable. A quarter of a century later and the very idea of literary journalism is dead, outside heroic outposts such as the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.

To come out of university today wanting to be a literary journalist would be like planning a career as one of those people who used to walk in front of cars waving a warning flag. This isn’t because people don’t want to write literary journalism; they still do. But there isn’t the economic infrastructure to support it.

When I finished my first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, in the mid-1990s, I was again the beneficiary of a specific set of historical conditions, to do with the expansion of the hardback reading public and, in particular, the growth of the Waterstone’s bookshop chain. At the time I had no idea how lucky I was to catch that moment. These days, British bookselling looks very different. The future of high street bookstores is even more uncertain with the threat from new digital forms of distribution, direct to the customer.

This means that, like every writer in the world, I’m facing what might be the biggest change in the literary means of production since Gutenberg. If books go mainly electronic, everything could change. This week, with the announcement of Apple’s iPad, may have been the very moment when that change arrived. The change could mean a greater share of the profits for the writer. But the arrival of the e-book could make the book business resemble the music business, if customers believe that books should be free. That would be the end of the world for serious writers, who are not performers and who can’t earn a living giving concerts and selling T-shirts. Nobody knows how this is going to play out.

The moral of the story is that even if you think you understand the impact economic forces can have, they can still strike dangerously close to home. It helps to have a compass, and mine is based on two principles, both of them learnt from my banker father: anxiety is freedom, and the way you are living will have been your life.

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