‘The world is not run from where he thinks': Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall – and some upcoming talks on Six Capitals and Double Entry

1046836301I’ve just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s bestselling, prize-winning Wolf Hall. I’m a little late to the party – it was published in 2009 and the mini series has already screened on BBC 2 – but wow! What a novel. The reign of Henry VIII – and especially his second marriage to Anne Boleyn and the reverberations it caused across Christendom – has always been one of my favourite periods of English history, and Mantel retells it in mesmerising fashion. I was utterly gripped, even though at times the detail became too much even for me (a lover of detail). I can see why William Skidelsky chose it as one of his ten best historical novels in May 2012 (along with my favourite novel, War and Peace, the sublime The Leopard and Pat Barker’s extraordinary Regeneration trilogy).

I was always going to read Wolf Hall, but I became especially interested in it when I heard that it was told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, whose famous portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger features the most beautiful book of the age: Luca Pacioli’s Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportione et proportionalita. Published in Venice in 1494, Pacioli’s Summa was the first mathematical encyclopaedia of Europe and contains his famous double-entry bookkeeping treatise.

Thomas Cromwell (with Luca Pacioli's Summa) by Hans Holbein

Thomas Cromwell (with Luca Pacioli’s Summa) by Hans Holbein

Here’s a quote from Wolf Hall (from Part Four, II) which not only captures Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, but also seizes the mood of those turbulent times: as Europe shifted from a medieval world in thrall to the Church of Rome to a new era ruled by merchants and money, an age monk and mathematician Luca Pacioli helped to usher into being.

‘How can he [Cromwell] explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and the shot.’

It was of course Luca Pacioli, the so-called Father of Accounting, who sparked my unlikely interest in accounting – and led to my writing not one but two books about its enthralling history: Double Entry and Six Capitals. I’ll be talking about accounting – mostly about my new book Six Capitals – in the next few months in Brisbane, Melbourne, New York, Sydney and New Zealand. Here are the details of these events so far:

7 – 9 am, Friday 27 March 2015
Brisbane Writers Festival Literary Breakfast

Customs House, 399 Queen Street, Brisbane

4.30 – 6.30 pm, Thursday 16 April 2015

Swinburne Leadership Dialogue, Swinburne Leadership Institute
Swinburne University of Technology, Hawthorn, Melbourne

Wednesday 6 May 2015
Accountants Club of America
11.15 am – 12 pm: meet and greet
12 pm – 2 pm: luncheon and speaker
Club 101, 101 Park Avenue, Corner of 40th and Park Avenue, Lobby Level
Cost: $75

Friday 8 May 2015
New York University
5 – 7 pm: Presentation and roundtable discussion
More details to come

May 2015
Details to come

Wednesday 3 June: Auckland
Thursday 4 June: Wellington
Details to come

I’ll be posting details of these events on my events page as they’re confirmed, so stay tuned.

Posted in book news, Can accountants save the planet?, Novels, poetry, Six Capitals | Leave a comment

‘nothing less than a seizure': Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice

From hot books at Adelaide Writers’ Week – to illicit passion in Venice.

53064Death in Venice is a highly stylised, richly suggestive story of the last days of Gustav Aschenbach, a feted writer uncharacteristically overwhelmed, at the age of 53, by the urge to travel. ‘It was simply a desire to travel, but it had presented itself as nothing less than a seizure, with intensely passionate and indeed hallucinatory force, turning his craving into vision.’

The vision Aschenbach sees, of tangled tropical undergrowth, fills him with terror and mysterious longing. Haunted by his inner impulse, he travels to an island in the Adriatic where, as if by revelation, his fated destination becomes apparent to him: he must travel to Venice, that incomparable city, that ‘fantastic mutation of normal reality’.

Unerringly Thomas Mann recounts the one last blazing upsurge of passion in his artist hero, unfurling the subtle blossoming of his desire as he falls madly in love with a young boy. Aschenbach’s life has been one of ‘cold, inflexible, passionate duty’. Intent on fame, for the sake of his talent, Aschenbach has ‘curbed and cooled his feelings’ – and his discipline and forbearance have been rewarded with accolades and universal admiration. He has fascinated 20-year-old readers with his ‘breath-taking cynicisms about the nature of art and the artist himself'; his prose is read by children in prescribed school readers. But in Venice the foundations of his lofty career begin to falter as he finds a world increasingly ‘deranged and bizarre’.

On first beholding the young boy in his hotel on the Lido, Aschenbach notices with astonishment that he is ‘entirely beautiful’. The boy, Tadzio, appears god-like. With curls of dark gold, he is Eros, a ‘divine sculptural shape’ with the ‘creamy lustre of Parian marble’. As Aschenbach’s response to Tadzio transmutes from one of ‘cool professional approval’ to utterly abandoned longing, Mann’s Christian metaphors – Aschenbach’s passive suffering is St Sebastian‘s – are usurped by those of classical Greece; his rhythms become hymnic and his prose explodes into a paean to physical beauty. Aschenbach discovers that it is passion that exalts artists, that ‘the longing of our soul must remain the longing of a lover – that is our joy and our shame …’ Dirk-Bogarde-in-Death-in--006 In essence, Death in Venice is a supremely modulated outpouring of suppressed homoerotic desire – both Aschenbach’s and Mann’s own. For as Mann later wrote of Death in Venice: ‘Nothing is invented.’ Although Mann married in 1905, the most intense relationship of his life was with the painter and violinist Paul Ehrenberg, which lasted from their meeting in 1899 until around 1903.

Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann

In May 1911 Thomas Mann travelled from Munich with his wife and brother Heinrich to the Adriatic island of Pola. From there they journeyed by boat to Venice to vacation on the glamorous resort island of the Lido. Here, like Aschenbach, for a fleeting moment Mann became enchanted by a beautiful young Polish boy holidaying with his mother and three sisters. But Mann was in his prime, almost 20 years younger than the fictional Aschenbach, and was not facing an irrevocable creative and physical decline.

Following his Venetian holiday, Mann returned to an idea he’d had for a story based on Goethe’s infatuation at 74 with a young 17-year-old girl while holidaying in 1823. Between July 1911 and July 1912 Mann worked on the story, transposing the theme of an ageing man’s passion for a girl to his passion for a boy. He later described the force behind Death in Venice as:

‘Passion that drives to distraction and destroys dignity – that was really the subject matter of my tale.’

First published in two instalments in October and November 1912, the book edition of Death in Venice appeared in 1913 and the first printing of 8000 sold out in a month.

The novel opens on an unseasonably warm spring afternoon in ‘the year in which for months on end so grave a threat seemed to hang over the peace of Europe’. Two years after Mann completed Death in Venice, the First World War erupted. In an uncanny way, the novel explores the role of the artist in an age apparently intent on its own destruction. Aschenbach’s fate is aligned with the fate of Europe; both are destined to be overwhelmed by chaos. For Aschenbach’s work has struck a chord with the public – and what is his work but ‘elegant self-control’ concealing ‘a state of inner disintegration and biological decay’, like European civilisation itself. As the narrator observes:

‘For a significant intellectual product to make a broad and deep immediate appeal, there must be a hidden affinity, indeed a congruence, between the personal destiny of the author and the wider destiny of his generation.’

Reflecting this, Mann later described his pre-First World War self as someone who recorded and analysed decadence, a lover of beauty obsessed with the pathological, darkness and death.

Born in 1875 in Lubeck, Germany, Mann, like Aschenbach, had an exotic mother and a successful, upright father. His mother, the beautiful and musically gifted Julia da Silva Bruhns, was born in Brazil to a Portuguese Creole mother and a German planter father. Aged 18, she married consul Heinrich Mann, a successful businessman. Under the influence of his mother, who played Chopin on the piano, Mann grew up loving music, above all Wagner, who profoundly influenced his writing. As a boy, he produced his own operas in a puppet theatre. Echoing his own artistic provenance, Mann writes of Aschenbach:

‘It was from this marriage between hard-working, sober conscientiousness and darker, more fiery impulses that an artist, and indeed this particular kind of artist, had come into being.’

Thomas and Katia Mann and children

Thomas and Katia Mann and two of their six children

Mann found extraordinary and immediate success with his first novel, The Buddenbrooks, published in 1901. In 1905 he married Katia Pringsheim, and together they had six children. In 1933 they were in Switzerland when Hitler became chancellor, and their children warned them not to return to Germany. They remained in Switzerland until 1938, when they moved to the United States. Mann became an American citizen in 1944 but returned to Switzerland in 1952, where he died three years later. Mann is considered by many to have been the greatest German writer of the 20th century and in 1929 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The identity of the boy who had fascinated Mann on the Lido was revealed in 1964 as Wladyslaw, Baron Moes, whose real-life friend – the fictional Jasiu – visited the set of Luchino Visconti’s celluloid adaptation of Death in Venice (1971). Visconti’s sumptuous film starred Dirk Bogarde as Aschenbach and Bjorn Andresen as Tadzio.

The great English composer Benjamin Britten devoted his last years to an opera based on Death in Venice, which had its London premiere in Covent Garden in October 1973.

Visconti's Death in Venice

Visconti’s Death in Venice

Posted in Classics, Novels | Leave a comment

The wonderful Adelaide Writers’ Week 2015 – and the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship

I only experienced one and a half days of the Adelaide Writers’ Week 2015 – but it was such a beautifully curated (by the brilliant Laura Kroetsch and her team) feast of a literary festival that it feels I was there for days. The audiences were big and keen, the queues for author signings the longest I’ve ever seen. My first sight of the festival was the sign below and a line of people weaving up the hill waiting to have copies of Bad Feminist signed by its author, the essayist, novelist and cyber sensation Roxane Gay. It boded well. adfest1 Because of my own bookish events, I was only able to see two whole sessions – one with US novelist and alt-country musician Willy Vlautin, the other with journalist and biographer David Marr – and they were both wonderful.


Willy Vlautin

Willy Vlautin was talking to Kate de Goldi about his latest novel The Free. Vlautin grew up in Reno and the Southern accents and lilts of his voice were captivating. As were his stories about hanging around with tough old drunks and drifters as a teenager, rather than chasing girls like his older brother did, and his excellent knack of characterising modern ‘saints’ (his word), for example, the mid-career Paul Newman, because that Newman always played men who were kind to women. And of course, Vlautin added, he was also pretty good looking. It seemed (from the massive queue of people waiting to have their books signed) that most people were discovering Vlautin for the first time – and they were hooked. David Marr was giving the annual Hazel Rowley Memorial Lecture, established to honour the esteemed literary biographer Hazel Rowley (1951-2011). Marr regaled the crowd about the art of biography literary and political, about Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, and the importance of ‘character’ in politics. Marr was at his urbane, incisive and witty best. He concluded by awarding the Hazel Rowley Memorial Fellowship for 2015 to journalist, broadcaster and literary maven Caroline Baum. It was a thrilling moment. Baum received her award with great emotion and spoke movingly about the connection between her late beloved father and the biography she’s working on, about Lucie Dreyfus. She said her project ‘seeks to restore Lucie Dreyfus to her rightful place in history’. Lucie was married to Alfred Dreyfus, the French artillery officer at the centre of one of the most divisive political scandals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After hearing her talk about it, I eagerly await Baum’s biography and wish her all the best with her work on it. I also eagerly await any future Adelaide Writers’ Festival I’m lucky enough to attend. It is something very special.

David Marr in full flight (that's him on the distant stage with his hand in the air)

David Marr in full flight (that’s him on the distant stage with his hand in the air)

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Fishermen – and the Adelaide Writers’ Week 2015

carpentariaI’m slowly making my way back into the daylight world after some travels through the underworld. As it happens, I’ve been reading Alexis Wright’s astonishing novel Carpentaria for about the fourth time, which is exactly the book to be reading at such a time. And by chance I was up to the part where the fisherman Norm Phantom rows his dead friend Elias out into the ocean, to take him home:

‘”So it’s time old mate,” Norm said, as he balanced himself in front of Elias to untie the ropes holding him in place. During his journey, Norm had become quite nimble as he moved around the small vessel, as though he had always possessed a corklike buoyancy with the movement of water. “It’s time for you to go home.” He remembered the coral trout and undid the lid of one of several plastic containers kept behind the ends of their seats for storage. The fish in their bags were emptied from the container and Norm placed them in Elias’s folded arms. Then he lifted his friend, knowing he had to let him go, but not wanting to either, because once he did, he knew he would be alone. Betrayed by feelings of loneliness, and a sadness which was only half reserved for Elias, he sat holding the body. He could feel Elias’s spirit resisting his hold. Very carefully and reluctantly, Norm lifted Elias over the side of the boat and placed him into the strangely calm emerald green waters. Elias sank deeper and deeper, gently through the giant arms of water waiting at every depth to receive him, until finally, Norm could see him no more. Then he knelt down in the water on the floor of his little boat, and prayed for Elias, and was thankful he had brought his spirit safely to his final resting place.

‘In time, when he looked up again, he found himself alone. All the gropers had departed and the day was almost gone.’

As with the best novels, each time I read Carpentaria I see it anew. This time it seems to me to be Wright’s Odyssey, her Ulysses.

In other news, I’m very excited to be heading to my first ever Adelaide Writers’ Week, which starts this Saturday 28 February. It will also be my first ever trip to Adelaide.

I’ll be speaking to Julian Meyrick about my new book Six Capitals at 3.45 pm on Thursday 5 March on the West Stage. Julian is Strategic Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University and one of his current projects concerns accounting for cultural value. I am very much looking forward to some pithy discussion. Hope to see you there.


Posted in Novels, poetry, book news, Six Capitals | Leave a comment

Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of immortality from recollections of early childhood – for my mother


What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind,
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be,
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering,
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

And oh ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Think not of any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquish’d one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripp’d lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet;
The Clouds that do gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.


Judith Lee Gleeson-White, 27 June 1928-8 February 2015



Posted in Other news and marginalia | 10 Comments

Natural capital – bees, forests, water, soil – comes to Australian farming: NAB is adding natural capital to its lending policies


Once again natural capital is in the news – this time with the announcement last week by the National Australia Bank (NAB) that it’s changing its policies to start accounting for the sustainability of farming business practices. NAB is Australia’s largest agribusiness lender, so this is big news for farmers and big news for natural capital.

The NAB’s move comes amid warnings about the economic risks incurred by businesses ignoring natural value. Australia is running down its natural capital assets (forests, water, soil, energy) and this poses a material risk to the economy. According to the advocates of natural capital accounting, this means businesses should treat natural capital as they do other financial risks and assets.

NAB’s plan to include natural capital in its lending policies means that farmers who manage the environment better should eventually receive higher credit ratings. Why? Because these farmers generally have a more resilient business model. According to the NAB’s manager of agribusiness, Khan Horne, there’s a clear correlation between farmers’ environmental performance and their profitability: better environmental practices tend to produce more reliable yields and lower input costs.

For the moment, it seems NAB’s move to natural capital is focused on having conversations about it with the aim of translating natural capital into its financial practices, such as its credit assessments, within three to five years.

Here’s what the NAB says about incorporating natural capital into its practices: ‘We recognise that if we fail to consider natural value as part of our decision making, we may be blind to the significant risks and threats to our future business sustainability.’

‘Eventually, as business decisions become more informed by natural value considerations, it will be easier to place an actual financial value on natural capital (bringing it explicitly into the balance sheet) and to start to adjust the way we think about growth strategies, future value of businesses and the real impacts of sustainability.

‘For example, over 65% of agricultural production in Australia is dependent on pollinators such as honey bees. Pollination services are estimated to contribute directly to AUD$1.7 billion in agricultural production.

‘And, in Melbourne, the water supply is dependent on protected forests for purification. Without these forests, Melbourne would need to build a new water treatment plant at a cost of USD$500 million to USD$1 billion with additional operating costs running into hundreds of millions of dollars each year.’

NAB is one of the pilot companies in the new ‘six capitals’ global accounting framework initiative launched in December 2013 by the International Integrated Reporting Council. In December 2011 it was also one of the two inaugural signatories to the Natural Capital Declaration (NCD). Launched by the United Nations and the Global Canopy Programme (which protects forests as natural capital), the NCD acknowledges the risks and opportunities natural capital poses for the finance sector. It aims to integrate natural capital reporting into private-sector accounting and to make natural capital part of business decision making by 2020.

The 40 signatories to the declaration – including China Merchants Bank, Standard Chartered Bank, First Green Bank and Earth Capital Partners – acknowledge the importance of natural capital to a sustainable global economy and the fact that the ‘ecosystem goods and services‘ natural capital yields provide trillions of dollars worth of food, fibre, water, health, energy, climate security and other essential services to the global economy.

As I’ve already written here several times, most recently in December 2014, natural capital is a contentious concept. It’s also an idea we’re going to be hearing a lot more about this year, this decade, this century. Stay tuned.



Posted in Economics, Environment and the planet, Six Capitals | 1 Comment

The 2015 Perth Writers’ Festival – and John Lanchester’s ‘How to Speak Money’

The program for the 2015 Perth Writers Festival was released last weekend with star authors including John Lanchester, Hilary Mantel (via satellite), Elizabeth Gilbert, DBC Pierre, Bob Brown and Joan London. I’m going to be in Perth speaking about my new book and I’m extremely excited to be interviewing John Lanchester as well. Lanchester is one of my favourite writers on economics and finance. He’s the author of the best book about the 2008 global financial collapse – IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, as it was called in the USA (its UK title was Whoops) – and the novel Capital, among several others.

UnknownI’ve just started his new book How to Speak Money: What the money people say – and what they really mean, which will be the focus of our conversation. Lanchester is a compelling writer with a gift for simplifying economic doublespeak and untangling financial obfuscation – and he’s very funny. He’s also wrestling with one of the most important subjects of our times: money. As his book says, ‘Money is our global language. Yet so few of us speak it.’

One of the book’s two epigraphs is a brilliant quote from one of my favourite economists, John Maynard Keynes (in a classic Lanchester move, the other is from Some Like it Hot). Here’s part of the Keynes quote:

‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.’

Indeed. And here’s how Lanchester introduces his subject:

‘When the economic currents running through all our lives were mild and benign, it was easy not to think about them, in the way that it’s easy not to think about a current when it’s drifting you gently down a river – and that, more or less, is what we were all doing, without realising it, until 2008. Then it turned out that these currents were much more powerful than we knew, and that instead of cosseting us and helping us along, they were sweeping us far out to sea, where we’d have no choice but to fight against them, fight hard, and without any certain sense that our best efforts would be enough to get us back to shore and safety.

‘That, in essence, is why I’ve written this book. There’s a huge gap between the people who understand money and economics and the rest of us. Some of the gap was created deliberately, with the use of secrecy and obfuscation; but more of it, I think, is to do with the fact that it was just easier this way, easier for both sides. The money people didn’t have to explain what they were up to, and got to write their own rules, and did very well out of the arrangement; and as for the rest of us, the brilliant thing was we never had to think about economics.’

As well as my interview with John Lanchester (Money Money Money, 4-5pm on Sunday 22 February), I’m talking about my new book Six Capitals in two sessions at the Perth Writers Festival: The New Super Heroes (2.30-3.30pm on Saturday 21 February) and Gripping Truths (10-11am on Sunday 22 February). I hope to see you there.

And in other news, apart from this Perth festival and other talk fests, I’m back in serious writing mode until the spring, so I’ll be blogging here somewhat sporadically.

Posted in Can accountants save the planet?, Six Capitals | Leave a comment