The real Mr G – Morris Gletizman on camels, comedy and the GFC

We featured an edited version of this interview with Morris Gleitzman in the May edition of Off the Shelf, however, here is the full interview for those of you who can’t get enough of Mr G!

Q What inspired you to make the financial world the backdrop to your new book, Too Small To Fail?

A About 18 months ago I decided to investigate where my superannuation had disappeared to and I read a couple of books about the GFC. As someone who’d flunked maths at school and paid others to do my maths for me, I was a total ignorarmus about all that.

I became gripped by what seems to be a huge contradiction between the education, status and power of those running the investment and banking industry and the immense foolishness of some of their choices and decisions.

There was a moment about half-way through the second book when I was struggling to get my head around some of the complexities when I suddenly realised that beneath them, were some very simple ideas and some very clever fallacies.

I said to myself at that point a 10 year old child would have known this couldn’t work – and that was the moment the writing ‘light’ went on over my head. I thought aha! Maybe this is where I come in?

Q Too Small To Fail also features some of your traditional themes?

Yes, Oliver, the main character, is a child who comes to realise that his parents aren’t the perfect super-beings he thinks they are and he has to come to terms with the fact that whilst he loves them, they are flawed.

Q Clearly Oliver’s parents love him, they just don’t have time for him?

A It’s probably another theme of mine – two very loving parents who genuinely care for their son’s future wellbeing, but they make that very basic mistake of confusing love with money. The sad irony is that while his parents are working hard to give him a magnificent education, he’s not getting much emotional attention.

Q Every time Oliver needs attention people are so busy they ask him to ‘walk and talk’?

A Yes it shows that while their intentions are good, they can’t actually spend serious time with him. They’re always working.

Q Camels play an interesting and unexpected role in your new book – how did they get there?

When I wrote Boy Overboard, I became friends with an Afghani family and in talking to them was fascinated to learn of the very important role camels have played in the European history of Australia. They were imported in the late 19th century. Till motor trucks became available in the early 20th century, a lot of outback settlements were utterly dependant on the camel trains for getting medicine, supplies and clothing etc.

Q Still can’t see the connection between Oliver’s story and camels?

A Last year I went to the Darwin Writers Festival and stopped off for a few hours in Alice Springs where I visited this fascinating bloke who’s devoted his life to camels.

I had this epiphany when I was sitting on an old kitchen chair watching the camels grazing: There was a large camel standing right in front of me and as I glanced up, his back silhouetted against the sky. In that moment I realised that his back was shaped like an almost perfect boom and bust financial graph, going up the tail over the hump, down the neck.

Camels are also great examples of the virtues of plodding and thrift. They will drink a lot of water but won’t go off to Acapulco at the weekend and spray it all around, wasting it. It will use the water sensibly over a long period of time which is a good metaphor for sensible human financial behaviour,

Q A line in the book says banking is gambling dressed up?

A I learned there are 2 types of banks, the one we know, the retail high street banks and the investment banks and all their shadowy offshoots. And they are really casinos. In the investment industry, the traders refer to their activities as ‘bets’. Risk is one of the concepts central to the whole industry. Where they get into trouble is when they become so convinced of their own cleverness and indestructibility.

Q Your own relationship with the world of finance has not been an intimate one?

I think partly because I don’t have a maths brain. Also a long time ago I grasped the basic notion that high finance, especially regarding stocks and shares was pretty much gambling and that’s something I’ve never been confident with. Or had any great interest in.

Q I suppose superannuation forces us all to take more of an interest?

A Yes people who may not be involved on a day-to-day basis, have to pay attention when they notice that the actual figures are plummeting. You realise that like it or not, it’s almost impossible not to be connected to the global financial world.

Q This is a bit like Oliver’s journey in the book?

A Yes, Oliver starts this story more savvy than the average kid his age, but still there’s a lot he doesn’t know and he discovers that the world of high finance is not at all mature and sensible and infallible.

Q Part of that journey is Oliver learning the dangers of his get rich quick scheme?

A Yes Oliver discovers that it can go out of control.

Q Do you think your book might also interest adults who have few financial clues?

A So many adults I talk to about this book say ‘oh I want to read it – I don’t know anything about this world, I don’t understand it.’

They know about the GFC but don’t understand why it happened. It’s one of those things that most of us choose not to grapple with it and we go about our business unaware of how connected we really are to it. When you look at America slashing social programs as a part of their budget cuts you realise the social damage it’s doing, with lights going out in schools, hospitals, libraries. It’s happening in all western democracies and it’s kind of scary how affected we all can be by that.

And they’re cuts that tragically are going to largely affect many people who don’t have any savings and are already doing it tough. They bear the brunt of what’s going on in Wall Street.

Q It’s a scary picture?

A Well the really scary thing –  and one of the reasons I wanted to write the book – is that once you start reading about the GFC, you realise that really not a lot  has changed. That the culture of the investment industry, the set of assumptions that underlie it, hasn’t changed. Some of the traders who lost vast amounts of money are still there. It didn’t affect their employment contract.

Q What is the point of confronting young people with global problems of that magnitude?

A I think as we are about to hand the world over to them, it’s never too soon for young people to get a sense of how the world works. And I think an awareness of how the finance investment industry works is – or it should be – a very important part of school curriculums. Not as an archaic specialised part of the world but about how it affects all of us to varying degrees.

Q One of Oliver’s sad discoveries is the lack of ethical behaviour in parts of the financial world?

A Yes, his parents don’t actually steal money that isn’t theirs. They lose money that’s not theirs but they make the point that if you are investing money in a profit making scheme, then there’s risk involved. But of course Oliver’s met someone who’s been badly hurt by his parent’s financial dealings and he feels bad about it.

His parents have worked hard for the money they have stashed away overseas. The money they hang onto is their own money, so it becomes a moral issue – whether having lost a lot of people’s life savings, they should take some responsibility for that? To share the pain and I think that question of fairness is one that’s very important to a child. I think as young kids start to develop their own personal moral landscapes, the question of what is fair and what isn’t fair is of great interest to them.

Q What’s been your personal relationship with money?

A I’ve been very conservative. For a long time I just had an ordinary savings account and I remember a friend being absolutely horrified. As a self-employed person I found I had to come to terms with getting some super. But I have friends who sit up half the night selling and buying shares and I just always felt that what I do is to earn money is write books and I’ve got no interest in spending time making money by doing something I don’t enjoy. In my earlier years all I cared about was having enough money to pay the rent.

I just count myself lucky that I can earn money doing something I love.

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