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Hackney’s rich history has many aspects, but it is particularly feted for two things: being London’s revolutionary corner and its importance as an artistic hub. Often, these two collide and have provided many high points in Hackney’s cultural palette, especially its literary output. The best known of today’s Hackney literati is Ian Sinclair, a beacon for London literature. Lee Rourke is also proud to call Hackney ‘home’. It is time to welcome a new addition to Hackney’s artistic – and artistically revolutionary – spirit: Paul Broderick, author of the recently released The Bankruptcy Diaries. I was fortunate enough to be afforded a short audience with the author to talk about his book, why he wrote it and what he will be working on next.
“The Bankruptcy Diaries is truly a banquet for the soul of our modern moralists,” said Paul. “It’s one man’s journey – mine – from the youthful naivety of university and entering working life and my role in the broader fiscal complexities of the state to an enlightened awareness of the actual depth of today’s corporate exploitation of the individual. I present the work as a choice that many people are now – and many more soon will be – confronted with: levels of debt that can never be repaid. I took my choice on this – it’s all in the book.”
The book is more than simply a personal choice: it is moreover a message for the financial morals of our time.Hilarious reading throughout is set against deeply tender moments and it is loaded with rich psychological exploration of relationships in the context of Western capitalist society. I was unable to put it down once I’d started reading. Structured over 21 chapters, all humorously titled with takes on our modern banking systems and practices, its diarised format gives it a clear progression and allows it to build situations and characters with subtle changes of tempo. We find that as we are drawn deeper into the intricacies of the diary, the content and questions are more and more drawn into us.
“I chose the diary format as I could deal with a lot of events happening very quickly – it’s a structure that lends itself naturally to that. Also, it’s a form that’s malleable enough to allow for changes of pace interspersed with moments of great importance. Furthermore, it allows the reader to build up images of the characters portrayed intermittently across many entries – the characters can pop in and out but they also change notably in their relationships with me. It’s my journey, but throughout it everybody is affected by the same – often crushing – economic system that we live in. The diary style allowed me to paint this clearly.”
The issue of personal bankruptcy – core of the novel – is still something of a taboo theme in the western world. The question of whether bankruptcy is the ‘ultimate’ taboo of a materialist society is asked directly in the book . Yet bankruptcy laws have been changed (rather, heavily relaxed) over recent years to accommodate for the whims of a deregulated financial sector in the UK, creating a condition of irresponsible lending matched by equally irresponsible borrowing. This framework, as we are all witnessing today, has come crashing down over the recent years of the financial crisis, the final outcome still a great unknown. The major question that nobody seems willing to answer is: who is to blame for this utter mess?
“Everybody is culpable in this,” said Paul. “I’ve highlighted the three areas of responsibility – government, who reaped political capital and, whilst their popularity remained intact, did nothing to apply the brakes to the runaway train of the financial services sector. They were too busy kowtowing to big business and not being politicians – it’s a symptom of our times, politicians are corporate flunkies.
“The banks are also to blame – they have their hand on the taps and control the flow. They were obsessed with the fantasy of balance sheet profits and forgot to look at what was really happening with the economy. They were predatory and irresponsible in lending behaviourisms during the boom years – like the insidious, cynical marketing campaigns they devised to coerce people into debt, the targeting of vulnerable people who they knew could never fully repay and granting self-assessment (liar loans) mortgages … need I say more? I could go on all day?
“The third group – interesting in the current frenzy of banker bashing – is that we, as individuals, are all responsible. The people over-leveraged as much as the banks did, chasing the ‘buy to let’ dream and living unsustainable lifestyles. We weren’t forced to sign any of the papers and we all carry our share of the guilt. It was a heady time of growth and profit – everybody wanted a slice, but nobody could see that it could only end in tears. As a nation we were getting uglier and uglier with greed and individual pursuit – mentally masturbating to ‘property porn TV shows’ and the ‘buy to let’ fantasy, both of which morally reprehensible, became acceptable. It was disgusting, lamentable.”
Given that a share of the blame rests stoutly upon the individual, what kind of moral dilemma was it to ‘take the plunge’ and declare yourself bankrupt? How was the experience? Would you recommend it as a premeditated, conscious decision, a solution for financial woes? “Any moral dilemma was the last thing on my mind. My individual freedom against that particular ethical question was a no-brainer. Health, wellbeing, the sacrificing of my best years to mindless repayments, my personal relationships with my girlfriend and friends would have suffered against servitude to cruel, exploitative, ruthless banks.” “The credit industry has become a faceless, pulverising system against what it was historically – a promise between two individuals for repayment. It is a polluted stream and far from its reasonable and fairly equitable origins.”
“The fundamental principle of borrowing and paying back has been warped by banking practices and undermined by aggressive marketing and coercion. A result of this has been a recklessness from both sides and total irresponsibility and lack of accountability. Recent generations have had no concern for being in debt – it’s become normalised, but this is not normal. Our parents’ generation had a completely different attitude to debt – there was saving, responsibility and buying what you could actually pay for. Several individuals – we all know their names – have ransacked and destroyed the UK’s banking systems through their roulette mentality and derailed the last vestiges of banking respectability.”
Central to the novel, building on this clash of values in generational attitudes to debt, is a thrilling father-son conflict in the acceptability of writing off your personal debts by going bankrupt in today’s financial system.
“The character of my father in the book is a good example of the traditional attitudes towards debt and the polarity between modern attitudes and those of your parents. Today we have huge – and increasing – university debts, loans, personal debts. People of my parents’ generations have much more questions for me about today’s debt situation – it unnerves them quite a bit. They were prudent, loans weren’t thrust on them and any loans had to be completely justified, so they can’t understand how today’s situation has come about. Young people today are not only heavily indebted but also shut out from the ability to buy a home, the bedrock of British life. It’s madness and hard to see where it will all lead.”
“This generational dichotomy is very interesting and complex; from talking to people of the older generation I detect a sense of genuine concern and even a little guilt over the world they have created for their children. For me, nothing encapsulates this great chasm that has opened up since the neo-liberal agenda was pursued with such zeal more than the fact that bankruptcy, once something to be feared and avoided, has become a legitimate lifestyle choice for the ‘debt generation’. This has kind of been my mantra for the last couple of years, but I hear of so many incidences of this and, while it sounds extreme or unbelievable to many, it represents the point we’ve reached. An insolvency practitioner once baulked at me when I said this, but I’m real: I’m living proof that this exists!”
“What is staggering is that despite the financial crisis things appear to have worsened rather than improved. You’d think the finance sector would have backed off, but instead we’ve got a burgeoning high-cost credit industry targeting people who are utterly desperate. What kind of society is it that permits a legal loan-sharking industry pedalling loans of 4000% interest rates? It’s unbelievable that so little has changed: free market fundamentalism – what the French call Le Libéralisme Sauvage, as they look across the water in complete disbelief – shows no signs of being replaced as the ruling ideology. My actions were an extreme reaction to this extreme ideological pursuit and I hope that in some way my story encourages more people to question it and act.”
If you ever have niggles about your money situation, find yourself checking your statement or ATM receipt, know people with money worries or you’re just interested in what really goes on in the banking world and how it affects our everyday life, it is a must read. There is something very refreshing about one man’s revolt against a revolting banking system, making it a great addition to the Hackney literary opus. There is already interest in adapting it for stage and screen. I, for one, can only look forward to Paul’s next adventures in Hackney’s literary journey.
This excellent book is available to buy at Pages of Hackney. You can also order the book on Amazon and follow Paul’s blog www.iwentbankrupt.co.uk for latest updates on the UK financial situation and events coming up soon related to the book.