Peter Mandleson once famously said that ‘we are intensely relaxed about the filthy rich’, a sentence that has always made me intensely uncomfortable until very recently, when I spent some time exploring the various ways the filthy rich spend their filthy money. What really surprised me, though, isn’t what they spend, but the way they spend it. It isn’t greed so much as purchasing for sheer pleasure on a scale that most of us can barely imagine and that they themselves will hardly even notice.
It began at Christie’s auction house for a piece I wrote for the Independent on Sunday that went behind the scenes before this week’s big impressionist/modern evening sale. The collectors who will be bidding on paintings by Monet, Picasso and Degas are taken from the ranks of the world’s super rich, and will between them spend around £100m on new paintings for the walls of their second and third homes.
Then I went to see some of those second and third homes when I wrote a piece for Gulf Life magazine about London’s super-prime property market – that’s anything from £15 million up to about £150 million. I visited four apartments and houses in Knightsbridge, Bayswater and Regent’s Park – including the Candy Brothers extraordinary One Hyde Park development – that between them had a combined value around £121 million and contained more marble and flat-screen TVs then is good for anybody.
Finally, last week the owner of my favourite football club – who many believed to be losing interest in the sport – dropped in to spend a trifling £70m in one day on two players, just like that.
Now, while it is undeniable that the outlay of such vast sums of money on luxuries is morally indefensible and all the rest, it’s also increasingly apparent that as there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, there’s no point in being anything other than intensely relaxed about it. The alternative would drive you mad.
These people are worth billions, and for them £150m is an irrelevance. To understand exactly why, try this thought experiment, taken from John Lanchester’s outstanding ‘Whoops!’, about the global financial crisis, which shows in a fairly clear way the vast difference between millions of pounds and billions.
Lanchester writes, ‘Without doing the calculation, guess how long a millions seconds is. Now try the same for a billion seconds. Ready? A million seconds is less than 12 days; a billion seconds is almost 32 years.’
Or as one estate agent told me, ‘When they spend £30 million on a property, it’s not a financial decision, it’s a personal one.’