URSABLOG: Telling Stories


Humans are strange beings, uniquely adaptable, able to alter their environment and bend it to their needs, even when they know that in changing it they may end up destroying it. We are hard-wired to improve ourselves, at the expense of the rest of the world, each other, our own species, our own compatriots, even our own friends and family. We drive ourselves on to get better, to make a better life, a better business, a better family, otherwise we will be left behind.


“If you are under the impression you have already perfected yourself, you will never rise to the heights you are no doubt capable of.”


To assist us we have a unique talent, something no other species has: an ability to tell stories. The stories we tell ourselves and each other make us who we are, and helps us make sense of the world. Look around you, in your office, on the train, even amongst your family and friends; our uniqueness comes from our history, our story and how we let other people know who we are. Apart from the wonderful individuality that genetics provides, physically, emotionally or temperamentally, it is also where we were born, how and who we grew up with that marks each of us as separate individuals.


“All children have to be deceived if they are to grow up without trauma.”


We are protected as children not to see the extent of the danger of the world around us. We need stable family-like groups to bring children up, and we tend to delay the process as much as possible to protect their innocence. It is often the children who are keen to leave the nest, to explore the world; it is parents that hold them back. We tell them stories, not just fairy or children’s stories, but stories about our families, about ourselves to prepare them to explore the world.


I was in London on a flying visit last weekend to celebrate my aunt’s 80thbirthday and most of my extended family was there. It was a great day, and after the party was over, I joined my two sisters at my brother’s house, with wives, husbands and various nieces and nephews to spend the evening together. How do we communicate with each other? How do we teach each other? Well we ask each other questions, listen (sometimes) to replies, but above all we tell each other stories to explain ourselves, and where we are in life. It struck me, listening to these stories, that competing versions of the same event exist, and it will depend on which details were important - and the skill of the person telling the story - that will define the final accepted version.


“Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers.” 


My mother was not there at the weekend; she is in the USA with my other sister and her family. She will be keen to hear how the weekend went. She will hear four (at least) different stories, depending which of her children she asks. In our family, as I am sure in many, control of the narrative, even competition for it, is part of how we interact.


Our own memories change over time. You may remember earlier in the year I spent three happy days cycling in central Greece. I have not reread that blog since (I will probably reread it when I finish this one), but my memory has kept selected episodes in my mind, a certain turn in the road, a difficult climb, an exhilarating descent, the view from the top of a hill.


When I was on the bike my memory was restricted to the most recent turn in the road, what I had just done. I was so focused - due to the pain in my legs, the danger of falling off, the road itself - that memory faded as my brain and body were being challenged by the next action.


A turning point on that weekend for me was on the third day, when I had completed a long climb of about 15km rising 650 metres. I got to the top and had two options: either carry on up another hill that would take me even higher, or book my achievement and start on the road back. I chose the latter, mainly because of the immediate memory of climbing up through hairpin bends. It was the wiser choice as it turned out, but there I was contemplating whether I wanted to do even better than what I had already just done.


“But then, I suppose, when with the benefit of hindsight one begins to search one's past for such 'turning points', one is apt to start seeing them everywhere.” 


I have become a little obsessed with narrative over the last five years, since my life changed and I moved back to Greece permanently. My trajectory, my internal plot arc if you like, until then had been to complete my working life in the UK and probably retire there. Things changed, and changed quite quickly, and then my trajectory, the current one, became to start a new life here. I found that I was reassessing, if not completely rewriting, my own history, to make sense of it myself, and to explain it to others. As the distance from that time grows the story changes, and as life moves on, certain events take on greater significance, others fade into the background. Explaining why the trajectory altered so quickly and profoundly can only be explained by stories, and it takes a while to eventually settle on one version of the truth.


“One is not struck by the truth until prompted quite accidentally by some external event.” 


It is a sign of my increasing age perhaps that contemporary writers that I read and love start winning Nobel Prizes for Literature. You may be wondering what the various quotes interspersing this blog are: they come from various books and articles by, and interviews with, the new laureate Kasuo Ishiguro, a great favourite of mine. You may have seen the film ofRemains of the Day, based on one of his best books (and probably the most accessible). I preferNever Let Me Go.Apart from the beauty of his spare style, and the sheer variety and range of his work, he speaks to me because his great themes are memory, and the stories people tell each other and themselves.


“As a writer, I'm more interested in what people tell themselves happened rather than what actually happened” 


Markets, especially the Sale and Purchase market, is a series of stories market players tell to teach other. We use emotional language, descriptive language, to describe them: ‘firm’, ‘weak’, ‘soft’ etc. We describe sellers as ‘keen’, buyers as ‘aggressive’. This is not the rational language of cold market logic. We hear sales reported, we find out the story behind them, but it all depends on who is doing the telling. Two brokers involved in the deal will naturally have different versions of why the deal succeeded or failed, the principals even more so.


But this does not mean that we should ignore the stories altogether and just rely on the numbers, a nice graph of rising and falling values over time. How the graph is drawn up, what is being emphasised, who is drawing it: this all part of the narrative behind its construction. And that is before we get to work interpreting it.


The traditionalEfficient Markets Hypothesis, the dominant neo-classical economics model, is being replaced by a more evolutionary model, the DarwinianAdapaptive Markets Hypothesis, which tries to explain financial markets as comprising a population of living organisms competing to survive. I would like to suggest a different model, once based on human experience and fallibility, called perhaps theNarrative Markets Hypothesis. This would recognise that we are all humans, not robots, not even animals (or microbes), and we act in many different and irrational ways, especially when we are in a stressful environment.


We do want to adapt, we have to adapt, because we have to get better. I think one of the best ways of understanding how and why people act is engaging with them, and encouraging them to tell their stories. I get further insight by reading literature, and watching opera, films and plays. Markets, especially the shipping markets, exist for and are driven by humans. We need to widen our understanding of human nature to be able to understand how and why things happen. So I am going to find some time this weekend, with my feet up, and with a glass of wine, open a book, and do just that.


Simon Ward