Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 7

Financial Ventures

HENCEFORTH my own work was seriously interfered with by my increasing duties in connexion with John’s commercial enterprise. I spent a great deal of my time travelling about the country, visiting patent agents and manufacturers. Quite often John accompanied me. He had always to be introduced as “a young friend of mine who would so like to see the inside of a factory.” In this way he picked up a lot of knowledge of the powers and limitations of different kinds of machines, and was thus helped to produce easily manufacturable designs.

It was on these expeditions that I first came to realize that even John had his disability, his one blind spot, I called it. I approached these industrial gentlemen with painful consciousness that they could do what they liked with me. Generally I was kept from disaster by the advice of the patent agents, who, being primarily scientists, were on our side not only professionally but by sympathy. But quite often the manufacturer managed to get at me direct. On several of these occasions I was pretty badly stung. Nevertheless, I learned in time to be more able to hold my own with the commercial mind. John, on the other hand, seemed incapable of believing that these people were actually less interested in producing ingenious articles than in getting the better of us, and of every one else. Of course, he knew intellectually that it was so. He was as contemptuous of the morality as of the intelligence of Homo sapiens. But he could not “feel it in his bones” that men could really “be such fools as to care so much about sheer money-making as a game of skill.” Like any other boy, he could well appreciate the thrill of beating a rival in personal combat, and the thrill of triumph in practical invention. But the battle of industrial competition made no appeal whatever to him, and it took him many months of bitter experience to realize how much it meant to most men. Though he was himself in the thick of a great commercial adventure, he never felt the fascination of business undertakings as such. Though he could enter zestfully into most of man’s instinctive and primitive passions, the more artificial manifestations of those passions, and in particular the lust of economic individualism, found no spontaneous echo in him. In time, of course, he learned to expect men to manifest such passions, and he acquired the technique of dealing with them. But he regarded the whole commercial world with a contempt which suggested now the child, and now the philosopher. He was at once below it and above it.

Thus it was that in the first phase of John’s commercial life it fell to me to play the part of hard-headed business man. Unfortunately, as was said, I myself was extremely ill-equipped for the task, and at the outset we parted with several good inventions for a price which we subsequently discovered to be ludicrously inadequate.

But in spite of early disasters we were in the long run amazingly successful. We launched scores of ingenious contrivances which have since become universally recognized as necessary adjuncts of modern life. The public remarked on the spate of minor inventions which (it was said) showed the resilience of human capacity a few years after the war.

Meanwhile our bank balance increased by leaps and bounds, while our expenses remained minute. When I suggested setting up a decent workshop in my name in a convenient place, John would not hear of it. He produced a number of poor arguments against the plan, and I concluded that he was determined to cling to his lair for no reason but boyish love of sensationalism. But presently he divulged his real reason, and it horrified me. “No,” he said, “we mustn’t spend yet. We must speculate. That bank balance must be multiplied by a hundred, and then by a thousand.”

I protested that I knew nothing about finance, and that we might easily lose all we had. He assured me that he had been studying finance, and that he already had a few neat little plans in mind. “John,” I said, “you simply mustn’t do it. That’s the sort of field where sheer intelligence is not enough. You want half a lifetime’s special knowledge of the stock market. And anyhow it’s nearly all luck.”

It was no use talking. After all, he had good reason to trust his own judgment rather than mine. And he gave evidence that he had gone into the subject thoroughly, both by reading the financial journals and by ingratiating himself with local stockbrokers on the morning and evening trains to town. He had by now passed far beyond the naive child that had interviewed Mr. Magnate, and he was, as ever, an adept at making people talk about their own work.

“It’s now or never,” he said. “We’re entering a boom, inevitable after the war; but in a few years we shall be in the midst of such a slump that people will wonder if civilization is going smash. You’ll see.”

I laughed at his assurance, and was treated to a lecture on economics and the state of Western society, the sort of thing that in eight or ten years was to be generally accepted among the more advanced students of social problems. At the end of this discourse John said, “We’ll put half our capital into British light industry — motors, electricity and so on, because that sort of thing is bound to go ahead, comparatively. The rest we’ll use for speculation.”

“We’ll lose the whole lot, I expect,” I grumbled. Then I tried a new line of attack. “Anyhow isn’t all this money-making a bit too trivial for Homo superior? I believe you’re bitten by the speculation bug after all. I mean, what is the object of it all?”

“It’s all right, Fido, old thing,” he answered. (It was about this time that he began to use this nickname for me. When I protested, he assured me that it was meant to be Phaido, which name, he said, was connected with the Greek for “brilliant.”) “It’s all right. I’m quite sane still. I don’t care a damn about finance for its own sake, but in the world of Hom. sap. it’s the quickest way to get power, which means money. And I must have money, big money. Now don’t snort! We’ve made a good little start, but it’s only a start.”

“What about ‘advancing the spirit’, as you called it?”

“That’s the goal, all right; but you seem to forget I’m only a child, and very backward too, in all that really matters. I must do the things I can do before the things I can’t yet do. And what I can do is to prepare — by getting (a) experience, (b) independence. See?”

Evidently the thing had to be. But it was with grave misgiving that I agreed to act as John’s financial agent; and when he insisted on indulging in various wild speculations against my advice, I began to tell myself that I had been a fool to treat him as anything but a brilliant child.

John’s financial operations did not spontaneously hold his attention as his practical inventions had done. And by now both kinds of activity were being subordinated increasingly to the study of human society and the absorbing personal contacts which came to him with adolescence. There was a certain absent-mindedness and dilatoriness about his buying and selling of stock, very exasperating to me, his agent. For though most of our common fortune was in my name, I could never bring myself to act without his consent.

During the first six months of our speculative ventures we lost fan more than we gained. John at last woke up to the fact that if we went on this way we should lose everything. After hearing of a particularly devastating disaster he indulged in a memorable outburst. “Blast!” he said. “It means I must take this damned dull game much more seriously. And there’s so much else to be done just now, far more important in the long run. I see it may be as difficult for me to beat Hom. sap. at this game as it is for Hom. sap. to beat apes at acrobatics. The human body is not equipped for the jungle, and my mind may not be equipped for the jungle of individualistic finance. But I’ll get round it somehow, just as Hom. sap. got round acrobatics.”

It was characteristic of John that when he had made a serious mistake through lack of experience he never tried to conceal the fact. On this occasion he recounted with complete detachment, neither blaming nor excusing himself, how he, the intellectual superior of all men, had been tricked by a common swindler. One of his financial acquaintances had evidently guessed that the boy’s interest in speculation had ulterior sources, in fact that some adult with money to invest was using him as a spy. This individual proceeded to treat John extremely well, and to “prattle to him about his ventures,” anxiously pledging him to secrecy. In this way Homo superior was completely diddled by Homo sapiens. John insisted that I should put large sums of money into concerns which his friend had advocated. At first I refused; but John was blandly confident in his alleged “inside information that it’s an absolute scoop,” and finally I consented. I need not recount the history of these disastrous speculations. Suffice it that we lost everything that we had risked, and that John’s friend disappeared.

For some time after this disaster we refrained from speculation. John spent a good deal of his time away from home and away from his workshop also. When I asked what he had been up to, he usually said, “studying finance,” but refused any further information. During this period his health began to deteriorate. His digestion, always his weakest spot, gave him some trouble, and he complained of headaches. Evidently he was leading a rather unwholesome life.

He began to spend many of his nights away from home. His father had relatives in London, and increasingly often John was allowed to visit them. But the relatives did not for long tolerate his independence. (He disappeared every morning and returned late at night or not till the next day, and refused to give an account of his actions.) Consequently these visits had to cease. But John, meanwhile, had learnt that, in summer, he could live the life of a stray cat in the Metropolis, in spite of the police. To his parents he said that he knew “a man who had a flat who would let him sleep there any night.” Actually, as I learned much later, he used to sleep in parks and under bridges.

I learned also how he had occupied himself. By a series of tricks of the “gate-crashing” type he had managed to make contacts with several big financiers in London, and had set about captivating and amusing them, and unobtrusively picking their brains, before they sent him by car with a covering note to his indignant relatives, or paid his railway fare home to the North, and sent the letter by post.

Here is a specimen, one of many such documents which caused much perturbation to Doc and Pax.

DEAR SIR.

Your small son’s bicycle tour came to an untimely end yesterday evening owing to a collision with my car near Guildford. He fully admits that the fault was his own. He is unhurt, but the bicycle is past repair. As it was late, I took him to my home for the night. I congratulate you on having a very remarkable boy whose precocious passion for finance was extremely entertaining to my party. My chauffeur will put him on the 10.26 at Euston this morning. I am telegraphing you to that effect.

Yours faithfully.

(Signed by a personage whose name I had better not divulge.)

John’s parents, and I also, knew that he was on a bicycling tour, but we supposed him to have gone into North Wales. The fact that he had been so soon encountered in Surrey proved that he must have taken his bicycle by train. Needless to say, John did not turn up by the 10.26 from Euston. He gave the chauffeur the slip, poor man, by jumping out of the car in a traffic jam. That night he spent as the guest of another financier. If I remember rightly, he arrived in the late afternoon at the front door with a story that he and his mother were staying somewhere near, and that he had lost his way and forgotten the address. As police inquiries failed to discover his mother in the neighbourhood, he was kept for the night, and then for the following night, in fact for the Saturday and Sunday. I have no doubt that he made good use of the time. On Monday morning, when the great man had gone to business, he disappeared.

After some months spent partly on such adventures, partly on close study of the literature of finance and political economy and social changes, John felt himself ready to take action once more. He knew that I was likely to be sceptical of his plans, so he operated with money standing in his own name, and told me nothing until, six months later, he was able to show me the results in the shape of a considerable sum standing to his credit.

As time passed it became clear that he had mastered financial speculation as effectively as he had mastered mathematics. I have no knowledge of the principles on which he went to work, for henceforth I played no part in his business deals, save occasionally as his agent when a personal interview was to be undertaken. I remember his saying once when we were reviewing our position, “After all there’s not much in this speculation game, once you know your facts and get the hang of the way money trickles about the world. Of course there’s a frightful lot of mere flukiness about it. You can never be quite sure which way the cat will jump. But if you know your cat well (Hom. sap. I mean), and if you know the ground well, you can’t go far wrong in the long run.”

By the use of his new technique, John gradually, throughout the earlier part of his adolescence, amassed a very imposing fortune, much of which was legally owned by me. It may seem strange that he never told his parents about his wealth until the time came for him to use it on a lavish scale. “I don’t want to upset their lives sooner than I need,” he said, “and I don’t want to give them the worry of trying not to blab.” On the other hand he allowed them to know that I had come in for a lot of money (supposed to be entirely due to luck on the Stock Exchange). and he was glad that I should help his parents in a number of ways, such as paying for the education of his brother and sister, and taking them all (John included) on foreign holidays. The parental gratitude. I may say, was extremely embarrassing. John made it more so by joining unctuously in the chorus, and dubbing me “The Benefactor,” which title he soon shortened aggravatingly to “The Benny,” and subsequently changed to “The Bean.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30