Never compound ignorance with inaudibility,’ my grandmother snorted whenever I tried to mumble my way through something I didn’t understand. It’s advice that I’ve followed, modifying it only in moments of total ignorance, when I try to say nothing. My grandmother also drilled into her granddaughters the beauty of the ‘intelligent silence’.
These have been rich times for an intelligent silence, because, frankly, I don’t know what’s going on. For a start, I don’t understand the language. Hedge funds. Derivatives. Credit swaps. Leveraged buyouts. Subprime. And even when I have a vague idea of the meaning, I don’t how it works. I can’t see how printing money (quantitative easing) won’t cause inflation. More confusing: if the kernel of the credit crisis was the billions of dollars of mortgages handed out to subprime (unsuitable) borrowers in America, loans that went sour as borrowers defaulted, how can the solution now be to use taxpayer money to buy the subprime ‘toxic assets’?
I’m not proud of my financial ignorance. I believe that if you don’t understand how money (complicated and messy) works, you won’t really understand how life (complicated and messy) works. The writer J. B. Priestley once wrote about a discovery that moved him into ‘the vast invisible realm where our lives are shaped’. I’ve always thought that money was the ‘invisible realm’, and one day, I made a great discovery about how my life was shaped. I had a £1,000 debt on my Visa card and I discovered that if I only paid off the minimum each month, it would take 18 years to clear it.
In fact, the revelation that moved Priestley into his invisible realm was more down to earth. It was his discovery that Americans prefer white eggs. In an article entitled The Meaning of Brown Eggs, he wrote that Americans ‘despise brown eggs because they seem closer to nature’. White eggs are better, ‘especially if they are to be given to precious children, because their very whiteness suggests hygiene and purity’. However, his fellow countrymen ‘prefer the brown egg because it belongs to the enduring dream of the English, who always hope sooner or later to move into the country’. The rich brown egg is the very symbol of nature, of English country living.
But although my ignorance about money and finance may be impenetrable, my friend and neighbour, Francine Raymond, known in these parts as ‘the chicken woman’, has penetrated my egg ignorance. All eggs, she told me brown, white, taupe or duck-egg blue are exactly the same under the skin.
Pigmentation of the shell has nothing to do with the taste or nutritional merit of the egg. For flavour, you must go to the heart of the egg: the yolk. My Dark Brahma hens lay eggs of deep saffron yellow because they have a rich diet of greenery, including primroses, hellebores and tulips. I sigh in wonder as my fork lances the poached egg; I say a silent prayer of gratitude as sourdough soldiers pierce the soft-boiled gift.
But concluding deep differences about cultures American vs English based on egg colour preference is dubious scholarship. The preference for white eggs stems from the breed. The Leghorn, the greatest egg-laying machine known to man, lays white eggs. My Brahmas, as feckless as southern belles, produce rich brown eggs.
And what does this have to do with the incomprehensible financial mess we are in? I reckon any form of enlightenment in these dark times is welcome. And my grandmother had something to say about eggs and bacon as well. ‘Respect your breakfast,’ she snorted each morning. ‘A day’s work for the chicken. A lifetime commitment for the pig.’