Books: A Point of View: How Rich is Rich? |
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How Rich is Rich? : on wealth and power

(S04E01, broadcast 31st October and 2nd November 2008)

"The name's Bond, Clive James Bond"

I hope I’m not stepping on Daniel Craig’s toes if I let it slip that I’m being considered to play the starring role in the next James Bond film. It’s going to be called Parabola of Solicitude and the script is on my desk in front of me now. I have no problem with the action sequences. At one point Bond has to run up the side of the Washington Monument before punching a fatal hole in a helicopter full of Chinese assassins but the stunt double can handle that, just as he will have to handle the bit on page three where Bond is described as getting up out of an armchair suddenly. I don’t do ‘suddenly’ any more but I think the producers know that. Nor do I have any problem with the sex scenes. Bond has been slower off the mark in that area lately and I know just how he feels.

In fact the script seems to contain no sex at all except a mention in the last scene of an old woman who applies for a job cleaning Bond’s flat and she turns out to be the granddaughter of a hotel receptionist he knew quite well in Havana during the Spanish–American war in 1898. No, my problem with Parabola of Solicitude starts with the villain. He’s a Russian oligarch called Oleg Garkov and he couldn’t be more boring. It’s not just that his plan to destroy civilization is boring. The plans of Bond villains to destroy civilization have always been boring: the stolen atomic bombs, the microwave satellite, I mean, save us, but don’t hurry. Now that we know that within ten years there’ll be nothing left of the inhabited world except a few hundred thousand windmills sticking out of the ocean, where’s the threat in diverting the water supply of South America? Every Sunday night at home before the bins are collected on Monday morning I get accused, by my assembled family, of destroying civilization by not paying enough attention to separating potato peelings from excess plastic packaging. Who isn’t threatening to destroy civilization?

According to the script, Oleg Garkov’s plan is to hack into the command console of the world’s central recycling centre and un-recycle the whole globe’s garbage with a program of advanced software devised by the Graeco-Croat body-building computer genius Spyros Virus, a part which I understand has already been offered to Madonna, who might well be available. But the boring thing about Oleg Garkov isn’t his plan. The boring thing about Oleg Garkov is his character. He’s a super-rich Russian, and the whole world has at last realized that nothing could be more boring than that. I don’t mean that being Russian is boring. What I mean is that being super-rich is boring.

By excitable journalists, being super-rich could be made to look glamorous until recently, but when the global financial crisis got under way the penny dropped. Or to put it another way, the entire world economy dropped, leaving us all facing the question of how much is enough. A closely related question is how much is too much, and not even those journalists who were previously fascinated by people with big yachts are any longer quite convinced.

It was a wonder they ever were. Nobody with any brains has ever stayed on a yacht an hour longer than necessary. Even the owners of yachts, if they have sufficient money, are careful to purchase yachts big enough to carry helicopters and submarines, accessories with no other purpose but to enable them to get off the yacht as often as possible, leaving their guests imprisoned. There is nothing to talk about on a yacht except the last meal or the next, and one rule is inflexible: the bigger the yacht, the smaller the library, until you reach the point where the yacht is too big for any harbour but has no books on it at all. Quite often there are paintings of great value, but they are only there so that they can slide upwards for the screening of the latest Bond movie. Finally the owners of yachts believe that there is a level of luxury where the life of the mind becomes irrelevant. But for anyone who values the life of the mind, the life of the senses has its limits, and anyone who believes otherwise will be the worst company in the world. On a yacht, you’re stuck with them unless you can book a seat on the helicopter or the submarine.

When we cluck disapprovingly at politicians who are keen to be the guests of people who own yachts the size of battleships, our objection shouldn’t be to the possibilities of corruption. David Cameron is impressed by Rupert Murdoch’s influence, and why not? After all, Tony Blair was, and there will always be a reason for a politician to sit down beside a media magnate. But what’s alarming is that David Cameron seems also to be impressed by Rupert Murdoch’s yacht. A politician is in a desperate position if he is attracted by the way the rich live, especially when they decide to live afloat. If the Russian oligarchs have managed to hold on to some of their money even in current conditions, maybe our politicians can find out how to do the same on behalf of the rest of us, so George Osborne of the Tory Party and Lord Mandelson of the Labour Party might have had good strategic reasons to brave the mild Mediterranean waves on the teak deck of a Russian host. But heaven help both of them if they get the urge to live like that.

Not that anybody’s asking them, as they lie back in their deck-chairs, to reject the idea of a refined life furnished with goods of high quality. After World War II, the best of the Labour politicians knew what the gentry had but wanted the working class to have it too, and they were right. Any state that tries to eliminate the idea of gracious living will eventually impoverish everyone except pirates. That’s where the Russian oligarchs came from: the ruins of a social structure. Here in the West, in the old order which democratic politics made more just but sensibly did not destroy, the aristocracy and the middle class shared the belief that the things to own should be well made in order to wear well. That belief survived as a principle: good shoes are expensive, but they last longer, so they cost you less. It was a principle that could be abused, mainly through snobbery. Julian Fellowes, who wrote the brilliant script for Gosford Park, got the whole attitude into a jam-pot when he gave Maggie Smith, playing a grand guest in a grand house, her snarling drawl of disdain at discovering that the marmalade on her breakfast tray had been bought instead of home made.

By those standards, which are really an assertion of unearned superiority, belonging is such a hard test that ostentation can seem like an escape from it, a blazing act of defiance. But the trouble with ostentation is that it looks awful. Somebody who wants a gold bathroom suite is probably helping to keep a lot of gold-miners employed, and he might even be enjoying an exalted bathroom experience, but he looks ridiculous, like King Midas with his pants down. Saddam Hussein had gold bathroom suites in all his palaces, most of which he rarely visited, and now the Iraqi government has put his yacht on the market. Apparently it needs to be redecorated, but the gold bathroom fittings are still in place.

Simplicity can be overdone. Warren Buffet, one of the richest men in America, washes his burgers down with cherry cola. Try not to be there when he belches. But there is such a thing as a reasonable sufficiency, a concept which depends on the realization that although it’s good to be well off, there’s more to life than just wanting to be better off than everyone else. And anyway, you can’t win. The Russian oligarchs are nowhere beside the kind of Arab prince who has a Boeing 747 all to himself. One of them has just ordered an Airbus A380. What’s he going to do on that thing, play polo? Even the President of the United States has to share Air Force One with the press. He, or it might be she, isn’t allowed to get rich in office, and presumably wouldn’t want to. Whether Democrat or Republican, the next President will serve the people, and we are right to find the upcoming election infinitely more interesting than even the most extravagant display of personal wealth.

It will be a contest between two views of society, but they are not views of two different societies, they are two views of the one society. The Democrats want more distribution and the Republicans think that if there is too much distribution there won’t be enough to distribute. Both parties, I think, are correct, and that’s exactly what makes the conflict so fascinating. The election will probably turn on the question of which candidate is thought more likely to restore the American economy, on which so much of the world’s material welfare still depends. That’s why we all behave as if we had a vote. I speak as someone who is comparatively well off, or at least I think I am. Never having had the desire to buy a yacht, I still have some money in the bank. What I’m not absolutely sure of is whether the money is worth anything. That’s why I’m considering going back to work. The best James Bond ever was George Lazenby, and maybe it’s time for another Australian in the role. But the script needs a more formidable villain. Couldn’t he be a British Labour peer with a sinister smile and uncanny powers of resurrection? And we need a new title: The Man Who Resigned Twice.


Somebody wrote in with the information that George Lazenby wasn’t the best James Bond at all, and that I could say so only because I, too, was an Australian. Well, yes: that was supposed to be the joke. (Radio has the same limitation as the telephone: the tongue in your cheek is invisible.) The Russian oligarchs, despite my admonitions, continued to dominate the scene, making steadily more extravagant gestures such as buying the Independent. One of them eventually bought the London Evening Standard and turned it into a free-sheet. When the economic crisis came it was remarkable how few of the rich had to pull in their horns. I was pleased to have an excuse for mentioning Gosford Park, whose script by Julian Fellowes was a little miracle of precise social notation. As his novels reveal, he grew up in the stratified atmosphere of grand houses and carefully graded snobbery. The world is different now, and many notes are missing from the music. But sometimes we long to hear it, especially when depressed by the extent to which vulgarity has taken over. Vulgarity, like the mob, is the detritus of every class. Gold bathroom fittings are on the same social level as Big Brother, whose heroines, lost in their foam-bath dream of luxury, always purr least raucously when the tap they turn with their painted toes is made of gold, or seems to be. But Saddam Hussein’s aureate palaces were not just glaring evidence that he had no taste. They were also glaring evidence that he had been stealing the oil-for-food money, and that those countless children who had supposedly been deprived of medical aid by the ruthless sanctions of the West had really been deprived of it by him. The case being so clear, it was instantly forgotten by the Western media, lest the public conclude that Saddam had deserved to be toppled by force.