Saturday, May 14, 2011

Filthy lucre

My thoughts have been more than usually concerned with financial matters of late as I attempt to rejig my modest investments in the light of the changing economic and financial environment, and bring them into line with my assessment of the current risks and opportunities out there. It's difficult to know where to put one's savings these days, with currency turmoil and sovereign debt problems adding to the usual uncertainties. I may in the future have a go at talking in detail about these matters though I still have a residual sense (derived from a rather old-fashioned upbringing) that money is not a proper subject for polite discourse!

The most unlikely people have spoken in praise of money - and in the most unlikely circumstances. The English television and screen writer Dennis Potter was interviewed on Channel 4 by Melvyn Bragg a short time before his death from cancer. He was in pain, and occasionally sipped a morphine-based concoction from a flask. He spoke of his early life, his work (he was trying to complete a final television drama), politics, English culture, and of his desire to murder Rupert Murdoch. Despite his left-wing views, Potter admitted to a strong preference for traveling first class. A disarming aside stuck in my memory. "Money - I like it," he said.

If lefties and the dying normally refrain from speaking in praise of cash, so do other categories of people, including Romantics and romantics. And, of course, the traditionally religious. The notion of holy poverty ("Blessed are the poor ...") is a major New Testament theme and a strong element in most Christian traditions, including Roman Catholicism.

So this couplet by Hilaire Belloc, a writer who strongly identified with the Roman Catholic church, has rather more punch than it would had it come from the pen of a worldly cynic:

I'm tired of Love; I'm still more tired of Rhyme.
But money gives me pleasure all the time.


  1. Nona's cross-stitched wall motto:

    "Anyone who says money can't buy happiness doesn't know where to shop."

  2. The odd thing - as I see it - is that such humor depends in part on believing that the statement ostensibly being denied is true!

  3. Dr Johnson: "A man is seldom so innocently employed as when he is busy making money". (Not sure of the source, and the quotation may not be exact.)

    I assume he was thinking that money-making is voluntary and mutual, and hence innocent. Fraud could be a complication. He does say "seldom".

  4. While looking for the Johnson quote, I came across this:

    "Then there was Trollope’s attitude toward money. Like most authors, he liked it. Unlike many, he frankly admitted that he wrote for it. Moreover, he kept as meticulous tabs on his earnings as he did on his writing, reproducing at the end of the Autobiography the sums he received for each of his books through 1879. The total was £68,939 17s. 5d., a result that Trollope described as “comfortable” but not “splendid.” (According to Professor Hall, the total at the time of his death three years later was some £10,000 more.) He comments caustically that 'authors are told that they should disregard payment for their work, and be content to devote their unbought brains to the welfare of the public. Brains that are unbought will never serve the public much. Take away from English authors their copyrights, and you would very soon take away also from England her authors.'

    More generally, Trollope tended to agree with Dr. Johnson that a man is never so innocently employed as when he is making money. In Can You Forgive Her?, the first of the six Palliser novels, Plantagenet Palliser remarks that “there is no vulgar error so vulgar,—that is to say, common or erroneous,—as that by which men have been taught to say that mercenary tendencies are bad. A desire for wealth is the source of all progress. Civilization comes from what men call greed.”

    Here the Johnson quotation says "never".

  5. Alan, I am inclined to see Romanticism as the key driver of the negative attitude to money I describe. Johnson would certainly have been out of sympathy with the Romantic movement if he had lived to see it, and Trollope was scarcely touched by it, no?

  6. I agree there is this negative aura, whereas money is really just a store of value. Aristocrats, artists, intellectuals and religious tend to affect the attitude of superiority or indifference. My dad was a bank manager, and I fear I did not respect that properly. Lately we've heard a few stories about good things he did that we didn't know about.

    Walter Scott -- a great Romantic -- grasped every pound he could get, and poured it all into his dream house at Abbotsford (the ultimate McMansion, snobs might say). Yet he loved his family deeply and he was friendly, generous and sociable to a degree I find unimaginable. He went broke because he trusted his business partners too much. Then he refused all offers of financial help from friends, and died trying to write himself out of debt. A fascinating life: obscurity, fame, politics, money, failure, friendship, the lot.

  7. "...obscurity, fame, politics, money, failure, friendship, the lot."

    Items one, four and six will be more than sufficient!

  8. Here is another comment:

    "Money is the curse of mankind. It smothers the seed of everything great and good. Every penny is sticky with sweat and blood."

    J. Goebbels.

    Quoted in an interesting book, "Nietzsche and the Nazis", by Stephan Hicks. His thesis is that "The primary cause of Nazism lies in philosophy". (I did not know that Goebbels was a graduate in philosophy and literature from the University of Heidelberg.)

    Hicks has his own blog:

  9. I think Goebbels' statement exemplifies perfectly the Romantic attitude to money.