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Money lessons from unexpected sources: murder, domineering matrons and money

Remember when I reviewed Teacher Man’s great book on ETF investing I said one of the things that got me reading it as that it is unlikely Ken Follett will write a book on how to build an investment portfolio? Well, I was wrong!

I have been working really hard lately and have become rather reckless with my reading; mental tiredness means that out go all ‘serious’ books and in come the novels that draw you in and don’t let go till you know what’s happened. This explains me going back to an old friend, Ken Follett (OK, don’t judge; I could have gone to Jilly Cooper, you know, her books were my frequent companions when I was finishing my thesis). So last week, I read A Dangerous Fortune and was struck by four money related lessons it contained.

Otherwise the book is about ‘what it says in the title’. It is about a family of bankers, the Pilasters, in mid-nineteenth century London. The family is divided – there is the main branch and it is rich and totally messed up (let’s just say that there are scheming women, clandestine relationships, love, sex and murder), and there is a tiny branch spawning from a brother who didn’t want to work in the bank, started another business and went bust. Interestingly, his business went bust because of one of the numerous bank crashes of the time. His son Hugh Pilaster, one of the main characters in the book, is the one who provides most food for thought and money lessons.

Here are the four lessons I learned from Hugh Pilaster.

  1. If you are not enough without money, you are not going to be enough with it. Hugh was very poor to begin with; his dad went bankrupt and committed suicide. So little Hugh had to be taken out of his posh and expensive school and sent to a cheaper school where they taught him mathematics instead of Latin. Later, he loved with his rich uncle but was earning so little in the bank that he was not able to buy shirts; but he changed his cravats. He didn’t change when he became rich and he stayed the same when the family bank collapsed. He was enough without money, you see, so he was enough with it.
  2. Anything is possible when you see opportunities where everyone else sees nothing but problems. This was very clear under current in the book. But the best example was when Hugh met a very rich and unhappy customer of the bank and instead of losing him he managed to sell him what was left of an issue of bonds. This was the Occam’s razor: he cheered up the customer, and he cheered his uncles who headed the bank by shifting the bonds increasing their value.
  3. Do your homework before investing and look broadly. After scoring big in the bank several times, Hugh Pilaster was sent in exile to America (never mind my American friends, I am sure that at the time young, unruly Americans were banished to Europe). There he started investing in the railways (remember we are talking mid-nineteenth century) and made a fortune. But he always made sure that he knows a lot about the business, the political situation and other conditions that may affect the enterprise. He never lost!
  4. Honour is more important than money. Eventually Hugh became the senior partner in the Pilasters bank. Too late! By this time dodgy Latin American bonds have been purchased (not for reasons of finance but friendship and obsession) and when civil war broke the bank collapsed. The Pilasters had no option but to go bankrupt, but remembering his father’s suicide Hugh made sure that they paid all they owe. Most bankers at the time lived a life of shame after bankruptcy; Hugh came out even more respected than he was as senior partner. At the end of the book, he was already planning to start another bank and he had the support of the most conservative and careful bankers in the City. Because he had his honour!

Who would have thought, that I will learn so much about finance from Ken Follett; I just wanted to rest and have some escapist fun. Thinking about it, it shouldn’t have been a surprise – most good books are about money or sex; or both.


10 thoughts on “Money lessons from unexpected sources: murder, domineering matrons and money”

  1. I like both, in my books and in life.

    Though I’ve been on a Dickens kick lately, and there is no sex, but plenty about money, usually the “lack of”. Poverty in that day and age seems nothing like poverty in the USA now. Children dying in the streets from starvation, orphanages full to the seams…we’ve come a long way.

    • @Dr Dean: Oh, dear, Dickens! This is an idea, really, to feature one of his books that had very strong influence on me. Dark, grinding poverty but strangely he almost always managed to get it to a ‘happy ending’.

    • @Pam: This one is good; classic Follett. Don’t start reading it if you have something urgent and important to do (if it is only urgent – go for it).

  2. I’ve never heard of Ken or of this particular book, but I always like a recommendation. And I wholeheartedly agree with your point #1 – so many people think that money will make them happy, but as the Beatles said, Can’t Buy Me Love!

    • @Elizabeth: I also find that the first point is very important; it also applies to many things in life. If you are not enough without a degree, you won’t be enough with it; etc. As to the Beatles, true; money can’t buy love but it does make it so much easier.Arguments about money are one of the top reasons for divorce in the UK at the momen. Which brings us to where we started – if you are not enough without it, you won’t be enough with it!

  3. sounds like a novel. I like 1 and 2 a lot. To be enough without money is so important. Reminds me of all the poor people that seemed so happy during my travels. I used to think that they were truly happy and yet didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. 2 is the next fortune ready to happen if you can find the solution where no one else can.

    • @Jai: Yep, these two are very important. With the first one, I find that it is not only that people can be happy without money (remember, I spend some time with roma people and they were great but had nothing; then having enough was having a piece of stale bread) but also once you are comfortable without you approach matters of money not with emotion (and craving) but with reason (and patience). It is true that fortunes and great things happen when people see challenge and solutions where others see depressing problems and bother.

  4. Hi Maria, i only recently read this book too. Ken Follett is a great author and a fantastic story teller. The interesting thing is the comparisons that can be drawn with today’s banking world.

    Too much greed and speculation amongst some of the bankers and the whole negative domino effect when things start to go wrong and people lose confidence in the banks.

    Hugh was definitely the financial hero of the book (along with Maisy) and a very good example to follow.

  5. I am enough as I live for the moment without the income I could produce (at home with toddler) ………….. so the future does indeed look brighter than bright when you realise you could survive with so much less


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