BOOKS: BARING THE STRAIN

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The Independent Culture
THE two books released recently about the collapse of Barings, and Nick Leeson's part in its downfall, could hardly be more extreme a contrast. Rogue Trader (Little, Brown pounds 16.99) is Leeson's "Own Amazing Story" - and "story", in all its fanciful connotations, is very much the right word, according to Stephen Fay, the author of The Collapse of Barings (Richard Cohen Books pounds 20). Fay also comments on Leeson's choice of title: "This autobiography ... is illustrated by a photograph of Leeson wearing his trader's jacket and a nice smile. It conveys the flavour of one of the dictionary definitions of 'rogue': 'a playful, mischievous child'." But Fay, who throughout his carefully researched, vigorously written book never lets up on his criticism of Leeson, and is never tempted into indulgence towards a bad lad, goes on to say: "The less sympathetic definition is 'swindler'."

Vocabulary becomes increasingly important. Fay, whose research on Leeson extends to the young lad's Scoutmaster ("he remembers a neat, responsible boy, kind to those he led"), does not mince his words about the rogue trader - "incompetent trading", "fraud", and so on - and in his detailed background history of Barings he is adept at conveying the grand family atmosphere that, ultimately, proved feeble in the face of modern trading practices. The operation of Barings at the time Leeson's activities might have been spotted and curtailed, he merely describes as "permissive". But as the book moves on, and despite both the motoring prose of a good storyteller and the careful explanations, the lay person can hardly fail to be daunted by talk of "short-straddle futures" or going "long-volatility".

Nick Leeson's book shows something more about this kind of language - the way in which it is refined and tuned to serve the process of self- delusion. Traders' slang, as well as the more formal terminology of high finance, obviously allowed Leeson - like, presumably, many others - to feel that his daily activities were completely unconnected with reality. If the risks were immense and the potential profits almost unimaginable in the normal world, so vast losses could be talked away.

Here is Leeson describing an average early morning, the dealers joshing each other and shouting: "We filed into SIMEX, each of us earning perhaps pounds 200,000 a year, wealthy beyond the dreams of most of the rest of the world, and we started buying and selling numbers. I suppose that everyone is buying and selling numbers in some form or another, whether it's the shopping in the supermarket or sitting out a year as a nightwatchman in a warehouse for pounds 6,000. We just had to buy and sell abstract numbers for a living. They were big, but they were unreal ..."

Leeson and his co-author craftily play for our sympathy - from the story of his much-loved mother working overtime if he wanted a new sweater to details of his nail-biting and obsessive eating of sweets - at the same time as coming clean about the muddle, the sweating terrors, the mounting despair. But, not least because of his way of facing down opposition - "Pond life!" - and his laddish, not to say loutish ideas about enjoying himself, he remains obstinately hard to like.

One merit of Stephen's Fay's excellent if difficult book is his skillful portrayal of the contrast between the old-school-ties of the old City and the council-house boys, like Leeson, of the Eighties and Nineties, cannon-fodder for the high-stress rough-and-tumble. It's hard not to see this as an updated version of the master-servant relationship, and if Leeson were a more appealing character, he'd have the makings of a working- class hero. But his own book puts paid to that. JD

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