Graham Greene in Kenya

Graham Greene in Kenya

Graham Greene went to Kenya in 1953 to report on the Mau Mau revolt. Is anyone else repelled by the turd-polishing of British colonialism evident in the Kenya chapter in his 1980 memoir Ways of Escape? It wasn’t as if he didn’t have enough time to reflect on the experience. Would he ever have similarly glossed over the activities of the Americans or the French?

Just look at this selection of quotes (with emphasis added for clarity):

“The liberal administrator… had been honestly planning a land in which the position of the African would gradually, very gradually, improve…”

“…the old settler… surrounded by sixty thousand acres of his own ranching land…”

“The Kikuyu were not savage, they made good clerks and stewards…”

“Now the margin of profit was threatened… The Mau Mau stole and slashed, the best labour disappeared.”

“They had been settled, in some parts of Kenya, a third as long as the Kikuyu.”

The British land grab in Kenya had begun in the 1890s. The nature of this invasion prompted Winston Churchill to write privately in 1908 … “It looks like a butchery. If the House of Commons gets hold of it, all our plans… will be under a cloud. Surely it cannot be necessary to go on killing these defenceless people on such an enormous scale.”

“…unused land would one day have to be sequestered…”

“Even though the extreme conservative farmers were dying out they could not avoid all responsibility for what had occurred.”

“…somewhere… there must have existed that archetypal figure who would slap his servant’s face if he replied to him in English.”

The white settlers in Kenya were notorious for flogging their employees, as was their judiciary for turning a blind eye to it.

“… neither the trigger-happy East African Rifles, the European police nor the Home Guard came out of the struggle unstained.”

Even the right-wing Daily Mail (12/04/11) can elaborate starkly on this last Greene quote.

“The British crackdown was brutal and almost certainly what today would be termed a disproportionate response. Thousands of Kenyans died in the guerrilla fighting. A thousand were convicted of capital offences and hanged. Many more – perhaps up to 300,000 – suspected of being Mau Mau or even just associating with the insurgents were detained in camps where sanitation was rudimentary, food inadequate, and discipline often brutal and unrelenting.  Beatings are said to have been a daily occurrence. According to evidence in long-concealed official documents now being produced for a compensation court case in London, inmates were tortured, castrated and raped.”

The true moral of colonial war is only hinted at once by Greene, perhaps as flippantly as when he likens the conflict to Jeeves taking to the jungle, having sworn to kill Wooster. He touches on it when he quotes a priest being asked an awkward question by an African. Didn’t God… put the sea between us so that we shouldn’t interfere with each other?

The same moral is unfortunately absent from the American Apocalypse Now with its ending that echoes the way Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War makes Pericles sound like Hitler. It is because your resolution is weak that my policy appears to be mistaken.

At least it is crystal clear in one of the Rambo films, of all things, where Richard Crenna tells it like it is to a Russian in Afghanistan. It’s like us in Vietnam. You shouldn’t be here.

In other words, get out.

The Low Life Highs of Jeffrey Bernard

The Low Life Highs of Jeffrey Bernard

I was walking along Cleveland Street the other day in a cold drizzle when I suddenly came across an amazing collage on the pavement which just about summed up the human condition to perfection. It comprised a pool of vomit, an empty beer can, some dog shit and a sprinkling of confetti.

– 3 January 1987

My favourite English writer finally got his name in lights in 1989 with the hit play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell that was largely based on his long-running column for the Spectator magazine. That column was also published in three collections – Low Life (1986), More Low Life (1989) and Reach for the Ground (1996) – though some notable omissions mean these are not the collected pieces.

In these books the style changes over time in one important respect. The earliest is perhaps the most uneven. Presumably written in more of a hurry, it still contains more high points of utter quotability than the other two. By the last book, his various ailments have slowed him down so much that he inevitably has more time on his hands, as incident gives way to reflection.

No matter the year, though, Bernard (1932-97) still gives the reader a reassuring feeling like the one he himself had about Turkish baths. You can walk about and have a chat and all sorts of oddballs loom up in the steam. The main subjects remain the same. Booze, women, horse-racing, hospitals, the peculiarities of the rich and famous, getting away from it all, and the Coach and Horses pub in Soho, with his comic foil the gruff Jewish landlord, Norman Balon. I overpaid him with a penny for his thoughts.

In more ways than one, as Bernard reminds the reader, drink gets you somewhere you wouldn’t otherwise be. I have even woken up in a drawer at the bottom of a wardrobe. That was fairly frightening. Trying to open a drawer from the inside. It’s quite tricky. 

His real boozing set in during the Sixties. There is a vignette of the comedian Tony Hancock (1924-68) falling in a heap on the floor of a London cab, after a ten-hour session with Bernard, but still reaching up and handing him his card. Phone me if you get into trouble. I think you may have a drinking problem. Nevertheless it is doubtful Bernard was ever in the eating-is-cheating camp, as is evident from this one-liner.

People who drink wine without food smell like drains.

Drink was always the other woman, he eventually grasped. What I know about women could be put inside the head of an ant. This of course was not true. With seriously dangerous women you can hear them thinking in the dark. He had reached the point of low to zero expectations – All I expect is that they wake me up when the waiter brings the bill – but it was there he could make a vintage brew from emotional and literal car crashes.

I remember once being given a severance kiss in favour of a property dealer who turned out to be impotent. There was also a woman… who… jumped into her car and drove straight into a wall, blinded no doubt by crocodile tears.

I just heard a terrific bang and smash followed by screams, and ran out into the street to find that someone had driven a car right into the Draper’s Arms. It was sitting there oozing smoke in the saloon bar. Luckily the occupants were… simply shocked. Whether they were shocked by the crash or shocked by the fact that it wasn’t quite opening time is debatable.

On life’s episodes of jumping into bed, un-followed, though he was married four times, Bernard focuses on the effects of pre-coital (or non-coital) tobacco consumption.

Sadly I’ve never had a footman to summon and have these people thrown out before they smoke all my cigarettes. I resign myself to the situation, take a Valium and then fall asleep and burn the bedspread… I now have a fire extinguisher by my bed but I never really know whether to aim it at my privates, the lady or the bedspread.

On hospital patients, his conviction did not quite match the old theatrical metaphor that the characters may change but the play remains the same. For him the characters alas did not vary either.

my three companions are dead ringers for any and all the other trios I’ve ever served time with in hospitals. It’s a bit like being in rep.

Sadly the patients never change. Are they provided by some sort of agency? Is anyone worth talking to ever hospitalised?

… it is the patients who get up my nose the most: readers of The Sun, football fans, moaners and men who would take an oath on Reader’s Digest. I sometimes wonder if it is only the ugly and mindless who get sick.

To be fair he does not care for medical students either, with one or two “who couldn’t diagnose a decapitation” but all exuding halitosis.

Norman is a kind but sometimes embarrassing hospital visitor, paying calls as he does to every bed in the ward and then announcing in a loud voice gloomy prognoses on the doomed inmates. ‘He hasn’t got long,’ is his usual verdict. He should wear a black cap on his hospital rounds.

In honour of his hero Admiral Nelson, Jeff recounts the highest point of his hospital career in the style of a naval battle in the days of sail but, in the excitement and fog of war, he also lobs in land-based allusions to Shakespeare, horse-racing and the English Civil War. The incident took place at dawn, while he was trying to sneak a cup of tea, outside the surveillance of a West Indian kitchen tyrant.

This mere sloop, as redundant as a dinghy at Trafalgar, was suddenly about to be engaged by the… Santissima Trinidad, the biggest warship afloat. Vainly I swung the wheel hard to port but her first shot knocked the cup out of my hand and sent boiling water everywhere… ‘Dis my kitchen. Get the f*ck out.’ Now she was wrestling the kettle away from my grasp and… the last thing I could afford was a Rastafarian boarding party. I backed away and dropped anchor by the fridge… There are… moments of inspiration that have changed the course of history and as my right hand suddenly felt the comforting lump of a half pound of butter I knew she was but a Rupert to my Cromwell. I had offered my kingdom for a horse and got Shergar. The butter hit her on the left shoulder with such force she spun round and dropped the kettle… I could hear her in the distance… ‘… Mister Bernard, he f*cking mad. Try to kill me. He cut my arm wid butter…’ It was a momentous victory.

Regarding those historical figures he did know personally, in little more than half a page elsewhere he touches lightly on Germaine Greer, Mick Jagger, George Best, Michael Parkinson and the writer of Chariots of Fire, one Colin Welland, whom he labels Smelly Welland. But the Stone is the most vivid.

I went on the piss with Mick Jagger and… he suddenly burst into tears. Solicitous as a spider to a fly, I enquired as to the cause of the dreadful stream of tears and mucus ruining my lapels. ‘I can’t take it,’ he howled… ‘The success. The money and all those birds.’ At the time, I happened to be short of both… and suggested a transfer of both cash and crumpet into my safekeeping. He soon stopped crying and left without paying. My turn to cry.

Laurie Lee, however, proved even more bizarre and miserly.

Last year I sat next to him and he shovelled four lamb cutlets into his jacket pocket without even bothering to wrap them up in a napkin. I said to him, ‘I didn’t know you had a dog.’ He said, ‘I haven’t. They’re for me. I shall heat them up again tonight for my supper.’ I should have thought that the royalties from such works as Cider With Rosie would bring in enough to pay for food instead of having to wash old chops covered with fluff and bits of tobacco from a jacket pocket.

As for getting away from it all, Samuel Johnson is enlisted to frame the context of it all.

that daft utterance about London and not getting tired of it (a man, like him, who has an opinion on everything can be a bore).

Sitting beneath the palms… I can hear the fizz of frying prawns, the dying hiss of a lobster and the rattle of a cocktail shaker and, with luck, the scream of a German tourist treading on a sea urchin.

The only foreigners he liked and had real sympathy for were the Irish. With the understandable exception of Terry Wogan.

I expect strange things from Americans but this nut introduced himself and then said, ‘You write for the Psychic News, don’t you?’ I told him I didn’t and held out very little hope for much entertainment after death which is why I was holding on to the bar with such tenacity.

For the reader, his best holiday is his most nightmarish, in Egypt, where he battles diarrhoea cramps in forty degrees, with no hat. But, like Indiana Jones, our hero escapes in the nick of time.

I found a lavatory with as much wonder as Carter experienced in 1922 on opening that tomb.

Jeff is nothing if not a philosopher, whose imagination is not of the fantasy variety but that of the man who can grasp connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena. Note how a glass of vodka in the sun causes him to reflect on playing the Good Samaritan.

the ice melts away as quickly as a man you’ve helped.

Nonetheless, where such a man may disappear to can still surprise him from time to time.

A couple of Sundays ago I was watching Songs of Praise, which was coming from Maidstone prison of all places, when to my amazement I spotted a man in the congregation of the chapel who owes me £50. He was standing there and had the gall to be singing Abide With Me.

Another example of his philosophical talent is shown after he has a bag nicked in the pub and he extrapolates on theft.

Most blessings are heavily disguised… I vaguely remember having left a chunk of cod fillet in the carrier bag with the sweater and by this time the thief will have come to acknowledge that it is better to give than to receive.

His powers of sociological observation are also considerable. Though, with the amount of geography thrown in, it is only fair to give credit to both his social and spatial awareness.

Today’s spiv is a smoothie more than anything. He is to be found in advertising, television, Fleet Street and, by the score, in the House of Commons… Most Soho spivs work at producing television commercials.

… journalists are simply shit-stirrers paid to drink on expenses. 

A lot of people in Islington have been hinting at potential talent for at least fifty years. Most of them end up as rip-off antique dealers

Name me a gossip who has been snatched away too soon. You can’t. (…) There’s a nasty grin that plays around their wet lips when nothing whatsoever funny or amusing is being said… they understand the human condition, which is something the village idiot can’t comprehend… The village idiot is the man who mentally jogs through life.

The key to Bernard’s black comedy is that it hinges on the sinister side of life, his philosophical consideration that something bad has either previously happened, could still happen or might just as easily have happened. The more surreal the better.

His life in the Coach and Horses included the day he was stared at and then chatted up by a beautiful black woman who turned out to be the tax inspector who was on his case. The pub also landed him famously in court for operating an illegal gambling book for his friends on the premises.

My lawyer made a really excellent speech to the magistrate but my friends in the gallery who came to lend me support, and in some cases write about it all, laughed too much and the beak didn’t like the levity.

By 1990, the phone revolution was underway and his biggest remaining problem in the Coach was gaining attention at the counter.

A man came into the pub the other day carrying one of those awful mobile telephones. I asked him if I could use it and he kindly obliged and asked me what number I wanted. I gave him the number of the pub. Norman was standing no more than six feet away and when he answered the call he barked, ‘Coach and Horses! Hallo!’ I said, ‘Is there any chance of being served a bloody drink in this ghastly pub?’ My language was a little stronger than that…

At that point Norman just called him a bastard and gave him a vodka. Bernard goes on to link this moment to a racing reminiscence.

… I remember once being served by an Irishman at a Derby lunch in the Dorchester when I spotted Sally, the Begum Aga Khan, a couple of tables away. I asked the man to deliver… a note without a word in her ear. I had written on it, ‘Although I am only a humble Irish waiter, I think I am in love with you.’

Though the play conveyed with pathos the happiness of lunchtime sessions in the Coach and Horses with many old friends by then dead, Bernard’s columns also captured the sadness of the pub life, as in the last days of the year, of any year, as Christmas goes on too long, like the patron who should just go home.

The crowd in the pub is a human left-over soup of a kind… A cheque is cashed, a round is bought and Chorus enters stage right declaiming, ‘You should have been in here last night.’

In his introduction to the first volume, John Osborne remarks on Bernard’s eye for physical detail. This is perhaps most evident in two passages from the late Eighties in which Bernard looks back on good times, out in the country, where, despite the failed attempts to settle down with various wives and despite the various spats with vicars and rural gentry, he was evidently happiest, at least when he was on his own.

(The first spell was ruined when he unwisely invited two rowdy house guests to join him in the sticks.)

There was a cold winter that I did enjoy though… [X] lent me a cottage in Suffolk and I got a job from the neighbouring farmer. For two months I worked at hedging and ditching and it was tremendously satisfying… After every twenty yards or so I made a little bonfire with what I had cut and sat down and had some tea from the thermos. The country was crystal clear. Cloudless pale-blue skies and the cold brought everything into the sharpest of focuses so that a frozen blade of grass was as a needle. Blackbirds and squirrels followed my progress along the edges of the frozen meadows, and then just as I was beginning to feel like St. Francis of Assisi the spell was broken. (…) No more log fires, bonfires and blackbirds eating the crusts of my sandwiches under the frozen blue silence of that sky. I could have killed them but they managed that themselves in their own good time. I miss them a lot.

– 5 November 1988

But the thing I thought mostly about during this sleepless night of remembrance was walking my dog… at dusk on autumn and winter evenings. She was a very pale Labrador – the pallor native to East Anglia … I had a very good gun… and when the sun began to dip below the trees of the wood we would walk along through the mist that gathered above and beside the river. She would go along ahead of me, stopping from time to look back and see if I was still following, and I would be looking out and listening for pheasants, wood pigeons and rabbits. I was poaching but… the farmer didn’t spend money on breeding game. It was just there, like the trees that had been there for hundreds of years. An all-too-rare treat we had was to see the barn owl gliding down along the river. He was so powerful that one that one languid flap of his great wings would carry him about a hundred yards. Freewheeling majesty. Then, when the sun had really sunk, we walked home through the wet grass, the smell of gunpowder lingering, cold and hungry towards the log fire.

– 21 January 1989

As for an epilogue, I choose the passage most apt for these Brexit times, which Jeff would have seen as the predictable evolution of the grossness of this age.

The English man-in-the-street… is largely envious, vindictive and punitive. (…) He knows little about himself, would not even understand the recent Budget but, by jingo, he knows what is best for other people. It is a mercy that there aren’t more referendums in this country. They would be hanging children.

 

 

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin

Photo (c) Paris Review

Philip Larkin (1922-85)

Christopher Hitchens saw Larkin and George Orwell as embodiments of a certain type of Englishness. Both men loved the English countryside and feared for its future. Neither had any religious faith but both respected and learned a lot from the simplicity of Anglican prayers. When his collection The Whitsun Weddings (1964) appeared, fellow poet John Betjeman felt Larkin had “closed the gap between poetry and the public” with his down-to-earth, casual, often humorous style. Larkin and Orwell also admired English church architecture and furthermore both cherished the English affection for animals. In At Grass, Larkin writes of former champion horses in retirement; horses that were famous years before.

Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry

He wonders for a moment if “memories plague their ears like flies” but then observes they have “slipped their names, and stand at ease”. He is glad that they, at least, can enjoy their well-earned, care-free retirement, so the mood of the poem is human nostalgia for the passing of those old glories; those “classic Junes” of racing seasons past.

In MCMXIV the faded photograph is of an English crowd at the start of the Great War. The poem indicates colossal loss as he writes of the army recruitment lines having been like crowds gathered for sporting occasions at “the Oval or Villa Park”, uniquely, innocently

Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark

The poem is packed with everyday details of the vanished world: the coins; the “tin advertisements”; the children named after royalty; the large number of domestic servants. They were all enveloped in hazy summer when the war began, when all these men signed up for the carnage.

The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

A personal suspicion and fear of marriage features strongly in Larkin, even when writing of the excitement it can initially bring. The Whitsun Weddings title poem was inspired by a journey from Hull to London in 1955. Traditionally Whit Saturday was a popular choice of wedding day for the working class. A few years before his death, Larkin recalled the genesis of this, one of his most famous poems.

I hadn’t realized that, of course, this was the train that all the wedding couples would get on and go to London for their honeymoon: it was an eye-opener to me… there was a sense of gathering emotional momentum. Every time you stopped, fresh emotion climbed aboard. And finally between Peterborough and London when you hurtle on, you felt the whole thing was being aimed like a bullet – at the heart of things… Incredible experience. I’ve never forgotten it… It was wonderful, a marvellous afternoon. It only needed writing down. Anybody could have done it.”

The poet vividly sets the scene in terms of touch, sight and smell as the journey begins, “all sense of being in a hurry gone”, giving us sensations like hot cushions, blinding windscreens and a smelly fish-dock. Industry breaks into the countryside, in the form of “floatings of industrial froth” on a canal and “acres of dismantled cars”.

It takes him a while to notice the fuss at the stations, mistaking it for “porters larking with the mails”, but he is soon leaning out the windows, to see the girls in “parodies of fashion”, the “mothers loud and fat”, and “an uncle shouting smut”. These are not rich people but Larkin does not despise them. He uses ambivalent phrases like “happy funeral” to describe the mixed feelings and tension among the female onlookers before turning to the “fresh couples” catching their breath aboard the train.

It speeds up for the last fifty minutes of the journey as the couples sit side by side and watch the passing landscape, all oblivious of the others sharing this same special, brief experience.

And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Though the poet later said he meant the last line of the poem to indicate fertility, to go with the postal districts of London “packed like squares of wheat”, many people have read the transformation into rain as a sad metaphor. Thus there are other aspects of Englishness in which Hitchens thought Orwell and Larkin also had a share. This was the world of bad food and watery drinks, drab and crowded accommodation, bad plumbing, long queues, poor hygiene, rain and uncultured ignorance.

For a man who knew such things yet never really engaged with life, not to mind entertaining the idea of an afterlife, Larkin had an excessive fear of death. Ambulances is a meditation on how near and random death still is (“They come to rest at any kerb:/All streets in time are visited”). Today people may see them as a positive intervention, preserving life, but, when the poem was written, in the Fifties, to be carried away in an ambulance was a very bad sign, when passers-by could be morbidly hypnotized by, for example

A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets

He links his personal and cultural obsessions again in Church Going, by which he means his habit of visiting churches. His comical English diffidence appears again at the very beginning. Only when he is sure there’s nothing going on does he step inside. He has no hat so he takes off his cycle-clips “in awkward reverence” before he moves to “the holy end” and gets up on the lectern, where he imitates a vicar. Back at the door, he signs the book and, in a cynical yet funny gesture, donates an Irish sixpence.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into

He muses about who will be the last person to go to the church just because it is a church. Will it be someone like himself?

Bored, uninformed…
…yet tending to this cross of ground
… because it held…
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these

So it actually pleases him to stand in silence there. He becomes a spokesman for all those who, lacking belief, nevertheless find some spiritual need satisfied by churches. “A serious house on serious earth it is”, where individuals can at the very least place their own lives in the context of the life and history of their tribe.

And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious

Larkin once told an interviewer, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” and he found much of his inspiration in the overcrowded, grubby society that he so much claimed to resent. After his death, the publication of his letters led to him being widely condemned as a misogynist and racist but, as Clive James has written, Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time, and he really did say awful things. Nonetheless he didn’t say them in his poems, which he thought of as a realm of responsibility in which he would have to answer for what he said forever.

In his last interview, Larkin recalled judging the final stages of a poetry competition. When he commented on the absence of any poems about love or nature, the organizers told him they had thrown all those away. “I expect,” said the disappointed and politely disapproving Larkin, “they were the ones I should have liked.”

Tales you can take to the bank

Tales you can take to the bank

1976
Willie Sutton’s autobiography denied that he’d ever explained why he robbed banks by saying “because that’s where the money is”. Though the apocryphal quotation became known as Sutton’s Law, he dismissed the story but, at the same time, admitted that, had anyone ever asked him, he probably would have said it.

Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life.

1711
To reduce the power of the privately-owned Bank of England, a plan was hatched by Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford, for a group of merchants to assume parts of Britain’s national debt in return for an annual payment of three million pounds for a set period and a monopoly of the trade to the South Seas i.e. South America. The group then assumed the title the South Sea Company. Extravagant notions of the available riches in faraway fields were fostered and the company’s stock flourished until, in early 1720, it offered to take on the entire national debt. The British state’s creditors were encouraged to swap what they were owed for company shares and speculation then carried South Sea stock to ten times its nominal value. Then the chairman and directors sold out, the bubble burst and the stock collapsed. Thousands were ruined.

south-sea-bubble-william-hogarth

Companies of all kinds had been floated to surf on this tidal wave of interest in South Sea stock. They soon got the nickname of Bubbles, the most appropriate description that the popular imagination could invent. Some of them lasted for a week or a fortnight, while others were only around for a day. The most preposterous of all showed the complete madness of the people sucked in. It was started by an unknown adventurer who is definitely a candidate for the title of the unknown soldier of cynicism. His venture was entitled a “company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is”. The genius who mounted this bold and successful test of public gullibility merely stated in his prospectus that the required capital was half a million, in five thousand shares of one hundred pounds each, with a required deposit of two pounds per share. Each subscriber, paying his deposit, would be entitled to one hundred pounds per annum per share.

How this enormous profit was to be obtained he did not inform them at that time. Instead he promised that after a month full particulars would be announced and a call made for the remaining ninety-eight pounds of the subscription. The very next morning, at nine o’clock, this entrepreneur opened an office in Cornhill in London. Crowds flocked to his door and when he shut up shop at three o’clock, he found that the deposits had been paid for one thousand of his shares. He was thus, after five hours, the possessor of two thousand pounds. Content with his day’s work, he set off that same evening for the Continent. He was never heard of again.

1715
With the death of Louis XIV, the finances of France were in a bad state but the Duke of Orleans became Regent and this meant everything to a Scottish gambler called John Law who was a friend of the Duke and a man convinced that no country could prosper without a paper currency. In May 1716, a royal edict authorised Law to establish a bank. He made all his banknotes payable at sight and in the coin current at the time they were issued. This was a masterstroke and immediately made his notes more valuable than precious metals. The latter were constantly liable to depreciation by the tampering of the government.

john-law

Law publicly declared at the same time that a banker deserved to be put to death if he issued notes without having sufficient security to answer all demands. It was not long before the trade of the country felt the benefit and branches of his bank were established in several cities. In the meantime, Law started the project that has handed his name down to posterity. He proposed to establish a company that would have the exclusive privilege of trading to the Mississippi river and the province of Louisiana, where the country was supposed to abound in precious metals. This company was set up in August 1717.

It was then that the frenzy of speculation began. Law’s bank had brought about so much economic good that any promises for the future were swallowed but, when the bank became a public institution, the Regent ordered a printing of notes to the amount of a billion livres. Law helped inundate France with this paper money, which, based on no solid foundation, was sure to cause a crash, sooner or later.

Law otherwise devoted his attention to the Mississippi project, the shares of which were rapidly rising in spite of the opposition of Parliament. At least three hundred thousand applications were made for fifty thousand new shares. Every day the value of the old shares rose and new applications became so numerous that it was deemed advisable to create three hundred thousand new shares so the Regent could take advantage of the popular enthusiasm to pay off the national debt.

From the tremendous pressure of the crowds, accidents continually occurred in the narrow rue de Quincampoix where Law lived. A story goes that a hump-backed man who stood in the street made considerable money by lending his hump as a writing surface to the speculators. The great masses of customers and spectators drew all the low life of Paris to the spot and constant riots and disturbances occurred. At nightfall, it was often found necessary to send in a detachment of soldiers to clear the street.

Thus the system continued to flourish until the beginning of 1720. The warnings of the Parliament that this massive creation of paper money would bankrupt the country were disregarded but, despite every effort made to stop its exodus, the stores of precious metals in France continued to be smuggled to England and Holland. The little coin that was left in the country was hoarded until the scarcity became so great that trade could no longer be conducted. An edict then forbade any person to have more than five hundred livres (then the equivalent of twenty pounds sterling) of coin in his or her possession, under threat of a heavy fine, plus confiscation.

It was also forbidden to buy up jewellery, plate and precious stones. Informers were encouraged by the promise of getting half of any amount they might discover.
Lord Stair, the English ambassador, said that it was now impossible to doubt the sincerity of Law’s conversion to Catholicism, as he had established an inquisition after having given ample evidence of his faith in transubstantiation by turning gold into paper.

All payments were then ordered to be made in paper and even more notes were printed – to the tune of more than a billion and a half livres – but nothing now could make the people feel the slightest confidence in something that was not exchangeable for metal. Coin, which the Regent aimed to depreciate, only rose in value on every fresh attempt to reduce it.

The value of shares in the Mississippi stock had also tumbled and few people still believed the tales that had once been told of the immense wealth of that region. A last trick was therefore tried to restore public confidence in the Mississippi project.
A general conscription of all the homeless in Paris was made by order of the government. More than six thousand of the poorest of the population were press-ganged, as if in wartime. These unfortunates were provided with clothes and tools and told they would be shipped off to New Orleans to work in the gold mines. They were then paraded day after day through the streets with their picks and shovels before being sent off in small detachments to the ports to be shipped to America. Two thirds of them never reached their destination but melted into the countryside. There they sold their tools for whatever they could get and returned to their old way of life. In less than three weeks, half of them were back in Paris.

1907
Sometimes cynicism is wrapped up in a man simply knowing his strengths and limitations. Take JP Morgan in the 1907 American financial crisis, sitting alone in a room in his home, smoking cigars, while all the ordinary bankers were huddled in the next room, presumably with ties loosened and pencils perched over their ears. When a servant entered and ventured to ask him if he had a plan, he said, “No.” By way of reassurance, he added that he knew someone would come through the door with the right plan and then, he also knew, he would be the person to know it was the right one. Who knows that much today?

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1940
W. C. Fields made The Bank Dick. In this film, Fields plays a drunk named Egbert Sousé who trips a fleeing bank robber and becomes a security guard at the bank as a result. Upon being introduced to his daughter’s boyfriend, Og Oggilby, an official at the bank, Egbert remarks, “Og Oggilby… sounds like a bubble in a bathtub.”

Egbert talks Og into embezzling money from the institution. In order to divert a bank examiner from discovering the theft, Egbert takes him to his favourite bar and asks if “Michael Finn” has been in yet – a signal that the barman, one of the Three Stooges – is to spike the examiner’s drink. During Fields’ career, Hollywood standards demanded that good be rewarded and evil be punished but, in The Bank Dick, Fields’ character lies, cheats and steals and yet at the end is rewarded with wealth and fame.

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