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The Last Days of Lehman Brothers

Why make a drama out of a crisis when a documentary captures it better?

One week, two programmes about the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The first was a drama entitled The Last Days of Lehman Brothers (9 September, 9pm), in which James Bolam played Ken Lewis, the chief executive of Bank of America, who comes, I believe, from Mississippi. Naturally, our Jimmy played him with a Geordie accent, which was distracting.

But I digress. The second (10 September, 9pm) was the first part of a documentary series, The Love of Money. Not being a huge reader of the business pages, I expected that the drama would excite and the documentary would be a giant bore. (Having had a superbly patronising run-in with Robert Peston when I interviewed him earlier this year, I have been feeling more than usually sullen in the face of all things financial.) But I was wrong. The Love of Money wiped the floor with The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, such that I now wonder why they bothered to make the latter at all. The only possible explanation is that the BBC's drama department is not on speaking terms with the documentaries wing, and was beavering away in blissful ignorance.

First, I will despatch The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, which was dull and confusing in spite of a cast that included the superb James Cromwell as Hank Paulson, the former US treasury secretary. For one thing, its director had seemingly forgotten that, unless you are Peston, the names of most bank chief execs are unfamiliar. Even Dick Fuld, the creep who ran Lehman Brothers, is not a household name. I spent the first hour thinking: who are all these people? Thank God for Wikipedia. And a bank collapse, however dramatic, is mostly just a matter of meetings. Only rarely are screenplays about meetings exciting. Craig Warner, who wrote this one, did his best. He gave Fuld (Corey Johnson) some socking great bit of Revelation to quote - "Babylon the Great is fallen" - (or is that Jeremiah? My biblical knowledge is not what it was), and there was the obligatory scene in which he curled up in the foetal position in a corner of the office, briny tears dripping from his nose.

But these things, given what we know of Fuld, were hammy and unconvincing. Nor did they alleviate the general boredom. How I longed for someone - anyone! - to enjoy late-night sexual congress on an office photocopier. The trouble was, of course, that there were no women around for that.

Now to the glory that was The Love of Money. Its triumph was twofold. The director, Guy Smith, had bagged an amazing array of talking heads. Among them was John Thain, the last chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch, a business he sold to Bank of America beneath the noses of Lehman's, which had hoped that its own institution would be Ken Lewis's sale bargain that fateful day in September 2008. Thain is infamous for two things: the vast bonuses that he pushed through prior to the close of the deal with Bank of America; and that in 2008, even as Merrill Lynch racked up losses, he spent $68,000 on a 19th-century credenza and $400 on a wastebasket for his new office. Yet here he was, polished as mahogany, wryly recalling the heady days of "Ninja" (No Income, No Job or Assets) mortgages.

But Smith had also got hold of the most startling Lehman Brothers company videos, starring the only notable absentee from his film, Dick Fuld. If Fuld had been written into a Tom Wolfe novel, the critics would have cried foul. No, they would have said: not even a Master of the Universe can be this unpleasant, this ruthless. And yet here before us in the flesh he was. There was something sociopathic about the way that he addressed competitors and employees alike.

The financial crisis is now mostly spoken of as a kind of collective madness. Nevertheless, The Love of Money reminded one powerfully of the role individuals can play in global disaster, assuming that those around the person are frightened and dumb enough to allow it. The sight, in old footage, of a grinning Gordon Brown standing next to Fuld for a photo opportunity was, for this reason, more than usually instructive.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Where next?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis