Media spotlight: Whoops!

By John Lanchester

It’s fair to say that keeping up with goings-on of the financial services world always requires a degree of technical knowledge.

But never has this been more true than in the past two years, when the financial vernacular has become an alphabet soup of MBS, CDO and SLS.

Terms such as quantitative easing, recapitalisation, deleveraging abound and the media and public have been left trying to grasp what the hell has happened to our banking system, with varying degrees of success.

Journalist and novelist John Lanchester attempts to bridge the yawning gulf between the inner workings of the financial services industry and what Joe Public understands about it in his latest book Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone And No One Can Pay.

Lanchester started researching the book as part of the background for a novel but it wasn’t long before the subject matter at hand proved too gripping and he realised the economic crisis was a much bigger story.

The theme of the book is the need to understand. This is not simply about highbrow types showing off how much they know at dinner parties but the power the big banks and the sprawling financial sector hold over our economy, and ultimately our lives.

“It seems to me that there is a big gap between the world of finance and that of the general public, and that there is a need to narrow that gap if members of the financial industry are not to become a kind of priesthood, administering to their own mysteries and feared and resented by the rest of us,” Lanchester says.

Unusually for a book about finance Whoops! is littered with anecdotes, from childhood memories to excerpts from television’s The Simpsons and classic Woody Allen film Annie Hall.

One must assume this is an attempt on Lanchester’s part to make finance accessible to the masses.

But he quickly drops the cartoon references in favour of name-dropping fancy philosophers and mathematicians – the names Pierre de Fermat and Christiaan Huygens mean nothing to me at any rate.

Sometimes the reader is left wondering whether Lanchester’s self-appointed role as a financial educator is too great a task for one man.

After all, if the public was that interested in the wheelings and dealings of financiers they would already have some grip of the technical jargon involved.

But what Lanchester does well is bring the financial crash down to an individual level. Anyone can rehash what went wrong, trot out the jargon that’s been handed down to them and make a book out of it. It takes more skill to unpick the jargon and explain it to readers without a background knowledge of finance.

Lanchester tells the story of Rakel Stefánsdóttir, an Icelandic woman studying in Brighton, who went to withdraw money from a cash machine only to be told that no funds were available. On further investigation she found out it was not her who had run out of money but her country.

Although it may leave readers looking for an introduction to finance with their heads spinning Whoops! does achieve its stated aim – to teach and pass on understanding.

And who knows, maybe after reading it those highbrow types won’t be he only ones showing off at dinner parties.

Book review by NATALIE HOLT