Some thoughts on the “credit crunch” of 2008;
remembering the novel ‘Live Now, Pay Later’
|by JERRY DOWLEN|
I suppose that we should give three hearty cheers for anything in the newspapers that gives us a rest from Amy Winehouse, but I have long since reached the point where the non-stop coverage of the credit crunch is getting on my wick.
The compilers of the new English language dictionary for 2009 are no doubt licking their lips at the prospect of introducing some of the new jargon that has been spawned from the extensive media analysis, angst and speculation about the credit crunch. “Sub-prime loans” and “toxic debt”, for instance. Oh, and we all know what a “hedge fund” is now – except of course that we don’t, really.
It is often the shortest and simplest statements that serve best to explain or summarise a situation. I recently heard a television pundit declare that the credit crunch has resulted from “a lot of greed and a lot of stupidity”. I didn’t catch his name, but I certainly agree with him.
The other hero who goes to the top of the class in my opinion is the chief executive who cited an extract from Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ in his report to shareholders, to help explain the recent disappointing slump in his company’s performance:
Businessmen they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth;
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.
That final sentiment is especially apt: every financial pundit and his dog has been queuing up to give us his or her forecast of what is going to happen next in the saga of the credit crunch. Little do they sense the irony that none of them knew beforehand what was happening; none of them understood the true exposures: so why should we take any notice of any of them now? But the Dow Jones and the FTSE indexes lurch up and down like a yo-yo, according to market reaction to each new published forecast from this so-called expert or that: “The worst is yet to come” … “The worst is over” … “There will be more pain” … and so on, and so on.
I recognise that it might be an over-simplification solely to blame the banks and financial institutions who so recklessly encouraged members of the ordinary public to get themselves into hock and to overstretch their budgets. Nevertheless as we all now grit our teeth and submit ourselves to what is euphemistically described as “belt-tightening” it is only natural that we would like to get our revenge on the banks and building societies for the avalanche of unwanted junk-mail that they have sent to us, and for the rapacious selling-techniques of their staff whenever we have set foot inside their premises.
Not only did they want us to extend, extend and extend again our credit limits, but they tried to flog us “clever” new financial products that effectively made a pound do the work of two pounds or even more than two. All fine and dandy until the bubble bursts, as it always eventually will. When will they – and we – ever learn?
How long has this big sell from the banks been going on? Answer: it has been happening for longer than you may think. Readers of a certain age will remember Peter Barkworth and Hannah Gordon starring in a BBC television drama series entitled ‘Telford’s Change’. The storyline saw the international banking executive Mark Telford make the shock decision to reverse his jet-set career and return to his roots as a small-town manager of a local branch office.
The series was televised in 1979. I have checked this from my copy of the paperback book ‘Telford’s Change’ – author Brian Clark (Corgi, 1979).
Mark Telford hears about the vacancy during a chance meeting with a local office manager Tom Stetchley, who is being pressured into early retirement. Tom rather wearily explains his situation:
“I’m a dinosaur,” he told Mark. “This job isn’t the same any more. I’m not a manager. I’m a bloody salesman! I mean look at this lot!” Stetchley pulled open the drawer of his desk and took out dozens of brochures, for credit cards, for loans, for personal finance, for insurance, for wills, for mortgages … “Look what they want me to sell. Insurance, hire-purchase, stocks and shares, even holidays!”
“We’re lending out money as though it’s confetti. Do you think it’s a good thing to try to get our customers into debt? Is it a good thing? We give them credit cards, personal loans, cheque guarantee cards, cash cards. I think it’s lunacy.”
Yes, that was in 1979.
Did you spot one little word in there? – or two words, they are, actually. “Hire-purchase”. Now there’s a throwback to an even earlier time in my life.
Jack Trevor Story
Jack Trevor Story (1917 – 1991) is an author whose work is deservedly still remembered and admired by his surviving fans such as myself. I don’t pretend that I think about him every single waking day, but I have indoors a shelf of preferred Penguin paperback books, and Jack Trevor Story holds a permanent presence there with his short and pacy novel ‘Live Now, Pay Later’ (Penguin, and Secker & Warburg, 1962).
Every now and then when I am dusting the cobwebs off the bookshelves in the study my eye wanders to the bright orange-coloured spine of ‘Live Now, Pay Later’ and I take it down and look at its front cover depicting Ian Hendry and June Ritchie who co-starred in the film (Regal International) that was released in tandem with the book.
‘Live Now, Pay Later’ is set in early 1960s Britain. It was in 1957 that Harold MacMillan uttered his immortal words: “You’ve Never Had It So Good”. In that one phrase our beaming Prime Minister captured perfectly the mood of optimism and perceived prosperity that was sweeping through the country. Post-war rationing was over. The shops were flowing with consumer goods. Suddenly these were affordable luxuries for us all. They had been put within reach of most households’ spending-power, thanks to the innovative new resource of hire-purchase. A small deposit payment was enough to secure instant possession of the item – be it a radiogram, a television, a washing-machine or even a car – and afterwards it was simply necessary to pay off the remaining purchase price in weekly or monthly instalments stretched over a period that could be anything from one to three years.
It sounds simple and obvious now, but in those days the concept of hire-purchase for everyday household goods was excitingly new. In hindsight we must give Jack Trevor Story great “credit” (sorry) for being one of the first to see through the façade and to write of:
… The overall unsoundness of the people who lived on a hire-purchase economy of jam today, and the dubiety of the tally-boys who gave it to them.
His choice of book title ‘Live Now, Pay Later’ said it all. And although we didn’t know it then, we can realise now that Jack Trevor Story in effect anticipated the modern-day credit crunch and its painful aftermath.
I do not mean to suggest that ‘Live Now, Pay Later’ is an intense pot-boiler of drama and tragedy. Sure enough, Story Told the Story! – but he did so with a light touch, casting his lead character Albert Argyle as a lovable rogue somewhat in the mould of the film actor Robin Askwith who ten years later was to feature as Timothy Lea in saucy housewife-seducing romps ‘Confessions of a Window-Cleaner’ and the like.
In ‘Live Now, Pay Later’ the twenty-two year old Albert is a “tally-boy” – a new profession spawned from the new phenomenon of hire-purchase buying. Employed by the unscrupulous Mr Callendar, owner and operator of Callendar’s Warehouse whose storerooms overflow with discount-price household appliances, clothes, toys and other commodities, Albert in his company car (a Mini-Minor) chirpily carries out his daily rounds in his dual role of door-to-door salesman and collector of back-payments.
In mirror-image of the lemming-like victims of the present-day credit crunch, the ambitious young Albert is himself ensnared and vulnerable:
In the affluent society of today the tally-boy was the new messiah, bible-punching the new brochures which carried the needs of humanity. Everybody was getting and the tally-boy was giving. Albert was sufficiently cynical to know all this and sufficiently susceptible to believe it. He was trapped in hire-purchase debt as deeply as any of his customers.
Whenever I re-read ‘Live Now, Pay Later’ I find that the actor Albert Finney obstinately fixes himself in my mind’s-eye as the fictional Albert Argyle, instead of Ian Hendry who actually played him in the film. It is many a long year since I last saw the film, and I am still waiting with interest to see whether any of our television channels should spot its topicality in relation to the modern-day credit crunch, whereupon a re-showing might be scheduled for us.
My memories of the film are vague in the extreme. I recall that the ubiquitous Liz Frazer was, inevitably, cast as one of the many housewives to fall for Albert’s fickle charms. I always thought that the theme-music for the film, a pop single by Doug Sheldon, deserved a better fate than to be heard a handful of times on Radio Luxembourg before it disappeared without trace.
Over the years my memory has done a disservice to Doug Sheldon, condemned alas to become a forgotten or at best a nearly man of early 1960s pop music, for I have come to think that it was not he but instead Eden Kane who melodramatically belted out the title line: ‘Livvvvvvvvve Now … and PAY Later”. It was only after checking on the internet that I corrected myself.
A big new word in the late 1950s consumer-mad Britain, “hire-purchase” was also known as the “never-never” or “living on tick”. These expressions have long since faded from everyday use, and so has the profession of “tally boy” unless you might be persuaded that banking and building society staff are the modern-day versions. When I re-read ‘Live Now, Pay Later’ my motive is solely to wallow in some light nostalgia and to recall my early teens when my parents’ concession to hire-purchase hedonism reaped for us a Bendix washing machine, a Frigidare refrigerator, a Murphy television and a Hillman Minx saloon car. (This latter proved luckily to be a much better choice than the Renault Dauphine that we had originally planned to buy. One of the first foreign cars to be mass-marketed in Britain, the Dauphine with its unusual feature of boot at the front and engine at the rear turned out to be a disastrously unreliable rust-heap).
If I am nostalgic today to be reminded of an era of “must-have” or “keep up with the neighbours” household possessions such as infra-red cookers, spin-dryers and transistor radios, I daresay that my children will one day feel wistful about flat-screen televisions, I-pods and microwave ovens. I only hope that they might heed, as Albert did not, the warning words uttered to him by his former school teacher Mr Mason:
You shouldn’t be a tally-boy. They’re ten-a-penny. It’s a transitory occupation. You’re living on the sickness of the times – people living outside their incomes in a fool’s paradise of plenty. … There’ll be hard times before they’re good again.
Jack Trevor Story – author and scriptwriter: what else should I mention about him? At one time when I was younger I possessed a second-hand paperback copy of another of his successful books ‘Mix Me a Person’. It too was filmed, starring Adam Faith in the lead role. I don’t exactly remember the story but I think it had something to do with a young tearaway being trapped on a murder charge. I was going through the typical phase myself of being a moody teenager, and I suspect that I saw something glamorous and aspiring about the lead character of ‘Mix Me a Person’. If so, I suppose that I grew out of it later.
When I look back and I try to identify authors who were important influences in my early life, helping to shape my own interests in reading and writing literature, I find that I probably have neglected until now to recognise the contribution of Jack Trevor Story. I am glad now to put the record straight. In the same category of easily readable, hard impact authors who gave me early insights into the social life and local politics of provincial Britain I must mention the names of Stan Barstow, John Braine and especially Keith Waterhouse for his early novels such as ‘Billy Liar’, ‘Billy Liar on the Moon’ and ‘Jubb’.
In conclusion I will say again that Jack Trevor Story brought an engagingly light, at times comic touch to the inherently harsh and cynical theme of ‘Live Now, Pay Later’. My favourite example of this is his fictional creation of Teresa Hunter, whose on-off romance with Albert lends a bitter-sweet dramatic tension to the story. What’s so good about Teresa Hunter? Her delightful nickname, of course! Like the book itself, and its author, she’s a Treasure!