Bernard Madoff. Never heard of him before, but swindling thirty-three billion quid seems to be the classic con. People were executed under British law – children were executed – only three hundred years ago, for stealing sums like a shilling. But, as with Maxwell, the greater the sum of money, the more invisible it is. Madoff has made off with about six quid for every man, woman and child in the world. No doubt Mr. Madoff will be sent to a gentleman’s jail. In a few years time, a big Hollywood mogul will pay a big Hollywood star to play Madoff (his name would look good on a poster, I fear), and we will be entertained, for a further six quid each, to the tale of how he did it. And he’s the one who has been caught, of course. Somewhere there is a cemetery full of Great Pyramid Sellers who never got caught, probably guarded by a Sphinx.
Meanwhile, Madonna has given Guy Ritchie a mere 49 million in severance pay, or alimony, or whatever the correct term is. So this is presumably pocket money to Madonna, too. I can’t blame her, of course. In her case, I have actually contributed to the Guy Ritchie leaving present, since I have dipped into my reserves from time to time to buy her records (I admit to thinking that ‘True Blue’ is an almost perfect pop record, although she wouldn’t seem to agree, since she conspicuously omitted it from her Greatest Hits collection – ‘The Immaculate Collection’).
I am frightened by money, very frightened indeed, although I can hardly claim to be broke, since I was born into a moderately well-off family – something worrying about ‘moderately’ there, in global terms. From the moment I first understood that money was what you used to buy things with, I was told, as all middle-class children are, that money is both ‘a very useful commodity’, and that, despite the visible signs of consumption which surrounded me as a child, we were inches frm penury. People with money are the ones who talk about it. Here I am talking about it. Get out of that one, Bill.
My father, who had never really heard of Shakespeare (although his grandfather could quote reams of it, apparently), was apt to say, ‘Neither a lender nor a borrower be’ at any spare moment. When, being a smartarse, I realised that he was actually quoting Polonius in Hamlet, I took the trouble to tell him that he was repeating the words of an old duffer, who, at that point of the action, is being parodied as the kind of father who is always doling out spurious wisdom in the form of old saws. (Not that I would have dared to have put it exactly like that.) He listened to my Shakespearean analysis carefully, then put his head slightly to one side, lit an Embassy from the one which which was just coming to an end, and repeated, carefully, ‘Neither a lender nor a borrower be’ .
And so, obediently, I am always checking my bank balance. If I am heading towards the red, I stop spending. The idea of not being in the red has been dinned into me so repeatedly, that I can’t bear the thought of it. I pay my credit card off on the day payment is due (the company has even rung me up and explained that this is not necessary), not at the last minute. I am not sure what an APR is, and I am afraid to find out. I haven’t gone to the extent that he did (when he died in 1987, his cheque stubs were lined up in a drawer, and went back to 1949), but the mentality is there.
So, Madoff: I have a theory. I think he had begun to forget, had even forgotten what he was doing. I think he lived in a world where noughts multiplied so frequently that they were meaningless.
I have just thought my theory through for a moment. It’s rubbish, isn’t it: he was a conniving crook, and he knew exactly what was going on, every minute of every day. But there we are, small fry, quite small anyway, and we are in blissful ignorance of what all these millions and billions actually mean.
Presumably Madonna is, too. But about time she made a decent record. I want a better return on my investment.