Brian Viner: I can exclusively reveal why the banks collapsed

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Nobody yet seems to have connected the collapse of Lehman Brothers with the development of the Large Hadron Collider, so let me be the first, although I should preface my theory with an admission that I understand even less about particle physics than I understand about investment banking, and what I understand about investment banking could be written in thick marker pen on the back of a proton.

Nevertheless, it may just be that total ignorance, rather than profound expertise, needs to be brought to bear on these complicated subjects. More than 20 years ago I spent an enlightening evening with one of journalism's giants, Alistair Cooke, who, aware of my ambitions to follow him into the same grubby trade, recalled a salutary lesson from his experiences as a foreign correspondent during the Second World War.

Asked to write about the Big Inch oil pipeline that President Roosevelt was having built to supply the war effort in Europe, Cooke went to the PR men in Houston. "But they're always fatal," he told me, "because they give you the jargon and they think you're an idiot if you don't understand." Cooke then asked who knew more about oil than anyone in Texas, and was given the name of an old Scotsman, MacLaren, who'd been there 50 years and lived in retirement in Austin. "So I beat it to Austin, found MacLaren, and said: 'I'm from the London Times and the BBC, may I talk to you about oil?' He said: 'Sure, what do you know about oil?' I said: 'As far as I'm concerned it grows on trees'. He said: 'How long have you got?' I said: 'As long as it takes.' It took two days. He gave me a private seminar and accepted that to learn anything I had to be a child, to ask the questions a child would. The first-rate people always accept that. It's only second-rate people who say 'you're wasting my time'."

It was terrific advice and I've been asking childlike questions ever since, the latest of which is this: can it be purely coincidental that, shortly after the completion of the world's largest particle accelerator, intended to help scientists recreate the conditions that existed a millionth of a millionth of a second after the Big Bang, one of the world's most powerful investment banks went up in smoke? I think not. It is my avowed belief – and I write with pride as a man who scored an E in O-level physics, knowing that such apparent cluelessness sometimes brings clarity of thought – that the trillions of protons racing around the accelerator at a speed of 11,245 times per second, travelling at 99.99 per cent the speed of light, were always likely to spell disaster for fixed income derivatives.

It could be, of course, that I am dead wrong; maybe the Large Hadron Collider had nothing to do with the financial implosion still reverberating around London and Manhattan. But I hope my theory at least brings succour to those who have watched with similar bewilderment the seismic goings-on in the labyrinthine worlds of high finance and particle physics; those who, while solemn-faced news announcers predict the end of the world as we know it, have been a little reluctant to ask, as Alistair Cooke advised, the questions a child would.

The breakfast of champions

Inevitably, the fall of Lehman Brothers will have myriad knock-on effects, one of which might be a decline in power-breakfasting. I hope not, especially because I think I have found London's best breakfast. It was served to me last week, at the Athenaeum Hotel on Piccadilly, which exudes an air of not taking itself too seriously, while also producing exemplary poached eggs. And for those kept waiting for their companion, the menu features dozens of apt quotations, among them Oscar Wilde's remark that "only dull people are brilliant at breakfast".

Stepford WAGs set for tee-off

The acronym WAG, meaning wives and girlfriends, was coined during the 2006 World Cup and is generally associated with football. If asked who represents the ne plus ultra of WAGism, most of us would cite Victoria Beckham, Coleen Rooney and Cheryl Cole. Yet they are not the purest form of sporting WAG. This accolade belongs to the partners of the 24 Ryder Cup golfers from Europe and the United Sates who this week descend on Louisville, Kentucky, wearing actual uniforms rather than the pseudo-uniform of massive Gucci sunglasses, Hermes bags and Manolo Blahnik shoes sported by their footballing counterparts.

Just like their chaps, the golfing WAGs take to the course in precisely matching kit. I don't know whose idea this was, but it has been going on since the 1980s and is unwittingly hilarious, doing nothing to undermine the widespread belief that golf is both the acme of conformism and a sartorial disaster area. The old joke that it is the only sport that can persuade a white bank manager to dress like a black pimp is topped at the Ryder Cup, where the 12 American consorts, as well as wearing matching clothes, also wear identical orthodontically enhanced smiles. This is truly one of the eeriest spectacles in the sporting calendar, and makes tomorrow's opening ceremony an unmissable treat. When the venerable competition next takes place in the United States, in 2012, it should really be hosted by the fictional town of Stepford, Connecticut.