Saturday 10 December 2016

Long and short of post-boom Ireland

What 'Big Short' author Michael Lewis got right - and wrong - about his visit here

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

Truthsayer: Michael Lewis's film, The Big Short.
Truthsayer: Michael Lewis's film, The Big Short.

Michael Lewis feared for Ireland after visiting the country in the darkest days of the recession. Reporting for American glossy Vanity Fair in March 2011, the bestselling financial journalist predicted the suffering inflicted as austerity took hold could very well push the populace to breaking point. Having endured so many travails across the centuries, we had thus far held up pretty well. But it was surely only a matter of time before we collectively cracked. Five years later, with the economy on its feet again, his musings have a distinctly apocalyptic whiff.

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"The problem with the Irish is that you can push them and push them and push them and they don't do anything, then they snap and go whacko," he said, quoting an apocryphal taxi driver who had bent his ear as he conveyed Lewis from disaster zone to disaster zone across Dublin. "I think that's going to happen...At some point they're going to cease to take it."

Lewis is in the news once more with the release this weekend of the movie adaptation of his 2010 book The Big Short (Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell star). The true-life story of a group of financial sector mavericks and outcasts who correctly bet on the collapse of the American mortgages market, The Big Short has burnished the author's reputation as rare truthsayer in a world of false prophets. He's been all over the media, basking in glowing profiles by journalists in a swoon the moment they are ushered into his presence.

Lewis was, it is true, among the first to point out that the untrammelled greed of the financial sector posed a threat to us all (and he knew what he was talking about, having worked on Wall Street before quitting to write non-fiction). But what of his ponderings on Ireland - which, it reasonable to state, paint with a broad-brush and are not above stereotyping.

"Two things strike an American when he comes to Ireland: how small it is and how tight-lipped," he declaimed in Vanity Fair. "An Irish person with a personal problem takes it into a hole with him, like a squirrel with a nut before winter. He tortures himself and sometimes his loved ones too. What he doesn't do, if he has suffered some reversal, is vent about it to the outside world."

Some of his observations were straight-up baffling. In the same piece he explained that, when addressing the Dáil, TDs spoke first in English and then repeated the same sentence in 'Gaelic'. His impressions of the Irish countryside, meanwhile, were negative with a vengeance. This was in contrast to the servile tone Vanity Fair adopts when writing about our near neighbours - the magazine has consistently portrayed the UK as Hogwarts-on-Earth, a paradise of dulcet vicarages and late evenings on the croquet lawn (Pippa Middleton is a sometime columnist). "Even the inhabited places feel desolate," Lewis said of a drive through the midlands.

"The Irish countryside remains a place people flee. Among its drawbacks, from the outsider's point of view is the weather". Lewis quoted an African who complained that living in Ireland was like "living under an elephant" and compared an abandoned housing estate to New Orleans post-Katrina.

Lewis clearly believed he was on to something. On American radio, he later elaborated that Ireland's property boom was proof of a world turned upside down.

"Like everyone else in the world, loans were made available that should never have been made available," he said. "They drove up the price of their own real estate to incredible levels. An upper middle-class house in Dublin changed hands at $80m... If you drive around Ireland now there are whole towns that are empty - someone imagined that someone might like to live there one day. These completely empty ghost towns… brand new...Who is going to move to Ireland? No one's ever moved to Ireland. The idea that Ireland was going to be something it has never been…. There are office parks, skyscrapers that have never been used. They are sitting there, empty water pooling in their lobbies."

There are glimmerings of truth here but the hyperbole is laid on with a trowel (he goes on to inflate Ireland's population, stating the Republic is home to "seven or eight million").

He doubled down on his conviction that Ireland is a land of the forsaken in his most recent book, Flash Boys - another account of flinty outsiders who beat the markets at their own game. Of a Dublin banker who had studied in America, he wrote: "He didn't think of Ireland as a place anyone would ever go back to if given the choice, and he embraced his version of the American dream."

Should the glee with which Lewis depicts Europe's reeling economies as explosive basket-cases detract from our enjoyment from The Big Short? Not at all - cannily, director Adam McKay (Anchorman) has recognised that, for all their undoubted journalistic integrity, Lewis' books are at their heart romps. In that spirit, McKay approaches the financial crisis as if it was a grand farce - to be laughed at as much as cried over.

This speaks to a truth that Lewis has himself essentially acknowledged - he's a sharer of stories, not a writer of dusty treatises. "I am not an essayist," he said. "I need characters. If I don't have a character, I can't find my way into a story." No doubt these are tales that need to be told. Yet it's worth bearing in mind, as you sit down to The Big Short, that in addition to his chops as a reporter, Lewis brings no small amount of showman zeal.

The Big Short is in cinemas now.

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