The Diary: Alan Beattie
Countries where the IMF is an everyday topic are rarely at peace with themselves but gallows humour provides some relief
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From London to Kilkenny in southern Ireland, to appear at Kilkenomics, a festival of stand-up comedy mixed with economics, now in its second year. The creative genius behind it is David McWilliams, an Irish journalist and economist and sometime central bank analyst and investment banker. Countries where the International Monetary Fund is an everyday topic of discourse are rarely at peace with themselves but gallows humour provides some relief. Most of the Kilkenomics sessions — discussion panels of economists chaired by professional comedians — are packed out.
The thing about appearing on stage with people who are funny for a living, as multiple friends kindly warn me beforehand, is not to try to compete. So no shouting out, “Good evening, Kilkenny!”; no attempting to shoehorn in my favourite gags about economists, which not even most other economists find funny; and most certainly no ending the evening by jamming a mic back in its stand, informing the audience,“You’ve been surprisingly patient, and I’ve been Alan Beattie”, and striding off stage expecting roars of applause.
As it happens, the combination of the dismal science and the comic muse is unexpectedly touching — and I still get to fulfill a long-held ambition by sitting in a green room and having someone poke his head round the door to say, “Five minutes, please.”
The comedians, wearing suits, appear slightly nervous at having to moderate conversations about economics. We panellists, told to appear in casual dress — though the leisure garments of most economists are not things of beauty — are most certainly intimidated by sharing a stage with professional performers. The audience seems to enjoy the interaction, and the fusion of the two professions is cemented in rambling Guinness-fuelled conversations in the after-hours festival club — after which I reportedly stumble into bed claiming I now understand Irish politics and hoping I will remember it all in the morning. It’s a gain from trade, just like the economics textbooks say.
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Phrase of the weekend at Kilkenomics is “porcine solidarity”, given the plight of the troubled PIIGS nations (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain). Fintan O’Toole, a distinguished columnist for the Irish Times, makes an impassioned plea for the troubled countries to form a united front to fight back against the harsh terms of the rescues, his bete noire the cordially-loathed European Central Bank (ECB). But the best-received comic line is a heckle, of which I am the target. Taking part in a panel advising people on where to put their savings, I hazard the helpful observation that the vast global economic volatility makes almost any investment apart from cash highly uncertain, so your choice is equivalent to either keeping your money in the bank or putting it on a horse.
This less-than-piercing aperÃ§u gets a ripple of laughter but what brings the house down is a perfectly-timed intervention from the back demanding to know the horse’s name.
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Kilkenny itself, overlooked by an impressive three-sided castle, is a pretty little medieval city that, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, has issues with mythical cats. “To fight like Kilkenny cats” is a metaphor for ferocity, rancour and mutual destruction that might well describe the current state of the eurozone.
Ask locals for an explanation of the cat association, though, and you get one of five or six cogent, plausible, entertaining and entirely different answers. The most colourful stories involve Oliver Cromwell, still not forgiven in these parts for his brutal crushing of Irish resistance, who besieged and captured Kilkenny in 1650, his cannon flattening the missing wall in the process.
Cromwell’s soldiers supposedly cemented their reputation for cruelty by forcing local cats to fight to the death for their entertainment. Then again, as someone wryly notes, Cromwell gets the blame for more or less anything that went wrong in this part of the world. He would have flopped badly at Kilkenomics, but could have been right at home in the ECB.
Alan Beattie is the FT’s international economy editor
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