Any book with the words “heroes” and “villains” in the title promises to be a rollicking read. And that it is.
But what strikes the reader right from the start is the very unusual format in which it is written. Each of the 50 ‘colourful characters’ has only a two or three-page chapter devoted to them, ending with a summing-up in large bold letters, either in the form of a salient quote from the character himself - and, interestingly, only one is a woman – or an addendum about his work.
So in a way, the book is a series of vignettes, though that would imply the use of beautifully crafted language. Sadly, it is not terribly well-written at all. However, that in no way detracts from the fun.
It begins, ironically in these times, in Greece, with the philosopher Thales of Miletus – one of the book’s heroes. It turns out it was he who ‘invented’ options trading. Following several bad olive harvests, he turned to astrology to predict that the following year would be a good one, then bought the option to exercise his right to use a number of olive presses for the coming harvest. His prediction was right; he rented out the presses at a higher price than the one he paid – and made his fortune.
But it is the villains, naturally, who are the most interesting. Living as we do at this time of booms and busts, we learn about one of the greatest bubbles in history, brought about by the Englishman Sir John Blunt in the 18th century. He founded the South Sea Company, a state-sponsored foreign trading en terprise backed by King George I himself. Blunt so cleverly manipulated its share price that at its tragic end even the great Isaac Newton lost £20,000, causing him to muse he “could not calculate the madness of men”. Thousands more were bankrupted.
And, talking of villains, our own dear politicians could learn a thing or two from royal financial adviser Chanakya, known as the ‘Indian Machiavelli’, who lived in the 3rd century BC. He was visited one night while doing Treasury work by a traveller who saw that he extinguished his lamp upon his entrance and lit another. When asked why he did that, Chanakya answered that the oil he was burning was paid for by the government. When guests arrived he only burnt his own.
And the book’s solitary female? That was Hetty Green – aka The Witch of Wall Street.
Anne Reckless is a sub-editor at Financial Adviser