The Power of Paper: A History, a Financial Adventure, and a Warning
By Christopher Ondaatje
HarperCollins £19.95, 237 pages
FT bookshop price: £15.95

On one level, this is the story of an extraordinary financial buccaneer. At the age of 16, the Sri Lankan-born Christopher Ondaatje was summoned by the headmaster of Blundell’s, the West Country public school he was attending, to be told that the money had run out and that he had to leave.

Daunted by the postwar restrictions still in force in Clement Attlee’s austere Britain (caused in part, he speculates, by our commitments in the Korean war), Ondaatje headed for Canada and arrived in Toronto with 13 Canadian dollars in his pocket. He recalls Al Capone’s famous quip: “Canada! I don’t even know what street Canada is on!”

But Canada was an astute choice. Ondaatje’s first job was in the “cage”, handling bundles of share certificates for a stockbroking firm. Although there were some hiccups along the way – one day he unwisely opens the window and half of a Bell Telephone rights issue blows out into the street – Ondaatje’s progress seemed to be unstoppable.

With the help of his wife, he set up a publishing company that developed into a major corporation. By 1988, the firm’s net worth had climbed to C$500m, controlling assets of C$1.2bn. Then, almost overnight it seems, he decided to sell up and return to England.

At another level, The Power of Paper is a serious effort at making the sometimes arcane world of finance more accessible. The historical insights that Ondaatje provides are endlessly fascinating. He tells the story of the merchant Francesco di Marco Datini of Prato, who died in 1410, leaving behind a staggering 140,000 letters written on paper. He reveals that 12 vellum copies of the Gutenberg bible survive, and that each copy required 170 calf skins. The South Sea Bubble and Alan Greenspan are both grist to the mill. His final chapter, “Warnings from History: The Abuse of Paper”, though written before the latest round of financial turbulence, is eerily prescient.

Given Ondaatje’s credentials as an explorer (he has tracked the source of the Nile and followed in the footsteps of Richard Burton in India), as well as an author and philanthropist, the non-specialist reader could perhaps have hoped for less economic and financial history and more personal reminiscence.

The blurb says: “This book is as close as Christopher Ondaatje intends to wade into the quicksands of autobiography.” This is a pity. Since Ondaatje is clearly not a man with a taste for anonymity (there is an Ondaatje Wing at the National Portrait Gallery and an Ondaatje Theatre at the Royal Geographical Society), we must hope he will change his mind.

Stanley Johnson is an author and former MEP

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