Interview: Julian Gough

Pic by Phil Rose esq

on ‘The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble’ [novel extract]

What inspired you to write ‘A story. Of economics. In Africa.’?

‘Well, I was very interested in economics and one thing I was fascinated by over the last few years was the huge speculative bubble in America in the new technology companies. It was quite clear, even to an amateur like myself, that companies that didn’t have any profits, and didn’t have any products in a lot of cases, and were just guessing about the future, couldn’t possibly be worth several billion dollars. But the stock market was deciding that they were! And I thought, ‘This is a beautiful, classic speculative bubble!’ and I wanted to write about it in the novel I was writing. But my book’s a sort of comic satire, so I didn’t want to write about it directly.
And then I read a newspaper story, a true story. It was an interview with an air traffic controller for the old Somalia. And because Somalia has collapsed into various fragmented states and is in such chaos, all the air traffic control for Somalia is done from Kenya. So there was this interview with this air traffic controller in Kenya who was doing all the air traffic control for Somalia, and one tiny anecdote he told was about Hargeisa, which is one of the cities now in Somaliland, northern Somalia, and he was saying that the problem with Hargeisa airport was that goats used to graze on the runway! And one of the goats was killed by an aeroplane landing. And he’d heard that the airport manager – because it was the custom in Somalia – was going to pay out twice the market price of the goat to this bloke whose goat had been killed grazing on the runway. So he immediately sent a message off to the airport manager saying, ‘For Christ’s sake don’t do that, everybody’s going to be driving their goats onto the runway! You can’t pay out twice the market price in compensation to this bloke!’ And I thought to myself, ‘What if he did? What if he did pay out twice the market price?’ And I suppose because I was already thinking about stocks that were not worth what people were paying for them, it started to dawn on me that this is an absolutely perfect and real world example of how an item can get disconnected from its proper price.
Then I thought, ‘Well, how far can I push this?’ And I wrote the story to see how far I could push it. At the start, I thought it’s going to get a little bit out of hand, but it got a lot more out of hand! And I came up with more and more elaborate ways of keeping the whole thing going.
But it’s all actually very, very closely based on what happened for real in America with internet stocks. In economic terms it’s all actually technically possible! When you move large economic entities into poor areas, you do actually create incredible distortions of the market.
I think it’s almost impossible to make something up anymore. The world is so absurd, and economics is so absurd, that it’s almost impossible to make something up!’

Did you live in Africa?

‘I’ve never been to Africa in my life! It’s all made up, but I don’t think making things up about other countries is nearly as difficult as people think it is. Once I had that little anecdote, I did what you can do nowadays which is look stuff up on the internet, and I found lots of little websites set up by people in Somaliland.
But also, when you look at some place like Somalia, it reminds me of Ireland when my parents were young. I don’t think it’s a huge difference. We’re talking about a country where you’ve had a colonial occupation, you’ve had independence, you’ve had civil war, and you’ve had partition, and you’ve also got religious tensions. So really it’s like Ireland when I was a kid in the 1940s and 50s. When I was growing up in Tipperary, the neighbours on neighbouring farms were hiding guns for the IRA, you know? In peacetime Europe, we’re not that far away from civil war and the disintegration of society. And also, places like Somaliland have slight similarities to Ireland in other senses. They’ve gone straight from an agrarian, almost timeless peasant world, straight past the Industrial Revolution completely and now it’s mobile phones and email. And we’ve definitely had that in Ireland too so it’s very easy to make stuff up because, you know, my mum, when she was growing up, lived on a farm with no electricity. She remembers electricity arriving in Ireland and now she’s sending emails to cousins in Australia.’

Are you an economist or did you learn about it for this piece of writing?

‘I’m not an economist at all! But I’ve been writing this book since 1997 and one of the things that came to fascinate me was economics and I’ve learned an enormous amount about it just for pleasure. I like economics for aesthetic reasons, so I tend to pick up on aspects of economics that are useful to me as a novelist rather than useful in running an economy! I have some specialised areas but I wouldn’t put me in charge of your economy if I were you!
I think free market economics is essentially a religion that has swept the world, especially in the last couple of decades, and free market economics has many, many parallels with religion. In particular, it reminds me of Catholicism when the mass was in Latin and it was the same all around the world, and basically you had a language that everybody recognised and could mumble along to, but hardly anybody understood. And economics, especially free market economics, is almost precisely the same in that we all know how to talk about interest rates and bonds and equities and the markets, but we’ve no idea what we’re talking about! We’re mouthing the words without necessarily understanding the philosophy behind it or the powers behind it, you know? And I think in that sense, there’s a richness to the language of economics which is useful to a novelist, partly because people like to use the words but they don’t necessarily know what they mean!
And the thing is, especially in the modern world, we have what’s known as fiat currencies now – fiat, from the Latin, “Let there be” – we have fiat currencies because they’re not backed by anything. Before the 1970s there was at least some backing for paper money. Governments had to hold a certain amount of gold in order to issue a certain amount of paper money. That’s not true anymore, we’ve got nothing now but fiat currencies which are backed only by faith in governments. So we now have a system, and it’s another parallel with religion, where money is entirely faith-based – there’s absolutely nothing behind it except faith, and the whole system is kept aloft by faith. The religious parallels are obviously very direct there, you know?
And that’s another thing that attracted me to it.’

Were you the boy in the orphanage?

‘No! Jude is actually the hero in the book; he plays a fairly minor role in the piece because he’s listening to Dr Ibrahim Bihi tell the story. Jude is both completely made up and entirely autobiographical in the way that happens in novels. I’m not an orphan but Jude is certainly aspects of me when I was younger. And the orphanage is definitely – well, anyone who went to Nenagh Christian Brothers Secondary School in Tipperary in the 1970s and 80s would probably get flashbacks reading the orphanage scenes in the book!’

You use the technical language of economics – what effects did you want it to have?

‘Well, I love the language of economics because it has ferocious precision in its terminology and yet, of course, the things that the language maps onto are utterly, you know, human and chaotic and unpredictable. And I think that one of the reasons why economic language is so precise and sharp and Latinate and crisp is in a desperate attempt to force order on the world by naming it precisely, and that’s never worked and it never will. So I love the disjunction. And then of course, by setting it in a dung-heaped goat market, it maybe brings out the absurdity of trying to control things by naming them. Economics would love to be a science, and it mimics the language of science in its attempts to be a science. But it can’t be because it’s about the economic behaviour of human beings. So economics becomes a lovely metaphor for the human urge to control and understand, and how charmingly and sweetly deluded we are sometimes when we think we’ve understood it all.’

What are the targets of your satire?

‘I mapped the American experience of the dot com bubble onto goats in Somaliland and the UN mission in Somalia. So that’s the obvious and direct satire. But I think in some senses, it’s not quite satire. It’s more an exploration. I use a lot of the tools of satire but I’m not necessarily using them the way a satirist would to strongly attack a particular folly and by implication exhort its opposite. I think I’ve got slightly more affection for the human race! So even at the end of my piece, I put in some things that I got from talking to an acquaintance who’s involved in the world of economics. I put in some of her points which were, that the people that drive these crazed speculative bubbles are in some ways brave visionaries who think the world can get better and better forever, and that is in some ways a noble quality. And there is something meritocratic about the free market capitalism in some ways – it is actually possible to make your fortune from scratch, with a lot of luck and risk taking. In some ways, the drawbacks of capitalism are not to do with the free market, globalisation, open trading aspect of it that western protesters often protest against. The problems of capitalism are often the very old problems of massive inherited wealth to which you don’t have access if didn’t go to the right school or the right university so you can’t meet up with the right bankers to get the venture capital to set up your business. If you’re a farmer, for example, in Somaliland, and you’ve got a really great idea for a business, you’ve got no access to global capital, you can’t go to a bank because there isn’t one there, and you can’t get the £5,000 loan or whatever pitiful amount it would take, to get your business up and going. So the problem is not necessarily globalisation and free market capital, it’s actually the way in which that isn’t fully available to everybody. We should be trying to get the global banks to extend access to money (in order to make more money) down to the women who are sewing pillowcases in their homes, because if they could just buy a sewing machine they could make ten times as many pillowcases and put their kids through school.
Capitalism, it seems to me, is this incredible motor that can do anything, but it’s completely amoral. Capitalism doesn’t care whether it’s making landmines disguised as Walt Disney characters to be picked up by kids, or vaccines for malaria. It’s completely blind, only human beings can direct it, and at the moment we’ve got this vast engine of capitalism that can fix things incredibly fast, and we haven’t found a way to connect the motor of capitalism to the sinking balsa wood canoe of, say, Africa. We haven’t found a way to make capitalism fix Africa’s problems. And the current aid regimes that we have are often, not always, counterproductive and you end up with corrupt, welfare-dependant, failing states that are on a life-support machine of aid, but the way the life-support machine is set up, they can not ever get better.
So we have the engine to fix a lot of the world’s problems – it’s capitalism – but we haven’t found a way of getting the engine to do the right work. And only governments, and perhaps the UN, can fix that one, because governments create the rules inside which capitalism works.
Anyway, it’s also a funny book! I’m a great believer in humour!’

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I hope you all feel educated having read this. Phil Rose esq