Howard Davies: Lehman Brothers, French Brexit fatigue and James Joyce

"A paving stone could soon be on its way through a Starbucks window near you," warns the RBS chairman.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 11 Jul 2019

There was a time, not so very long ago, when a play about investment bankers might have found a niche audience at the Financial Times Christmas party, but nowhere else. But this summer, one of the hottest West End tickets is set to be The Lehman Trilogy, which had a brief sellout run at the National Theatre last year. 

I saw it the other day at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, where it played for a few weeks before returning home. The Armory, a splendid brick castle, was the headquarters of the Seventh New York Militia, once known as the "Silk Stocking regiment" because of the over-representation of the city’s gentry in its ranks. It is now a flexible performance space ("theatre in the round" to you). And New York’s finest were out in force on the opening night. Senator Chuck Schumer presided in the centre of Row 3. US senators tend to behave like royalty on their evenings out, bowing to their subjects graciously and receiving tributes. 

I am not sure New York exactly sees itself as a safe try-out location for a pre-London run, rather like Richmond or Guildford, so that was a pleasing thought. The play tells the story of Lehman Brothers from 1850 to the collapse of the bank in 2008. The brothers began in the cotton trade in Alabama and progressed remarkably through the Civil War before turning to finance. It was great fun to see three outstanding English actors, led by Simon Russell Beale, telling the Upper East Side its own history. The audience lapped it up. Another triumphant invisible export for our cultural sector. We are going to need a lot more of those if our car industry closes down.

French fatigue

British theatre is also exported to Paris. One of the surprising hits at the moment is William Douglas Home’s Le Canard à L’Orange. (Something got lost in the translation from the original title – The Secretary Bird – perhaps not ideal for the #metoo generation). It is odd that the French should still be interested in Douglas Home; his plays are rarely performed in London these days. Maybe they appeal to French nostalgia for an old-fashioned England they never knew, just as we like to think of the typical Frenchman as wearing a beret with a string of onions round his neck and riding an ancient Peugeot bike. 

French president Emmanuel Macron just doesn’t fit our image of the French we love to hate. He’s far too smooth and businesslike: like Sir John Betjeman’s executive in his Ford Cortina, no cuffs than his are cleaner. So English commentators who have nothing whatsoever in common with the yellow-vest brigade have revelled in his discomfort. They should be careful what they wish for. The gilets jaunes’ protests are often violent. The growth of angry populism across Europe suggests that a paving stone could soon be on its way through a Starbucks window near you. 

There is no doubt the Brexit debate has stirred up traditional animosities that were gradually fading away as the French colonised South Kensington and Eurostar made the Left Bank easier to reach than Liverpool. 

After initially declaring that it was sad to see us go, Macron’s government has now begun to consider the advantages of our departure. Not so much because some of their pointy-headed derivatives traders, with their superior maths learned at the grandes écoles currently being employed at investment banks in the City, will soon be on their way home. It is more because they are just bored by the whole Brexit topic.

The French are not thrilled by the prospect of Nigel Farage continuing to show up at the European Parliament. And it is distracting attention from the big problems the European Union needs to address. I tell them that Brexit fatigue is a sentiment not unknown on this side of the Channel, but they point out, not unreasonably, that we have it in our gift to sort it out. If only.

At least someone still wants us

In Italy, they seem to think differently. And they are more worried about our departure. Their own government is not stable and there are some yellow vests in the ranks. I spent a weekend in Trieste recently, following in the footsteps of James Joyce, who spent a decade there teaching English. (There must have been some very puzzled students if they learned the vocabulary used in Ulysses.) Joyce’s footsteps, by the way, take you to an incontinent number of bars. He did not leave a glass unturned.

In the main square there was a large and prominent banner commemorating the Free Territory of Trieste and pleading "USA and UK come back." We and the Americans administered the place from the end of the Second World War until as late as 1954, when it was returned to the Italian republic. The Free Trieste movement claims that the Italian government has not complied with the terms of the agreement it signed when the city was handed back by the Allies, so the territory should be returned to sender. It is nice to know that someone still wants us. 

 

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