Boarding the plane for South-East Asia, I felt like Chicken Little, waiting for the sky to fall. The markets were re-opening after the weekend when the world first heard the name of Nicholas Leeson, the man who broke the bank in Singapore. It’s hard to remember how that dawn felt – now that we have reassured ourselves at the building society, peeped with relief beneath the mattress, patted the nest-egg – but the mood then was that the bottom had fallen out of money. It was feared that even the mighty yen was in turnaround, so heaven help the poor old pound. Sydney had been up for a couple of hours, and one trader on the cobber bourse was reported as saying that ‘sterling just walked off a cliff.’ In the dealing rooms, they call this kind of talk ‘sentiment’. It seemed as though the safest place to be was high above the tumbling sky, above the collateral damage – after the fashion of American Presidents, who were to take the atomic valise onto Airforce One as hand luggage in the event of Armageddon.
I was surprised that we weren’t joined in the check-in queue by hollow-cheeked financiers. I imagined them drumming their fingers on their laptops as we girdled the globe, the pilot looking for an uncomplicated atoll where the value of the gourd was holding up against a basket of trashed post-industrialised currencies. We would put down in the limpid drink, hobble over the coral in our ragged pinstripes, and then, encouraged by the shy smiles of the simple local investors, the ageless cycle of arbitraging and leveraged buyouts could begin all over again.
As it was – I might have known – the plane was full of hacks. A correspondent from a mid-market British tabloid was asking fellow passengers if they worked for Barings, Leeson’s employer. ‘Did you know Nick Leeson?’ he asked a man near me. This scene uncannily re-created a passage from Joseph Conrad’s ‘A Personal Record’, with which I was toughing out a bout of in-flight sleeplessness.
Upon my word, I heard the mutter of Almayer’s name faintly at midnight ... I don’t mean to say that our passengers dreamed aloud of Almayer, but it is indubitable that two of them at least, who could not sleep apparently and were trying to charm away the trouble of insomnia by a little whispered talk at that ghostly hour, were referring in some way or other to Almayer.
In the story Almayer is an expatriate trader who intrigues Conrad. ‘I had heard of him in Singapore; I had heard of him on board; I had heard of him early in the morning and late at night; I had heard of him at tiffin and at dinner.’
Well, indeed, I had heard of him in Singapore all right. When I touched down here, however, I discovered that the fastidious Singaporeans were not after all Marigolding the remains of banking suicides from the steps of their high-rise offices. On the contrary, it emerged that chatter about Leeson was confined to visiting journalists. Off-duty dealers were saying nothing, no matter how hard the man from the Mirror worked Harry’s Bar (sic) with his jug of beer. Our requests for interviews with officials of various sorts were prettily non-actioned by their secretaries. They didn’t say yes and they didn’t say no. I grew so accustomed to this that when we finally found an obliging banking expert, I couldn’t get over the seeming incongruity of a shot in which he exited from a thrumming tropical arbour swinging his briefcase. The footage seemed to demand an explanatory caption – ‘Into the clearing came an accountant.’ possibly.