Writing

The Price of Everything

By Warwick Cairns

Here’s a question: “What is a cynic?”

And the answer?

“A man who knows the price of everything…”

Are you with me here?

Is the quote beginning it sound familiar? Care to finish it off?

Yes, yes. Of course.

“A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

So, who wrote that?

Oscar Wilde is always a good one when it comes to quotes. It’s always him or the other one, I find: him or Winston Churchill. Winston Churchill as in

“Sir, you are drunk.” (Bessie Braddock)

“Madam, you are ugly. In the morning I shall be sober.”

Or Winston Churchill as in

“If you were my husband I would give you poison.” (Nancy Astor)

“If I were your husband I would take it.”

But in this instance if you guessed Wilde you’d have been right. It’s from his play Lady Windermere’s Fan. But for multigazillion bonus points, can you say what comes next? No? Well, here’s the next line.

“And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.”

Value and price: that’s my theme for today. Value and price and the relationship between them. And also, for a sort of subsidiary theme, little-known second parts to well-known things. Which have to do, ultimately, with value and price, as we’ll see. Now, to value and price and the relationship between them.

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Here’s another quote for you:

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

Yes, you know that one, too. Spoken by the hunchback King Richard III on the battlefield, fighting on foot after his own horse has been killed.

And you know, of course, that it’s not Oscar Wilde, this quote, and not Winston Churchill, and not even Noel Coward (“I like long walks. Especially when they are taken by people who annoy me” – how can we have forgotten him earlier?) but the other King of Quotes, William Shakespeare.

Now you know, and I know, that however horses were back then, they didn’t generally cost an entire kingdom. But with the hunchbacked king on foot in the middle of a fierce hand-to-hand battle, and conspicuous, and vulnerable, the value of a horse had just shot right through the roof, on account of it being the one thing that would save his life. Ditto the value of a breath of air to a drowning man, or a single minute of life to a man – let’s imagine Saddam Hussein, say – standing on a gallows trapdoor as he hears the click of the lever being pulled.

So, we know that there is a relationship between value and price. We know that what we value more, we are prepared to pay more for. And, conversely, when it comes to what we value little, well, you’ll find it hard to get people to part with tuppence for. And we know that values change, and prices change with them. Back in the 17th Century, you could have bought one of the 750 copies of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, including the horse quote, for a pound. Allowing for inflation in the intervening centuries, that would be about £100 at today’s prices. Whereas try and buy one today and you’d be hard pushed to get one for less than £2 million.

So price is a reflection of value: things cost, by and large, what people are prepared to pay for them.

But there’s a lesser-known second half to all this – value, in turn, is often a reflection of price. Which is to say, people often think more highly of expensive things, for no other reason than how much they cost.

Now, I can imagine you sort of half-agreeing with this. Thinking of some people to whom this applies rather a lot, but feeling somehow more grounded and genuine yourself, and not swayed by such shallow materialism.

And there are people who do seem to be very conspicuously swayed by high prices. The sort of very wealthy people who have solid gold taps, for example, or Bentleys painted the colour of their favourite nail-varnish. There’s a joke I heard in Moscow about two oligarchs who meet in a bar. One admires the gorgeous silk tie worn by the other.

“Ivan!” he says, “Where did you get that tie? And how much did it cost you.”

At which Ivan smiles knowingly.

“A little shop down the road from here,” he says, “Very exclusive. Very expensive. They only let a select few into the shop. This cost me 20,000 roubles! Can you believe that, Oleg? Twenty thousand for a tie!”

Oleg looks at him pityingly.

“You fool,” he says, “There’s another shop just around the corner. You could have picked up one of those there for 30,000.”

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Now, you may sneer and feel yourself superior to the superficial super-rich, but research shows that the same principles apply rather closer to home. Have you ever been to an expensive restaurant and noticed how good the food tastes? Or savoured the complexity of a glass of vintage wine? Well, if you have, there’s a reason you had such a wonderful experience. The price.

In 2001, at the University of Bordeaux, Frederic Brochet carried out a psychological experiment on oenology students studying there. Oenology is the study of wine. The department is just down the university corridor from the boules department and the Gallic shrugging department. Probably. But anyway, these wine students: he gave them two bottles of wine to evaluate. One was a bottle of cheap supermarket plonk. The other was some grand vintage or other from a fancy chateau. Or so they thought. Asked to describe the expensive wine, the students gave lengthy descriptions, using adjectives such as “complex and full-bodied.” Asked to describe the plonk, they talked about it as “weak and flat.” Except. Except that they were describing the exact same wine, with different labels on. Being expensive led the students to believe it must be better and more valuable.

And it’s more than just belief. There’s evidence that knowing wine is expensive actually makes it taste better.  In an experiment at California Tech Institute, bottles of wine ranging from $5 to $90 were compared. Again, it was the same stuff in all the bottles – but this time the tasters were connected to a brain scanner. While tasting the wine, an area in the ‘pleasure zone’ of the prefrontal cortex of the brain would light up every time they drank the wine. But when they thought the wine was expensive, it actually lit up more. Which meant, in essence, that they were actually enjoying the flavour more.

So price affects value as much as value affects price, though we might think otherwise.

All of which leads me to the little-known second part to my story today, which concerns a book I’m writing at the moment and, ultimately, matters of value and price.

A year or so back I wrote an adventure novel, set in the English Civil War. My agent touted it around the London publishers, and got back pretty much the same response, time after time: yes, yes – there’s some nice writing there, but it won’t sell. It’s the period. We’ve tried with some of our own authors, and no-one buys books about that period. It won’t sell to the US, either: they really won’t get it.

So the perceived value, and consequently the price they were prepared to pay for the manuscript, was around zero.

We did speak to one publisher who we thought was going to give us a different response. “Love it!” she said, “Great characters. Great writing.”

Which was good.

“But there’s just one little problem.”

The problem?

“The period. Could you set it in the Elizabethan era?”

My first response was “Well, this Civil War novel: the one with Cavaliers and Roundheads in it, and Oliver Cromwell and Prince Rupert of the Rhein. What part of it, exactly, do you want me to set in the Elizabethan era?”

My second response was “No. Bugger off.”

And my third response, a couple of months later, was “Hmmm. I wonder…”

Which is why I sit here now, some tens of thousands of words into The Master Thief, a new novel set in London in the last years of the reign of Elizabeth I. It’s why I sit piling up page after page of its particular mix of street crime, candle-making, journeys from rags to riches and back again and inept hopeless rebellion, and wondering how, and where, things will end up on the old value-price equation.

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