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Love for books and accounts a balancing act for Jane Gleeson-White

“I started to realise that there was something so enormous going on with accounting, that I had to write two, not one, accounting books”: Author Jane Gleeson-White. Photo: Peter Rae “I started to realise that there was something so enormous going on with accounting, that I had to write two, not one, accounting books”: Author Jane Gleeson-White. Photo: Peter Rae

“I started to realise that there was something so enormous going on with accounting, that I had to write two, not one, accounting books”: Author Jane Gleeson-White. Photo: Peter Rae

“I started to realise that there was something so enormous going on with accounting, that I had to write two, not one, accounting books”: Author Jane Gleeson-White. Photo: Peter Rae

Will oranges grow ears? Might surfboards play the piano? Can accountants save the planet? These are questions nobody has thought to ask – until Jane Gleeson-White, author of a highly regarded history of accountancy, tackled the latter query in her most recent book, Six Capitals.

Gleeson-White and I meet at the Art Gallery of NSW where, she says, her journey into the romantic and mysterious world of accountancy began. We’re having lunch in the cafe, a cavernous and previously uninspiring eatery which has been renamed MorSul, and taken over by celebrity chef Mike Moran.

The excellent food arrives without fuss, and the elegant Gleeson-White tells her life story over a plate of smoked trout with roast kipfler and horseradish.

Oddly, Gleeson-White eats with her left foot tucked under her right buttock, in what she calls “semi-lotus position”.

“I’m very flexible,” she says, “and I can still do handstands.”

She doesn’t, however.

Gleeson-White’s father was a merchant banker. Her mother was born in Papua New Guinea, and sent to boarding school at Mittagong in the Southern Highlands after her own mother was evacuated from Rabaul before the Japanese invasion in World War Two. Gleeson-White’s grandfather, a lawyer, stayed behind to defend the town with the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles. He went missing in action in 1942, and was probably murdered in the Tol Plantation massacre in February, when the Japanese bayonetted their prisoners to death.

Gleeson-White grew up in Vaucluse, but her parents travelled the world, and she was eventually dispatched to the same Southern Highlands school her mother had once attended. Gleeson-White loved Enid Blyton’s school stories, “so the prospect of boarding school was wildly exciting”, she says.  “I was excited to go and live with lots of other children, and do bad things and have midnight feasts and cause mischief.” After two years, however, the thrill of talking after lights out began to pall. “Then it just got incredibly boring. We used to do things to entertain ourselves like make cigarettes out of pine needles and newspapers.

“The school was much more interested in hockey and singing than it was in scholarship, and I was quite interested in books and ideas, and you got the rare teacher who also was – but very rare.”

All her friends at home seemed to be enjoying wild teenage parties, and Gleeson-White wanted to come back to the eastern suburbs, but her parents moved to Singapore while she was in Year 10. “They weren’t necessarily wanting me around,” she says.

Gleeson-White pauses to comment on her lunch, which she pronounces “beautifully balanced” between the smoked trout and creamy potatoes and the “sharp, delicious watercress that I love”.

Nobody “loves” watercress.

“I do,” she insists. “It’s peppery. I totally love it.”

After her HSC, Gleeson-White spent three months with a friend in Paris, immersing herself in philosophy and art. But, upon her return, her father “incarcerated” her in secretarial school, outraging her new existential sensibility.

“But, of course, it turned out to be the best thing I ever did,” she says. “I can now touch type and I still have a bit of shorthand.”

Armed with the first competence of the computer age and the office skills of the Pitman era, Gleeson-White went to Sydney University to study literature. At 18, she read The Communist Manifesto, “and that just blew my brain apart,” she says. “I could no longer see my childhood and the world that I’d grown up in as anything but the scourge of the earth.

“I had my first major depression. I completely collapsed. I suddenly saw that life as I had known it was not given or fixed, but was arbitrary and constructed on certain things that could be changed and didn’t have to be the way they were.”

She graduated with honours, and found herself at the opening party for a Guggenheim exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW – “which is why we’re here,” she says. She was encouraged to apply for an internship at the Guggenheim in Venice. She lived in a palazzo, worked at the museum, and learned about the Renaissance from experts.

She’d become interested in finance and capital when she’d read Marx and, once she returned to Sydney from Venice, she took a degree in economics. She had a “charismatic accounting lecturer”, she says, “believe it or not – it sounds like an oxymoron.”

But, she insists, her lecturer was “passionate and Mediterranean in both personality and looks, funny and mesmerising, and said accounting as we know it today had its origins in Venice. Venice to me was parties and art and beautiful things, and accounting was the most dry, tedious subject on earth, and he was telling me they were connected. Unfortunately that stuck in my mind. For the other, sensible students, it just sailed out the window.

“That’s why we’re at this restaurant,” she says, “and that’s how my interest in art and everything beautiful got flipped in most nefarious ways into a passion for accounting.”

She worked at a bookshop, where she met her future husband, Michael, an installation artist with whom she argued about Marcel Duchamp (she preferred Francis Bacon). They travelled around Australia together in a caravan, but then he went to live in Hobart and she got a job in London, as publicity manager – or “the only person in the publicity department” – at the radical Pluto Press.

Her boss was a Trotskyite who wore “Marxist sandals” and no shirt to the office in summer. He didn’t believe in deodorant either, so “I have a very olfactory memory of Pluto Press,” she says.

Eventually, she ended up back in Australia, as a publishing assistant at Allen & Unwin.

“I married Michael in 1992,” she says. “We had some comings and goings…” She laughs. “… but eventually we coalesced … and lived together … after several years. And I got pregnant, after having several miscarriages. I was never necessarily going to have children. Michael always wanted children. And the experience of miscarriages made me realise I actually did want children. Which was very good, because I would probably otherwise have been an outrageously irresponsible mother.”

She took time off work to raise her family, and never went back. Instead she wrote a laypersons’ guide to the classics, and a popular overview of Australian literature.

But always, in the back of her mind, she nurtured the unlikely idea of a book about the role of Venice in the development of accounting. One early morning in a Kings Cross bar, she found the whisky courage to raise it with her publisher. “And she just burst out laughing,” says Gleeson-White. “She absolutely didn’t believe me. I said, ‘Tragically, for both us, I am deadly serious’.”

Her concept was a wide-ranging exploration of the material origins of the Renaissance, centred around the life of Luca Pacioli, a 15th century Tuscan friar who taught mathematics to Leonardo Da Vinci, was with the artist when he painted The Last Supper and also authored the first treatise on double-entry book-keeping.

When she submitted the book, the publisher suggested the esoteric aspects should perhaps be put to one side. “Apparently, I’d written a very interesting story of accounting,” says Gleeson-White. “Which was mortifying. Devastating. It almost gave me a breakdown to the extent of the one I had when I first read The Communist Manifesto. How could I go into the world as the author of a history of accounting, with my head held high?”

And yet she did, and the book, Double Entry, was remarkably successful. “It was picked up by the bastions of finance,” she says, “which I hadn’t expected.” The Institute of Chartered Accountants asked her to join a round-table discussion on the future of accounting. She was received by professors at the London School of Economics, who both praised and corrected her, attended a conference of accountants in Paris, and was finally invited into the heart of capitalism, a hedge-fund round-table at the wood-panelled Princeton Club in New York.

“The worst thing was,” she says, “after every one of these stages, I just became more and more fascinated. When I was in Paris for this accounting conference, I was actually supposed to be writing an article on Nick Cave. My greatest passion, which is Nick Cave, was gazumped by my obsession with this new accounting paradigm. I started to realise that there was something so enormous going on with accounting that I had to write two, not one, accounting books.”

She learned of a “revolution”, in which accountants were seeking to measure new forms of wealth beyond financial and manufactured capital. Businesses could now count “six capitals”, including intellectual, human, social and relationship and natural capital. The idea of a company’s “natural capital”, or environmental contribution, was barely given credence in 2012, but is widely accepted today.

“That just shows how quickly everything’s changing,” says Gleeson-White, “and how much the financial institutions of the world realise there’s an environmental crisis, even if Tony Abbott doesn’t.”

So can accountants save the planet?

“I have the worst answer on earth,” she says. “Yes and no. At first I was hoping accountants could change the planet, because how easy that would be if one group of people had all the answers. Of course, what I realised – and that wouldn’t shock anyone except for me – was that their interest was only in money and not actually in the planet.”

She sees hope for the world in a new type of corporation which exists not only to make a profit, but is also legally bound to make a contribution to society and the environment.

But will oranges grow ears?

Even the loquacious and eloquent author has no reply.


1961 Born in Sydney

1989 Publicity manager, Pluto Press, London

1990 Journalist, Asia Pacific Pulp & Paper

1992 Marries Michael

1993 Literary agent, Hickson Associates

1995 Publishing assistant Allen & Unwin

1997 Son Jackson born

1999 Daughter Scarlett born

2005Classics published

2007Australian Classics published

2012Double Entry published

2013 Double Entry wins Waverly Library Award for Literature

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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