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When money wasn't for nothing

IF THERE'S a tiny nugget of satisfaction to be dug out of the economic catastrophe we've been dragged into it's that bankers have leapfrogged estate agents and -- yes -- even journalists to become the most despised breed in the world.

So said Ian Hislop, Private Eye editor and Have I Got News for You stalwart, in When Bankers Were Good, a spry and entertaining documentary that looked at the Golden Age of Philanthropy, the Victorian era, when bankers were as prone to giving away money as raking it in.

Well, a handful of them were anyway. Hislop pointed out that by 1800 there were 370 banks in England, where there had previously been 12, so they can't all have been free with their money. But those who did use their vast wealth to improve the lot of the poor took their philanthropy deadly seriously -- and none more so than Quakers, who owned a quarter of the banks.

Quakers were uptight puritans who believed in the virtues of modesty, sobriety and hard work. "They didn't do all the things normal people do, like drinking," deadpanned historian AN Wilson.

The quakiest Quaker of all was banker Samuel Gurney, who believed the rich had a religious and moral obligation to help the poor. So did Elizabeth Fry, who married Samuel's brother, Joseph, also a banker, and used her vast wealth to become a prison reformer.

Samuel backed his sister-in-law to the hilt. He was no sentimentalist, though. When Joseph's bank went bust during a recession, Samuel refused to bail out his sibling.

American George Peabody was, said Hislop, "the ultimate self-made man". He hauled himself out of relative poverty and, by the time he arrived in London, had made a vast fortune out of dry goods.

But Peabody was no soft touch. He was as tight as a rat's bum in a sandstorm and harder with a ha'penny than Ebenezer Scrooge.

In 1862, however, he surprised everyone by dedicating his fortune to the poor.

No one knows why. "I'd like to think he was visited in the middle of the night by ghosts," quipped Hislop.

Peabody used his wealth to built homes for the disadvantaged, much like the Guinness family did in Dublin with the Iveagh Buildings (which is where yours truly hails from).

He had no interest in the idle poor, only the hardworking; if you couldn't pay the two shillings and sixpence rent, you didn't get into the Peabody estates, which still house 50,000 people in Britain.

Equally colourful and generous were Elizabeth Burdett, who -- much to the disgust of her more senior relations -- inherited Coutts, the exclusive bank of the royals and the super-rich, and contributed to hundreds of charitable causes, before being stripped of her wealth for breaking the conditions of the inheritance by marrying an American, and Nathaniel Rothschild (Natty to his friends), who thought nothing of giving away vast chunks of his fortune, yet hated the concept of taxation.

"Maybe societies get the bankers they deserve," concluded Hislop.

Maybe, but does anyone deserve the greedy lot we got?

Mario Rosenstock is at his funniest on the often breathtakingly inventive Gift Grub on Today FM, but seems to slip into a lower gear when he works on television, where it feels like he's being too careful, too eager to feed an established audience's expectations.

There were moments of genuine brilliance in Today with Mario Rosenstock, a compendium of brief sketches Rosenstock contributed to Tonight with Vincent Browne, yet when lumped together into a half-hour show, rather than served up as the original three- or four-minute snacks, the limitations of Rosenstock's dependence on a set number of established characters were stark.

Rather than liberating him, the success of his Gift Grub live shows, DVDs and CDs appears to have painted him into a corner.

Time for a new direction, perhaps?