The Price of Everything

Inigo Thomas

Evelyn Waugh was no enemy of money – he wrote for it, he made a lot of it – but monied society was his subject, and like F. Scott Fitzgerald he wrote about the careless, destructive people for whom spending money is a palliative for everything, the Toms and the Daisys, the Beavers and the Brenda Lasts. ‘Mr Graceful,’ Brenda says to her solicitor in A Handful of Dust, ‘I’ve got to have some more money.’ In a piece about hotels in New York, Waugh explained there was no end to what you could spend your money on if you stay in one:

These hotels provide many surprises. Every time you ring a bell a different servant answers it; every time you touch the door handle there is a flash of blue lightning and you get a violent electric shock; there are only two sorts of food – tepid and iced – and all indistinguishable in taste whatever the name on the menus. But the beds are comfortable, the telephone girls are polite, and you have only to sit in the foyer to be endlessly amused and excited. You need never leave the hotel. Trade conventions are arriving and dispersing at every moment. You can wander through bazaars and cafes in every style of decoration. You can have your hair dyed and all your teeth pulled out. If you happen to die you can be embalmed and lie there in state.

I wonder what Waugh would have made of the Financial Times’s Saturday consumer supplement, How to Spend It, a magazine that’s both about and for the super rich. It presumably makes many millions in advertising, and has avid followers in Moscow, Hong Kong, Sao Paolo, London and New York. To anyone without large sums of money, however, the publication can be read as a joke at their expense, and if there is a publication that deserves to be pilloried it is that one.

‘Elites have become detached from domestic loyalties, forming instead a global super elite. It is hard not to see why ordinary people... are alienated,’ Martin Wolf wrote recently in his FT column. The contents of How To Spend It are less alienating than revealing. Privacy, secrecy, security, getting away with it, a distrust in anything that can’t be bought, are all part of the parade. Competitiveness is obviously another aspect of what’s going on; is your boat as big as your rival’s, is your island more expensive than his. And it is invariably ‘his’: the money being spent is male; women are viewed as accessories to fantasies realised by money.

Inside a recent issue there were to begin with ads for Ralph Lauren, Céline, and a yacht charter company called Y.CO: rental prices start at £30,000 a week. There was a feature on ‘hiring your own private island’, places where nothing appears to happen. There were no people in most of the photographs. The islands were all over the world: in Polynesia, off Scotland, in the Mediterranean, ‘south of Singapore... east of Sumatra’ . ‘The geographic and cultural disparities of these islands notwithstanding,’ Maria Shollenbarger writes, ‘the common ground quite a few share is a luxury of experience, rather than opulence for its own sake.’ What ‘experience’? You can rent Necker (one of the British Virgin Islands) for £78,000 a night for up to 34 people.

There’s an ad in one issue for a very expensive Mayfair dating company called Gray & Farrar; their fees begin at £15,000. The company says of itself:

Only the most eligible single people are accepted as private clients. The success of our service reflects the success of this selection criteria and we are certainly not right for everyone. It has often been said that we are one of the world's best kept secrets and we certainly intend to keep it that way. Our clients' right to privacy is safeguarded at all times and the internet has no place in our business.

The people who appear in How to Spend It are mostly models, there to show off the clothes, which are often so expensive that numbers won’t do: ‘Prices on request.’ There was a car on sale for £300,000, watches for £18,000, a Vetri d’Arte vase for €18,000, cigars that cost hundreds of pounds. Then there are the spas and the jewellery, to say nothing of the art and the houses. The price of everything is the point of How to Spend It.

Martin Wolf uses the word elite to describe the super-rich, but the idea of an elite implies responsibilities, and today’s super-rich often want none of them – they are turbocharged versions of Fitzgerald’s Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Is the problem of the super-rich their wealth, or is it that traditional elites – in government, in academia, among the professions – are beholden to their money? Why haven’t those elites reasserted themselves? Which leads to another question: what would the FT be without How to Spend It, the vastly profitable magazine which reflects a fact that some of the paper’s columnists deplore, the increasingly unaccountable power of massive wealth?

‘If I could own a museum it would be the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, with its Cabinet des Médailles,’ Sheik Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani, told the Art Newspaper in November. He lives in a palace on Park Lane, and his collection of jewellery is on show at the V&A. He is like a character from Proust. ‘I read books every night,’ Al Thani said. ‘They are stacked high around my bed because I never know what I might not need. Also, I am quite insomniac.’


  • 5 February 2016 at 8:01pm
    Simon Wood says:
    I love "How to Spend It", which is so large then when I find it at the dump, I feel I could live in it, like a tent. It gives me a glimpse into the world of luxe - a word I try to pronounce properly but which always comes out with my vestigial East Midlands accent, "looks".

    I am reminded of Orwell's essay "Boys' Weeklies" where he describes pit lads transfixed by the charmed world of Billy Bunter.

    I used to be a well paid advertising copywriter, often turning out sibilant copy like that of Gray & Farrar. Now I am almost a tramp, writing poesia povera which I read out on Croydon Radio. So I have looked at luxe from both sides now.

    I think if the mag subsidises the FT that's good, because the FT is a decent paper in a dirty world. "How to Spend It" also leads me to suspect that should I somehow arrive at that private island in a supercar, I wouldn't really like it.

    "Just going to the bathroom, darling." And find the back window.

  • 6 February 2016 at 2:47pm
    martyn94 says:
    If it's a joke at anyone's expense, it's surely at the expense of any super-rich who take it seriously. I used to skim it occasionally as a diversion from reading the FT for work. I know of nothing better (except perhaps Country Life) at reconciling you to not being super-rich. I especially used to enjoy the articles about watches: hundreds of thousands of dollars for something marginally less effective than my £35 Swatch, and which looks as if it came out of a cracker. I cannot imagine that this is lost on the FT's management, who are nothing if not worldly. The magazine can hardly be central to the paper's finances, but it must help their circulation to give the rest of us something to sneer at, and be paid for doing so.

  • 8 February 2016 at 8:59am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Are we supposed to have sympathy with these poor rich people? The sheik who can't sleep, poor fellow, or those 34 people crowded on to one moldy island with nothing to do? ! always enjoyed telling the legend about J P Getty's stinginess - he was alleged to have a pay phone in the hall of one of his mansions. That was how he made his first million, so went the story, by being very careful with the small change.
    We know that people like that sheik of yours have money to burn on yachts, race horses, Football clubs or houses in Park Lane, so why don't we try to awaken their consciences by telling them that for the price of a Rolex they could feed 1000 refugees in Syria for a week, or that they should resist the temptation to buy a Lamborghini and set up a school in Palestine instead.
    And surely there must be a practitioner near Park Lane who for a few quid could cure that sheik's insomnia? They should heed the awful warning that Donald Trump gives us. Get too wealthy and you have to keep telling everybody how wealthy you are.

    • 8 February 2016 at 1:57pm
      martyn94 says: @ Geoff Roberts
      But how exactly do you appeal to the conscience of these people? Veblen's leisure class went in for consumption that was "conspicuous", at least to people a bit less leisured than themselves. These people have essentially floated free of all that: they are conspicuous only as between themselves, but otherwise keep their heads very well down. The fact that the condition does not seem remotely enviable (as the FT's silly mag tends to prove) may make things worse or better, as you choose. But notions of sympathy, or conscience, or duty are neither here nor there.

      If you are Piketty, you tax them, and so would I, but how exactly do you organise that?

    • 9 February 2016 at 5:55am says: @ martyn94
      Not easy, this. First you'd have to buy their politicians.