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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Frozen Desire


I first thought about money in 1978, in the city of Jeddah on the Red Sea. I thought about bank notes, collected in bundles and held by twine, and delivered to my hand, in an unsealed airmail envelope, on the last Wednesday of each lunar month. I had had money before, handled, spent, hoarded, won and lost money, but never in such quantity or in so exotic and repellent a shape. I had come to the city not to accumulate money but to evade it, or rather to delay my induction into manhood; and yet here I was, sheathed in air-conditioned sweat, signing for ten thousand Saudi Arabian riyals in bills, the price of a month's labour, boredom and misery.

In those days I worked at a newspaper I'll call the Saudi News. It was in a plywood building at the end of the airport runway, and the newspaper and the building and the airport have since vanished; for they were embarrassing physical reminders of an earlier epoch in Saudi history, the years before 1973, before money. The quadrupling of the dollar price of crude oil at the end of that year had detonated the world's trading system, and money was streaming into Saudi Arabia as once the silver of America into Spain. The burden of world history had passed to a few pale, fat men gliding like phantoms at noon towards their Lincoln Town Cars. The Muslim civilisations of Egypt and India, with their ancient architecture and civil sentiments had become worthless. Europeans and Americans waited for days in the anterooms of dozing assistant deputy under-secretaries of state. The British, who had once set up and knocked down these princelings, wheedled and bribed with the best of them."

This description of life in Jeddah in 1978, just four years before I went to live and work there myself, contained in the "Introduction" to Frozen Desire, had me hooked before I even got to the first chapter of the book. Its mention of "the treadmill of the heat", and description of the time "after Friday prayers when we all coralled into an open space downtown to witness a beheading", "the escarpment behind the town, with trucks grunting around the hairpins on the road up to Taif", and the "blizzard of Arabic greeting ('My darling', 'My sweet')", almost made me feel that I was "inhaling the damp of early morning" in Jeddah once again when "occasionally, as I walked home, there was a fugitive breath of wind, or I found myself in a fabulous suburb that had not existed the week before, raised like a volcanic island in the eruption of money".

But the heart of the book is all about money: the meaning of it and the worrying about it. At least the latter part is reassuring as everyone does it. Unlike other anxieties, money-worries are universal. The author tries to discover why money matters. All the obvious reasons are devastatingly simple; this book shows us why it isn't in fact simple at all.

I became increasingly fascinated by the aphorisms and quips which decorate this book. It was Oscar Wilde (always the master) who defined a cynic as a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing; also enjoyable is Somerset Maugham's "Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five". There are many more, and they are more than just entertaining: in some ways, these apparently throwaway remarks get closer to the heart of this scary subject than all the learning contained in this book, fascinating and highly readable though it is.