Hubris: how HBOS wrecked the best bank in Britain – Ray Perman

I need to start this review with a disclaimer. I worked for Halifax plc from 1982 to 2001. I left because I didn’t like the way the organisation was moving from a bank to a retail “sell, sell, sell” culture. I had, and still have, a belief that banks should be slightly stodgy places where you should be asked some difficult questions before they agree to hand over large amounts of cash to people so they can buy houses they are going to struggle to afford.

Perman’s book is written from the perspective of Bank of Scotland rather than Halifax but since HBOS was the result of the merger between the two it was an interesting perspective.

The book tells the history of Bank of Scotland, the history of the merger, the boom and then the spectacular crash of 2008. It describes the relentless drive for sales and profit, the ventures into unknown territories and what happened when it ran out of money. Perman tries to explain the causes of the collapse of HBOS and the inherent weaknesses within the bank as well as the banking system.

I can’t say I enjoyed reading this book. It’s difficult to read about an organisation that I was once proud to work for becoming this appalling, insatiable monster. I also met, and at the time admired, James Crosby, when he was the director responsible for a division of Halifax I worked for. It saddens me to know what happened.

I’m pleased I did read the book though. It has given me a greater insight into the crash. It has helped me to understand how financial institutions can collapse like a house of cards. And it has made me more aware of the growing financial irresponsibility of Britain’s lenders again: if I took up the offer of every pre-authorised credit card I’ve been offered in the last month – including Halifax! –  I could probably buy a small house! It’s worrying.

Harriet and the Cherry Pie – Clare Compton

I remember reading this book at school and enjoying it but for some reason never owning my own copy so I only ever read the once. But, for some reason, the story has stayed with me and I’ve always wanted to re-read it.

The problem has been trying to find a copy at a price I was prepared to pay! Many of the comments on Amazon are that everyone is trying to find a copy to replace tatty, well-read books that are dropping to pieces. Finally, I managed to get a copy and settled down for an afternoon’s read. I was a little trepidatious; was it as good as I remembered? Would I enjoy it? Was it the right book?

I really enjoyed the book. I’d forgotten some parts and I found the ending very silly but I recognised the 1960s world Harriet lives in and liked the fact it deals with some real-world problems, such as money worries.

I’m definitely with the reviewers on Amazon who think it’s time for a reprint. And I think, with a tiny bit of updating, it would make a great TV adaptation in the way Ballet Shoes was back in the 70s.

Oh, and the story? Harriet and her small sister have to live with a great-aunt in London whilst their father goes to Australia on business for 6 months. The great-aunt turns out to be the quite young owner of a not very successful tea shop. By the end of the story lots of new friends have been made, Harriet is in a West End play and the Cherry Pie has become a popular tea shop.

Nan’s Schooldays – Mrs Henry Clarke MA

Yet another auction book and the start of a bit of a run of children’s books, which I tend to dip into when either I’m not feeling well or my brain is overloaded!

This book was written in the late 19th century, although I had assumed from the style of writing that it was a pre-war school story. Nan, is living in poverty with her father, who has lost his job through some sort of disgrace. She is “rescued” by her aunt who persuades the father to disappear to Australia and leave Nan with her.

The aunt, although a teacher, doesn’t understand children and doesn’t understand why Nan isn’t properly grateful at having being rescued and given the opportunity to go to a good school.

Nan is upset at her father disappearing, resentful of her aunt and determined to loathe the school.

Eventually, after the usual trials and tribulations of schools stories, Nan settles down, makes friends, calls a truce with her aunt and blossoms. At the end of the story her father reappears, having been exonerated of the fraud he had been accused of and having inherited some money.

I enjoyed this book. It was a nice, if predictable, school story that didn’t take too much effort to read.

I didn’t like the character of the aunt: I remember having teachers like her and wondering why, if they didn’t like children, they’d ever gone into teaching. What I did like though was that the author didn’t reform the aunt out of recognition; Nan and she definitely called a truce rather than the aunt’s hard shell melting and this felt more like real life than most school stories.

I think the fact Amy Clarke had been a teacher and headmistress before she married shows in her writing. I suspect teaching may have been her vocation, as it was my mothers, giving her a good insight into school children and helping her to create believable characters.

A much better read than your average Sunday School prize book.

I am Brian Wilson – Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman

An autobiography of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, although not in a traditional cradle-to-now way. This book is probably what you’d expect from Brian Wilson, a slightly shambolic meander through his life although it is organised into categories, which gives it some cohesion.

Wilson talks, quite openly I think, about what music means to him, making music, life in The Beach Boys, his mental ill health and finding a measure of serenity and control in his life. Unfortunately, this also makes him come across as a self-centred man who expects life to revolve around what he wants.

I did find it interesting to learn how Brian Wilson makes music and the creative process he goes through working with different people.

I also realised how little I actually know about The Beach Boys other than their early hits and, having listened to some of Michael’s CDs, just how little of their music I’m interested in beyond those early hits!

Like almost all autobiographies I’ve read this one has made me want to find a good biography of The Beach Boys to find out more about their story from a less biased perspective. There has to be some personality within there to make them the band they were…and it certainly doesn’t belong to Brian Wilson!