Hall’s Way

An interview with Peter Hall

B Beyond met financier and philanthropist Peter Hall at his Soho, London office which largely reflects his taste in art.

Directly opposite the main entrance is a large Damien Hirst that was acquired at a charity auction. The hallway leading to the offices displays an impressive selection of works by Phil Hale, an artist Hall actively collects.

His private office has three oil portraits by Phil Hale – of his 3 and half year old son, of the boy’s mother, and of Hall himself. Other works are by Sara Fletcher and the late Sarah Raphael who was at Bedales with Hall. He is perhaps better known for his collection of 16th century portraits of famous people which he started because of his interest in history. Collecting art is ‘partially an indulgence’, partially a sound investment in what he views as an undervalued asset.

‘I started collecting because I found it unbelievable that you could buy 500 year-old paintings for relatively low prices – low relative to contemporary works. I wanted to build up a portfolio of art works as part of my asset management program and decided that historical portraits was an undervalued sector. I buy contemporary art from people I know.’

On the economy

There are a number of video recordings on the Hunter Hall website in which Peter Hall summarises his take on the recession, the future of the economy, the global order of things (and the shape of things to come) and on philanthropy.

I ask him to elaborate on the crisis engulfing the West and Europe in particular, and if he has any recipe for averting the quasi- apocalyptic scenario he describes in one particular recording.

Should we perhaps be electing economists and successful entrepreneurs to run governments rather than politicians who need to please voters on each side of the political divide?

He advocates better fiscal education instead and cites the example of Australia, his country of birth, where every employee has to pay a minimum of 9% of their income into a superannuation fund.

These contributions are compulsory, netting Australian workers over $1.28 trillion in superannuation assets, and more money invested in managed funds per capita than any other economy.

The superannuation fund fosters a spirit of society shareholding and you can discuss a vast range of investment-related issues with just about anyone in Australia, says Hall.

‘It gives people a stake in the country and its economy.’

Europe, on the other hand, is on a path of slow decline because its competitive edge is compromised by a combination of factors, not least the “parasitical” culture of entitlement and high expectations fuelled by decades of buoyant economic growth that is coming to an end.

‘Our economy is accelerating but it’s a system with limits. And we are just driving ourselves to the limit more and more quickly by this emphasis on growth.

‘I think that in terms of growth expectations juxtaposed to what’s actually happening, there will be a realisation in the next five to twenty years that the economy has to adapt and change – or change will be forced upon us.’

Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the welfare state?

There are, Hall says, powerful vested interests against the reduction of a welfare state that is largely unsustainable in its present form: trade unions, charities, lobby groups… While he supports the welfare principle as a safety net for the old and vulnerable, he believes that a voucher-based system would go a long way towards reducing the dependency culture. One of his more radical proposals would be to pull down housing estates, turn the land over to private property developers, and create social housing based on the allocation of vouchers.

Does Europe have a future in the new world order?

Hall talks about Europe’s amazing creativity, its history and diversity, and the human species’ unique ability for finding solutions to problems.

The economic cataclysms rocking the old continent are not the only problem – there are, of course, the wider environmental challenges facing us all and contributing to the sense of foreboding. Hall is, of course, a leading environmentalist and conservationist. Today, he supports primarily charities protecting endangered species.

On the environment

When I ask him what he considers to be man’s greatest failing in the context of damaging the environment, he replies unequivocally ‘Our failure to recognise the rights of other living creatures to live.’

He is an eloquent advocate for the principle of collective responsibility to stop depleting the world’s resources – as well as to harness and build on existing skills, develop intellectual property, celebrate diversity, and establish a different economic base and a new social order.

‘I think there are so many bright flashing lights grabbing our attention and grabbing our time whereas the deeper satisfactions are in friendships and in home-made cooking, gardening and listening to music, in reading books and taking life at a slower pace.’

Does being a conscientious consumer require sacrificing some of the things that we have come to believe we’re entitled to?

This is a recently acquired sense of entitlement, says Hall. People can be educated to new ways of behaving but this will require changes to patterns of behaviour.

‘Would it make any change to people’s general happiness? I don’t think it will. People may have to give up cheap international travel and sacrifice some sunshine but they will find happiness in other things. The same is true of everyone who thinks it’s their right to travel the world and go to amazing places – we will just have to give up that sense of entitlement. And as I say, it will be a diminished world, it will be a smaller, less interesting world but there will still be a lot of happiness and satisfaction in that world.’

Do governments have a responsibility to educate people on the environment and how is the UK government doing?

Hall firmly believes they do and feels the British Government needs to show more commitment to protecting global biodiversity.

‘A case in point is the Darwin Initiative [a UK Government funding program that aims to assist countries with rich biodiversity but poor financial resources to meet their objectives under the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora , and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals]. The Government has increased its funding from £7m to £14m, but we are in the middle of the greatest environmental crisis and this is just a drop in the ocean.’

Peter Hall has authored a passionate essay, titled Lumberjacks in Eden, on the accelerating depletion of natural resources – ‘the destruction of the Tree of Life’ – calling it ‘an existential crisis for our civilisation’. This is a well-researched document that cautions against the rampant and hard-wired consumerism of the human race which, combined with the rapidly expanding growth of the world’s population, threatens to ultimately destroy our planet and us with it.

The guesstimate for reaching a point of global imbalance, when the world will ‘teeter on the abyss of famine, disorder, ugliness and meaninglessness’, is within the next 10 years. The essay does, nevertheless, offer some hope and a constructive plan of suggested actions which include reversing population growth, replenishing the earth’s wilderness/confining human occupation, preserving biodiversity and building a coalition of states to carry out the program.

This well-written and accessible work can be downloaded freely and should be prerequisite reading for all, not just ardent environmentalists.

The essay says Peter Hall, was ‘an attempt to articulate my ideas and put them in the public domain.’

On publishing and printed matter

He is not new to publishing, having backed a couple of magazines in the UK, and takes active interest in the future of the industry in general. We discussed publishing models, the pros and cons of advertisements and the future of printed matter.

‘I see a huge future for printed matter – we’re surrounded by it and it offers a very pleasant way of consuming ideas. You don’t retain information in the same way when you are looking at a screen because there are always things trying to grab your attention. A book or a newspaper has your attention 100 percent.’

Are we becoming a world of twiteratti?

‘Neil Postman wrote a very good book about this in 1985 called ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’, which is all about moving from a reading culture to a watching culture or a viewing culture. However, there is still a very important hard core of people who enjoy reading. As long as we still have 10 or 20 percent of the population who do read, we should be okay.’

On a personal note…

Hall enjoys reading, being in nature, history and the arts. He also enjoys ‘talking, dining and doing things with friends.’

‘The quality I treasure most in others, it’s a mixture of things, because you can’t cite just one, obviously. But I do treasure kindness and intelligence, and a sense of fun and optimism are very important.’

What do others most like about him? ‘I don’t know. Possibly my generosity of spirit.’

The best advice he’s ever been given or would give himself?

‘Get real.’