As it’s summer, we take a slight break from our usual programming and grill Jim Powell, author of best-selling novel, Trading Futures, on finance, Brexit and summer reading recommendations for those who work across financial services.
You recently published your second novel, Trading Futures, which charts the professional and emotional unravelling of ageing City trader Matthew Oxenhay. As an author, what made you want to delve into the world of finance?
I wanted first to delve into the world of Matthew Oxenhay. He is a gambler by nature, and someone who had compromised his ideals by embarking on a career that, at the time, was anathema to him. So he became a City trader.
Could you give us your elevator pitch of the novel’s plot?
Matthew Oxenhay’s life goes downhill from the moment he misses out on an important promotion. It takes a further dive on his 60th birthday. By now a disillusioned failure who drinks too much, a chance meeting with an old teenage flame gives him the illusion that he can rewind his life and begin it again. As we know, that’s not possible, but an increasingly unstable Matthew believes it is.
What did your research reveal to you about the current state of the financial services sector?
An admission: I didn’t do any research. I am a news junkie, so hoped I already had sufficient knowledge to write the novel. Also – and this is important – Trading Futures does not attempt to be a detailed, forensic portrayal of City life. In the novel, the City generally, and the futures market and the 2008 crash specifically, act as wider metaphors.
If you could change one thing about the financial services industry, what would it be?
Let’s start with its image. It does not help that the country’s most successful industry should be mistrusted and scorned. How much the reason for that is illusion, and how much reality, is not something I can judge.
The UK has seen much upheaval since Trading Futures was published, with the vote for Brexit and now a new Government under Theresa May. Do you think you would have written the novel differently if you started writing post-referendum?
An excellent question, to which I don’t know the answer. As mentioned, I used the 2008 crash as a metaphor. Would I have felt that the EU vote was a better metaphor? Possibly, but – for this story – probably not. For the record, I think Matthew would have wanted to leave, but would have voted to remain, if he managed to vote at all.
How do you think Brexit will impact workers in the City, such as the main character in the novel? Will they face job losses, or could less regulation from Brussels be beneficial?
I don’t think anyone really knows – or about any of the other consequences of leaving the EU. There was a fear that financial jobs would move to the Eurozone when the Euro was set up, but it didn’t happen. Will it happen now? I don’t know, but there must be a risk that it will.
Have any recent events in Britain’s economic history influenced your writing?
Not specific events, I don’t think. But I share the widespread concern that the incomes of senior executives, in financial services and in industry and in the law, now bear no relation to life as it is lived by millions. The top stratum has floated off on to a cloud of its own. I don’t think this is healthy, and I don’t think it will prove sustainable. These thoughts are trailed in Trading Futures, and I blog about them on my website from time to time.
Now, tell us a little about your life outside of work, do you have any hobbies?
I am currently doing a PhD at Liverpool University on the effect of the American Civil War on the British raw cotton trade. History, music and France are all lifelong hobbies.
What is the one column or website that you read every day?
I have read The Times all my life, and always read the main opinion column, especially Danny Finkelstein, Matthew Parris, Philip Collins and David Aaronovitch. I rely on Private Eye to tell me what is really happening.
What would you do if you were Prime Minister for a day?
Resign in the morning and prepare an honours list of my friends in the afternoon.
Finally, many of our readers are jetting off on holiday at the moment. From a financial services perspective, what should be the must-haves on their summer reading list?
If I worked in financial services, I wouldn’t want to read about my work on holiday, so why not try my first novel – The Breaking of Eggs? If you insist, however, Money by Martin Amis and The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe are both superb novels about the detachment of some people in the financial world from other people’s reality post-Big Bang. Robbie Millen, literary editor of The Times, who is far better read than I am, suggests The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver, Golden Hill by Francis Spufford and The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock.
Trading Futures, published by Picador, is out now.