Boyd Tonkin: Literature and the banks

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This Saturday, the Edinburgh International Book Festival begins, cramming into its temporary tent village in Charlotte Square Gardens a 700-event programme that trounces in both range and quality almost every other literary jamboree on earth. This time, however, the identity of one stalwart main sponsor may attract more than the usual passing glance: the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Since last autumn's bail-out, any such RBS support should count as taxpayer-funded arts expenditure – and no good cause could possibly be worthier than the EIBF. Especially as festival director Catherine Lockerbie, soon retiring after a glorious decade, has scheduled plenty of debates about the sorry mess that our now-nationalised bankers helped to make. How delicious to see the sainted Vince Cable, scourge of the follies of finance in the City of London and Edinburgh's New Town, slated to talk in the RBS Main Theatre. He should spare a choice word or two for his sponsors.

Like any bank that seeks a presence in the marketplace of ideas, RBS should hold its nerve and ride the blows. Part of the problem behind the hysterical frenzy of bad bets and dumb deals that preceded the crash of 2008 was the insulation of high finance from the wider cultural world. For far too long, the bankers escaped any imaginative scrutiny by outsiders with no professional axe to grind.

But the crisis of the past 12 months has opened several breaches in the wall of omerta around their secretive affairs. HSBC chairman Stephen Green – head of a comparatively clean and sober group, which already has a far-reaching portfolio of cultural sponsorships – has just published a frank and thoughtful book, Good Value. It looks to history, literature and even scripture to assess the virtues and vices of modern globalised capitalism.

In the artists' camp, leading British novelists have been rushing to incorporate recession-related business themes into their latest works. William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks release their post-crisis novels next month, with others in the pipeline. Even Ian Rankin's forthcoming thriller, The Complaints, has some sardonic nods in the direction of Edinburgh bankers and their woes. In the theatre, David Hare's new play The Power of Yes will tackle boom and slump in his peerless docu-drama style.

Better late than never. The mysteries of big money and its deep social impact look set to occupy creative minds as they seldom have in Britian since the Edwardian heyday of John Galsworthy, Bernard Shaw and Harley Granville-Barker. Yet, Mr Green apart, most of the brightest thoughts and sharpest words on the sources of our plight have come from the artistic – or journalistic – side of the fence. Except when hauled up before a parliamentary committee to utter a formulaic mea culpa, many major players in the crunch have kept up a virtually Trappist silence.

The showpiece "RBS Event" at Edinburgh will involve Jeremy Paxman talking about his beloved Victorians. Let's hope he has a lot to say about 19th-century banking scams and their lessons for today. No doubt the gig will sell out fast. But if Paxo ever had the chance to interview the shy and retiring Sir Fred Goodwin, the queues would surely stretch all the way to Leith.

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