Hugh Pearman: Breaking the Greed Cycle

While trying to avoid a display of schadenfreude, Hugh Pearman thinks that although recessions have many losers, good things are born out of them

‘What did you do during the last recession, Daddy? What’s it going to be like this time?’

‘Well, kids, the last recession was when you were born. I’m sure it was just a coincidence: we did have other things to do, really.’

Our child-bearing began at the tail end of the ‘Lawson boom’. Encouraged by that boom, and the new baby, we bought a bigger house in May 1988, at the top of the market. Soon, property prices crashed. But we didn’t know that. And as the recession progressed, we generated more children to fill the house. There were other positive aspects. We bought a place that was a wreck. When the recession hit, all the necessary building work became a lot cheaper. I still can’t believe we managed to build a rather wonderful retro-tech extension, designed by a good and seriously under-employed young architect, and employing such materials as an aluminium Proctor yacht mast, sheets of Pilkington’s Planar glazing, purpose-made curved steel ribs, iroko boarding and the like, for the all-in sum of £14 000, including all fees and VAT. In London.

Steel fabricators from Gateshead were prepared to drive down in their lorry and stay in a bed-and-breakfast while they assembled our bit of house. The architect and his assistant installed the glazing personally. At the time, it all seemed normal. Looking back, I now realise it was only normal because there was a recession on. After all, they built Michael Hopkins’ Glyndebourne Opera House at the same time, and that came in on time and under budget. No opera house EVER does that.

So let’s consider the good points of an economic recession, since everyone says we’re heading for one. Number one: things get cheaper; Two: they stop building horrible shopping centres and horrible office developments; Three: people drive their cars less and buy less, so there are fewer vehicles on the road and (though this is arguable, since the cars left are older) less pollution; Four: there are far fewer ads in newspapers and magazines, and the superfluous titles go bust, so there’s less paper silting up your house; Five, and most important: greed culture vanishes. You stop hearing about acned City traders with eight Ferraris apiece getting squillion-pound bonuses, as they’ve all been made redundant. Suddenly, you can always get a restaurant table without having to book. Oh yes, a recession has its advantages. So long as you are not one of those most directly affected.

Trouble is, anyone involved in the design business will almost certainly be directly hit. Redundancies in design firms at such times are traditionally huge. Lots of firms go straight to the wall. Pointless to argue that companies need good design more than ever if they are to survive in a fiercely competitive market: those companies are looking to make knee-jerk savings, and their design budgets go the same way as their advertising and marketing budgets. Even the best magazines can wobble, though all the leading British design titles (including this one) survived the last recession.

And what about hangers-on like me? Well, I was relatively lucky, last time round. My annual accounts show my earnings peaked in 1989, then dropped sharply for each of the next three years before staging a comeback from 1993. For me, the recession was over. Which certainly came before the economy as a whole, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get all those cheap builders in.

In 1999 I moved house again, and in 2000 my earnings hit a Millennial peak, by my modest standards. I can’t help noticing the pattern is similar to the way things were just before the last recession. So that, for what it’s worth, is my personal straw in the wind, to add to the gale of straws emanating from other sources. Can we avoid the downturn – as Ireland managed to, last time round? I haven’t a clue. My grasp of economics is close to zero.

But – without wishing misfortune on anyone – I can’t help thinking the uncomfortable thought that we need recessions, in the same way people used to say we needed wars, to pull everyone together. I don’t like greed culture, and at the peak of the economic cycle we see a lot of it. The essence of design tends to get lost in the rush for profits. But when the shake-out comes, one benefit always comes out of the pain: a myriad of small, bright new firms are established. The next generation of design names gets kick-started by crude, unheeding economics. It is an unpalatable truth. But it is a truth for all that.

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