Daily Archives: October 10, 2008

Dealing with Debt – Philip Brewer Style

Whilst researching the SSG SPCK saga...

Matt Wills: Whilst researching the SSG SPCK saga...

Phil Groom writes:

Our dearly beloved friend Philip Brewer has been at it again, sending cryptic memos to bookshop staff. This time he seems to have taken on the role of financial advisor, but somehow I suspect that his advice isn’t quite regulated by the FSA. Matt Wills has posted the full text of the memo (screenshot on the right) — it’s a fascinating tale that Mr Brewer has left wide open to interpretation: the key point is that where logic might not work, lateral thinking might…

The story tells us of a young woman whose father has fallen on hard times and can’t pay his debts. A money lender, an unsavoury character to whom her father is in debt, has taken a shine to the girl and made an offer: marry him and the debt will be cancelled; refuse and the father goes to jail.

For reasons best known to the money lender (for as we all know, money lenders have twisted minds) rather than play straight he tries to pull a fast one on the girl by pretending to give her a way out: “Pick a stone,” he says. “Pick the black one and I’ll cancel the debt but you must marry me; pick the white one and I’ll cancel the debt and you go free. Refuse to play and your father goes to jail.”

This girl’s no fool, though: she realises that there are only two black stones in the money lender’s bag, so when she picks one she fumbles, drops it and loses it amongst the other stones on the path. The money lender is forced to reveal his hand showing a black stone; inevitable conclusion: the stone the girl dropped was the white one, and she and her father both go free.

As I said, Mr Brewer has left the tale wide open to interpretation. So let’s indulge him and ask, who’s who in this tale? Of course, I could be wrong, but here’s how I suspect Mr Brewer sees it:

  • The father, in debt, estates at risk, unable to pay: Mark and Philip Brewer
  • The daughter: the bookshops and their staff
  • The wicked money lender: their unpaid suppliers

The real twist in the tale, however, isn’t the girl’s clever solution to her problem: it’s the way the story puts the weight of responsibility on the girl. The father? He’s just there in the background, undoubtedly a splendid chap whose problems are really no fault of his own. The money lender: well, anyone who puts someone else in the sort of position the father finds himself in is self-evidently wicked, isn’t he? So thank heavens for the girl who stands between them…

Let’s ignore the inconvenient fact that the father should have handled his affairs more carefully. Let’s ignore the inconvenient fact that the money lender was once a friend who helped the father out when he was building up his business. Let’s ignore the inconvenient fact that the father is a bad debtor who has mismanaged his affairs… that the money lender has a perfectly legitimate right to reclaim his money.

Instead, let’s twist it and turn the money lender into a fiend. Let’s portray him — let’s portray St Stephen the Great’s unpaid suppliers — as merciless monsters demanding more than their dues. And let’s tell the girl — let’s tell the bookshop staff — this is your problem, not your father’s. Mr Brewer’s sitting pretty: it’s your jobs that are on the line if the bailiffs come around. So look sharp, people, think sideways, think backwards, think upside-down and back-to-front: let’s play games, let’s shuffle things around… let’s mix it up… let’s take the stock from Birmingham and mix it up with the stock from Durham; let’s take the stock from Norwich and mix it up with Chichester; let’s mix up Exeter with York… and suddenly those wicked, wicked suppliers…

Well, they’re screwed, aren’t they? How on earth are they going to be able to reclaim their stock now when no one can tell what came from where or when? And who’s left to carry the can? Not Messrs Brewer, oh no, they’re innocent men doing their best, dealing with demanding suppliers and difficult staff…

Lateral thinking. You have to love it. Like fibre, it goes straight through you and comes out as… a slight problem: I suspect SSG’s suppliers aren’t into silly games with stones; and I don’t think mixing it up was the staff’s idea…