Friday evening’s Festival session with John Lanchester in conversation with Rod Oram saw a capacity crowd in the GeoDome. What had the potential to be a depressing comment on Western society was immediately set on a different track when Rod, introducing his guest and talking about the fall of the West, said, “Sorry if I sound excited, but I am!”, and then went on to talk about silk knickers. Those who had read Lanchester’s book Capital clearly understood the reference, but there were a few slightly startled expressions in the audience as well. Oram did promise that by the end of the session he would return to the knickers, and with that assurance the questions started.
Lanchester started writing Capital before the bubble burst, saying he knew that at some point the boom would turn to bust, but he ended up effectively writing ‘in real time’. Oram asks about the connection between Capital, published this year, and Lanchester’s non-fiction commentary on the global financial crisis, Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no-one can pay (2011). Lanchester says,
You can do anything you like in a novel, but you you can’t explain: explanations break fiction.
He says that fiction has to feel true, without necessarily being true, unlike in real life, where things often don’t feel true but are. (I think to myself, that could pretty much sum up Christchurch’s experience of the last two years). There’s more talk about some of the words that came up in the session with Chris Cleave on Thursday – obliviousness, and Shaw’s concept of the suspension of disbelief. Lanchester points out that in some ways this could be a mitigating factor for the behaviour of the super-rich financiers and those economists who have toppled us into this crisis. I’m not sure that the audience buys into this, but he says whatever their actions, they did (mostly) believe in what they were doing – it’s just that there was a fundamental flaw in their model of the world.
So many thoughts and words and ideas to try to sum up from this session – Lanchester talks about the ‘prioritisation of fragmentation’: the increased speed of living which means that all of us feel we are running faster and faster just to stay in place; the shift from economics being about philosophy and ethics, to being just about mathematics, and the belief that economists stopped asking questions about how things work because they thought they’d figured it all out, that they ‘understood’ the market, and the world.
Oram asks a question about the state of play in Europe and whether we should be afraid. Lanchester says a total meltdown in Europe would have terrible consequences for everyone in the world, not just the Northern hemisphere. He says we are really close to the cliff edge, and that fundamentally we are just waiting for Germany to get the chequebook out. He thinks eventually Greece will default and be kicked out, and that then Germany will use that as leverage.
There are questions about rising inequality, about the Occupy movement (it’s a harbinger, not an anomaly), and the trickledown effect (“manifestly not true”). Lanchester notes, “Luxury by definition is completely pointless, but we talk ourselves into believing it’s essential: ‘If I could just have that, I’d be happy’.” (Back to the silk knickers at this point).
Lanchester’s answer to Oram’s final question: What do you think about foreign investment bankers? brought a quote from a previous session with Chris Cleave: “Hanging’s too good for them …”, which was met with thunderous applause from the audience; and with that the session was over. And thanks to all for another thought-provoking, inspiring and challenging hour at the Festival!