Credit in the Straight World by Brannavan Gnanalingam, Lawrence & Gibson, ISBN9780473319106, RRP $23
I find it quote odd that the global financial crisis of 2008 has its own acronym – the GFC. In my mind acronyms are an old-world corporate driven blight that hold the rest of the world to ransom. I imagine in ten years when we’ve had another GFC we’ll then have to starting distinguishing them – GFC08, GFC20. Just like the Olympics.
The GFC and many of the stories that came out of it are ripe for satire and thank god in New Zealand we’ve got author Brannavan Gnanalingam and publishers Lawrence & Gibson to get stuck in. Credit in the Straight World (also the title of a surprising number of songs) is the story of Frank Tolland, as told by his brother George Tolland. Frank is a South Canterbury stalwart, born and bred in the fictional town of Manchester, who comes from humble beginnings to build a financial empire that collapses after the GFC, taking along with it over a billion dollars of investors’ money which was later paid out by the New Zealand government under its Deposit Guarantee Scheme.
I know, where did the author get the idea for such a story!!??
There were still the same customers who would come to the Store, the women who had come throughout the ’20s, the ’30s, those who weren’t affected by the Depression (and even those who were) made sure they continued to come to the Store to broadcast that they weren’t affected by the Depression, which seemed an odd way for some people to behave, but I think pride often informs people’s financial decisions more than prudency.
The bones, of course, come from the story of South Canterbury Finance but thankfully Credit in the Straight World is so much more than that. George is deaf and mute and through his eyes Frank’s story is told with a wry tone and a self-effacement. George is of necessity a listener, or rather a watcher, as he lip reads. He watches Frank’s interactions with their community, his choice of people around him, his participation and almost deliberate non-participation in his business dealings, and his affect on the people around him.
He wanted, he told me, Manchester Gold not to get itself sucked into people’s hair-brained schemes, simply “to keep on keeping on”. Frank really did talk a lot in cliches to me, whenever he was trying to keep me from understanding what he was really thinking.
George’s studied chronological account of their lives carefully elucidates how change and shifts in ethics and values can happen in such small increments that no one notices until suddenly you are light years away from where you thought you were going to be.
Of course this isn’t just true of people but of societies, towns and countries too.
It seemed to me money was nothing more than a language, something that simply governs our social interactions like words and phrases, that like words it doesn’t coalesce in a rational way, it could never materialise yet own a house, or it can be carried along in a wheelbarrow to buy a loaf of bread, and the moment we give it more power than that, the moment we give it a physicality that could be hoarded, or indeed at a basic level belong to somebody, we elevate it beyond its intended station.
I started reading Credit in the Straight World not really knowing how I was going to enjoy it but the truth was I found it a wonderful read. It was full of observations, thoughts, sentiments that were genuinely insightful and it was damn funny in places too. Gnanalingam is as cutting of those with no independent thought as he is of those who are morally bankrupt. The best moments are the scenes of surreal hilarity that you only get when you skate right up to real life and tweak it on the nose (the exchange between groups of lawyers on which company has the right to be called “New Zealand’s pre-eminent law firm” literally had me crying with laughter).
Last week at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival it was asked “Where are the anarchic books?” The answer is right in front of us.