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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Mervyn King and the Maradona mystery

How the global financial crisis changed the former Bank of England governor’s thinking about economics.

The career of Mervyn King, now Lord King of Lothbury, has been played out in gilt-edged establishment institutions: the University of Cambridge, Harvard, the Bank of England (where he was governor from 2003 to 2013) and now the House of Lords, where he sits as a crossbencher. But King is far harder to “place” than his CV suggests. He likes to put complex ideas into plain language, often using sporting metaphors, a characteristic of English anti-pretentiousness. Yet his Englishness is not so deep that he hides his intellectualism, his delight in ideas and the energy they provide. The witty don, the technocrat, the pure intellectual: each strand seems equally central.

We are having morning coffee in King’s library at his house in east Kent and discussing his new book, The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking and the Future of the Global Economy (Little, Brown). It is nearly three years since he left the Bank of England and, not untypically for someone who has left high office, he looks as though he spends more time outdoors these days. Perhaps less typically, he seems to be enjoying his life of freedom and thinking.

The library is inside the frame of an old barn next to his oast house, but King’s wife, Barbara, added huge windows and beech wood from eastern Germany for the bookcases and central table. It is bright and modern rather than country-house tweedy.

King was born in 1948, in what he calls the “golden age of English meritocracy”. The son of a railway worker who retrained as a teacher, he passed the eleven-plus and went to Wolverhampton Grammar School. Having gained a place at Cambridge to study mathematics, King changed to read economics at King’s College. He chose the college because of its celebrated alumnus John Maynard Keynes, and witnessed at first hand the tensions between old-school “Keynesians” and the advocates of a novel, more mathematical approach to economics.

His educational journey was less unusual among that postwar generation, and the arc of his career encompasses a particular chapter in English social history. “I belong to this fortunate generation, too young to have had to fight in the Second World War or do national service, but old enough not to have paid anything for my education,” he told me.

After his finals, King planned to do a doctorate at Warwick. But one day, under the door of his undergraduate rooms at Cambridge, he found a letter from the head of the department of applied economics offering him a job. After two years in the department, he won a Kennedy scholarship to Harvard. “That link into US academic life was fundamentally important,” he says. The experience led him into new intellectual circles – at Harvard, he was taught by Janet Yellen, now the chair of the US Federal Reserve – and encouraged in him the sense of greater challenges than climbing the Oxbridge ladder. In 1991, having alternated between posts at universities in the US and the UK, King left academia to join the Bank of England as its chief economist.

There are seven busts sitting on his ­bookcases: Shakespeare, Goethe, Charles James Fox, Gladstone, Adam Smith, Cicero and Matthew Boulton, the Birmingham entrepreneur whom, together with his business partner James Watt, King put on the £50 note. Next he wants statues of Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.

Nearest to King’s chair is Gladstone. “There are two extraordinary things about Gladstone,” he explains. “One, he spent far more time in the chamber of the House of Commons than any modern politician: he’d sit through most of the debates. And then he’d also spend six months abroad, writing great books of theology and philosophy. His hinterland – those ideas, that thinking – is what made him.”

But with busyness so celebrated today, isn’t it impossible to preserve your thinking
time and also keep your job? “Not if you have the top job. Before I became governor, I was frustrated that other people determined my diary. As governor, I made a very clear decision: apart from a very limited number of meetings, I would keep mornings free for thinking, reading and writing speeches. I scheduled all meetings for the afternoon. If you’ve already had a half-day of meetings, the emotional result is that it is very hard to go away and think dispassionately.”

He quotes from a conversation that took place between John F Kennedy and Gore Vidal in 1961. Kennedy said that he was relatively unimpressed by the brightest of his own generation, but had found that when he entered the intellectual world of the 18th century and the men who wrote the constitution – a bunch of farmers, essentially, living miles from any intellectual centre – he was intellectually dazzled. The young president asked Vidal why he thought this might be.

“It’s very simple,” Vidal replied. “The people you meet now are so busy that they never have time to read and think and write. Those 18th-century farmers spent an awful lot of time reading, thinking and writing. And that’s why America produced such a good constitution.”

If the trajectory of “reading and thinking” was declining even in the 1960s, where has it reached in the age of rolling news and social media? The value of reflectiveness and long-term thinking are King’s recurring themes. One accusation is that he reacted too slowly during the world financial crisis that began in 2007. The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, for instance, was criticised for not cutting interest rates faster.

Is it possible, then, that his temperament and style (“We didn’t give lots of announcements”) influenced that perception?

***

In spring 2011, King had a pointed conversation with a Chinese central banker. “We . . . have learned a great deal from the West about how competition and a market economy support industrialisation and create higher living standards,” his counterpart began. “We want to emulate that.” Then the sting in the tail: “But I don’t think you’ve quite got the hang of money and banking yet.” This remark inspired him to write The End of Alchemy.

“I had to think carefully about what kind of book it would be,” King says. “It couldn’t be a memoir: how could I be considered objective? The right people to write an account of the crisis are either dispassionate historians, many years on, or the private secretaries of the people involved.”

The book is intellectual rather than gossipy, but it is unblinking. King’s criticisms are targeted not only at the usual suspects (greedy bankers), but also towards his old profession – academic economists. He takes aim at the whole system, asking why money and banking turned into the Achilles heel of the market economy.

One of King’s specific suggestions is that central banks should move from being, in the theory defined by Walter Bagehot, the “lender of last resort” (LOLR) to a position that King advocates and that he terms a “pawnbroker for all seasons”.

The economic and moral objection to LOLR is that when large banks urgently require money, as happened during the financial crisis, it is the taxpayer who stands behind the losses of an allegedly privately run and privately profitable industry. So the banks get the upside in good times and the state bears the cost during bad times. This has led some critics (including the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf and King’s former co-author John Kay) to propose an outright end to “fractional reserve banking”, under which banks create deposits to finance risky lending and so have insufficient safe cash reserves to back their deposits. The proposed move would separate safe retail banks (handling current accounts and so on) from banks that take greater risks.

King, however, thinks it is possible to ­retain some advantages of modern banking while removing the pre-crisis imbalance of risks and rewards. As private individuals, we are all familiar with the idea that we are prepared to pay more to borrow money when we desperately need it. That sustains the business model of the pawnbroker. King’s argument is that central banks, when a crisis hits, should be able to provide emergency money to distressed institutions, but only by lending against collateral that has been examined and priced in advance, during the good times. The banks would have to stump up enough collateral to enable the central bank to provide the cash needed by a bank to pay its depositors in a future crisis. In effect, the banking sector would pay a fee upfront for the insurance that it currently gets for free.

Given that we appear to be entering another period of intense economic uncertainty, with the slowdown in China and the fall in commodity and share prices, the book addresses two pertinent questions: why has this recovery been weirdly slow and incomplete? And why do the old levers seem so ineffectual?

King thinks this downturn is taking a new form, one that conventional economics can’t cope with. He calls the slump a “narrative revision downturn”. In essence, we are pretty convinced we are going to be poorer than we thought was the case before the crash, and we won’t be persuaded otherwise by the usual tricks and sweeteners. “People aren’t pursuing optimising strategies – the assumption economists make; they are pursuing what I call ‘coping’ strategies. And there is no mathematical solution to that problem.”

King recalls sitting with his peers around the table in Washington, DC in October 2008. “No one round that table believed that by 2016 we would still be facing a very slow recovery.” But the old assumptions no longer apply. “Economic models presume that the world travels along some steady growth path, with the odd upward or downward shock – ‘headwinds’ or ‘tailwinds’. The problem is that the model has no room for the idea that the current headwind isn’t going to go away. Beliefs have changed. The idea that if we just wait long enough with low interest rates, then things will naturally recover. I think that’s fundamentally flawed.”

King, who trained academically in a highly technical and mathematical era of economics, now thinks that the discipline’s orthodoxies are not relevant to today’s problems. “Many economists won’t like this part of the book. Postwar economics is like Newtonian mechanics: very good in a wide range of situations. But it’s not a general theory. Einstein demonstrated the ways in which Newtonian mechanics doesn’t hold. Radical uncertainty [King’s phrase for today’s profound uncertainty about the future] is the equivalent for macroeconomics.”

King might not have become governor if he hadn’t been deeply schooled in the economic style of his era. But his experiences as governor led him to reassess the foundations of his own subject: “This is a book I could not have written before the crisis. And it’s not because I’m talking about the crisis. It’s because the experience of the crisis changed the way I thought about economics. Not just banks and markets, but much deeper than that.

“People’s beliefs and expectations simply cannot be captured by an economist’s view of how the world works.”

That being the case, if he could have his time again, would he seek to influence the economic outlook as a politician, as an independent commentator, or once again inside a central bank?

“As governor. You’re doing something. If I’d been a columnist, I’d have been frustrated. What if I thought I’d had a great idea every week, but after ten years none of my 500 ideas had been implemented?”

And politics? “What I observed among prime ministers is how hard they found it to step back and think things through. Across politics, you sense the focus on tomorrow’s headlines. Politicians are judged by smartness, articulateness, looks. But you don’t get the impression that they’ve thought deeply about the subject and have got something new to say on it and that’s what has motivated them.”

“The overwhelming burden of being a professional politician, King argues, extenuates short-termism and identikit style. “When I advised people to disappear for a fortnight, then come back and give a speech that would try to set the agenda for the next five years, it would be met with incredulity. They’d say: ‘We can’t disappear. We’ve got to be here to respond.’ But if all you’re doing is responding to the other side, you’re stuck just shouting at each other.”

King singles out Nigel Lawson and Frank Field as being unusually intellectually considered. “But it’s very hard for politicians to make time to think through the big issues. And we don’t make it easy for them.”

***

Mervyn King’s last day at the Bank of England, in June 2013, was occupied with the traditional Governor’s Day cricket match at the Bank’s ground in Roehampton, south-west London. As his successor, Mark Carney, watched from the boundary edge, King’s final few minutes in office were spent bowling a tidy over of well-flighted left-arm spin. Mike Brearley, the former England captain who was umpiring, called “Over!” before Andrew Strauss, another former England captain, ran over to offer a handshake and the injunction, “You can relax now.” And King’s innings as governor was closed.

He is devoted to sport. During the financial crisis, a senior Fleet Street journalist told me about a conversation he’d just had with the governor. How, the editor wondered, were things going? Terrible, King replied. Crikey, the editor wondered, how much worse could things get? A run on sterling? Another huge bank going down? “It’s a confidence issue,” King said. “We’re creating loads of chances, but just can’t find the back
of the net.” He was talking about the struggles of Aston Villa, his beloved football team (he is now a director of the club).

King enjoys mischief. He began one Mansion House speech arguing for deep and profound changes to the ECB. The status quo was indefensible; only structural reforms would do. What on Earth was the governor doing, laying in to the European Central Bank without warning? “Yes, it’s time to reform the England and Wales Cricket Board.” England’s cricket board shares the initials “ECB” (poor Wales is left out) with the eurozone’s central bank.

While King’s sporting tastes may be English, his willingness to utilise them intellectually is more American. In the work of the evolutionary biologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould, for example, baseball can pop up almost anywhere, and one of King’s former students at the London School of Economics, Michael Lewis, struck gold with Moneyball, exploring how clever baseball managers can exploit inefficiencies in the transfer market.

King uses Diego Maradona’s second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico as an analogy for setting interest rates. Maradona ran 60 yards, beating five players before scoring. “The truly remarkable thing is Maradona ran virtually in a straight line. English defenders reacted to what they expected Maradona to do. Because they expected him to move either left or right, he was able to go straight on.”

He points out that in 2002 the Bank of England met its inflation target with unchanged official rates, even though expectations of future interest rates (revealed in market interest rates) did move around. The point is not that interest rates need never change – far from it – but to illustrate the power of expectations as well as “actions”.

There is an irony here. In office, King often spoke about making central banking “more transparent”. But isn’t an element of mystery essential in order for the Bank – just like Maradona – to steer expectations, for the good of the economy, one would hope? Put differently, what do central bankers really do – crises notwithstanding – beyond projecting confidence while supplying subtle signals? King, for his part, quotes the view of Paul Volcker, the former American central banker, that mystique is the most important quality in the job. “There are limits to the desirable degree of transparency,” King writes in his book.

***

King has his critics, of course. In The Silo Effect, Gillian Tett of the Financial Times accuses him of promoting an “Econ tribe” inside the Bank of England, narrowing its intellectual range and perspective. King is happy to acknowledge that economics had to become more central to the Bank, especially after it achieved independence from the government in 1997, but he believes his intellectual efforts were directed against a blinkered Econ tribe.

“One of the first things I did as governor was to start a financial history dining club. Because I thought I learned more from history. And in the induction programme for people joining the Bank, I made financial history a serious component. Yes, there are economists, some at central banks, who think that their computer models capture it all. But more than anyone else on the MPC, I would say, ‘These models are not good enough. They don’t capture what goes on.’ And that’s what the book is about.”

Summarising his contribution over 22 years, King says it was “getting ideas into the Bank; just knowing the mechanics of how things work is not enough”.

What about the criticism that he reacted too slowly during the 2007-2008 financial crisis? “Look at the IMF statistics on which central bank expanded its balance sheet the fastest and the most. The answer is the Bank of England. A very odd myth persists about ECB [the European bank, not the cricket board]. They announced that they would lend over €100bn, and the next day they would lend €95bn. Everyone thought, ‘Gosh, they’re lending vast amounts.’ After one month, the amount of lending to the banking sector was precisely zero. They lent a hundred billion for one day, 95 billion for one day. After one month they had extended no net liquidity. The Bank of England had.”

So, why the perception that he dragged his heels? “Now I’m doing what I said I wouldn’t do in the book! We didn’t make any statements or get involved in PR. And more importantly, Northern Rock got into serious trouble [in late 2007]. The same thing happened in the US, but because of their resolution mechanism they were able to deal with it and prevent a run.”

The Northern Rock experience, he adds, “should not encourage the lesson ‘OK, these things happen from time to time’ but, instead, ‘we’ve got to redesign the system’. That’s why the ‘pawnbroker for all seasons’ is important. If you just treat the symptoms, the problems don’t go away.”

Others with greater economic expertise than I have will assess King’s contribution as governor and the reforms he advocates in his book. But I can offer a personal reading.

Many books on the “causes of the crisis” exploit their own kind of alchemy: glamourising catastrophe by turning it into breathless drama. King’s book is the opposite. It is elegant, yet deliberately anti-dramatic. It undersells and overachieves. You finish it with a clearer understanding that “fixing” our deep economic problems cannot reside in one epic meeting, nor even with one all-powerful figure: not a governor, not a prime minister. The threads are too numerous and too entangled. Sometimes influencing several constituencies – all of which have a necessary role to play – relies on intellectual exploration, not just specific reforms.

Superficially, King’s career appears to consist of two equal halves: 22 years an academic, then 22 years a central banker. He has returned to academia and spends the autumns as a professor at New York University. But I wonder if a third segment – the one devoted to writing, and not just within academia – will lend a different shape to the whole. The qualities King prizes are time and autonomy, with independence rated even more highly than acceptance: the natural apartness of the writer.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis