When contemplating telling the story of Hindle Walbarrow It occurred to me that I must first tell the salutary tale of the House of Bumblewin. The Bumblewins are usurers and will indeed lend money. But they are also calculate actuarial tables and even more importantly, they produce the compound interest tables that so many others use. Now you would have thought that once you had a compound interest table, it would do forever. After all, numbers don’t change.
Jos Bumblewin Senior had realised that as well. But he was determined to do something about it. Now even a leading Port Naain Usurer cannot change arithmetic. But he could influence the calculation. As a Sinecurist he suggested to the Council of Sinecurists that the Council could cover a temporary shortfall in their budget by raising an impost of one dreg per alar repaid. He pointed out that it would fall to usurers to collect this and pay it, annually, to the Council. Whilst a very small sum on any given loan, across the city in the course of a year, it produced a respectable sum. The Council accepted his suggestion with gratitude.
Of course Jos Bumblewin then set his clerks to producing the compound interest tables which not merely gave the bare bones of the loan but also calculated the tax due per annum. Over the next few years he kept his business booming by suggesting minor changes in the rate to help balance the Council’s accounts. So in the course of a generation the rate fluctuated from between two-thirds of a dreg per alar through to two and three-sixteenths dregs per alar.
Jos Bumblewin Junior was faced with another problem. It was getting difficult to find a rate that hadn’t previously been used. If you merely repeated a rate, your customers merely dug the old tables out of the file. Incidentally this meant that craftsmen who produced appropriately sized bookcases to accommodate these sets of tables did experience a small increase in business. Thus the Bumblewins could claim that their policy was not merely selfish but did in some way stimulate the economy. But merely changing the rate of tax produced diminishing returns with sales of new bound copies of the tables being disappointing. It was Jos Bumblewin Junior who advocated the split rate. He pointed out to the Council that the larger loans were often to the advantage of the city, providing major investment. Thus he suggested that the rate charged on the first ten alars repaid per annum would be higher than the rate charged on any further sum repaid. This of course needed new tables. Indeed over the years Jos Bumblewin Junior ensured his continuing prosperity by suggesting not merely changes to the cut-off point, but also changing the rate above and below the cut-off point.
Of course one cannot expect usurers to let this situation develop without taking steps of their own. Whilst outwardly imperturbable they looked at the situation long and hard. Over the years what had initially been a purely nominal tax had become somewhat more burdensome. Unlike many more enlightened regimes, the Council of Sinecurists, when presented with a source of income, felt obliged to spend it. I suppose they felt doing any less would leave them open to the charge of being ungrateful.
So usurers quietly decided to find ‘work arounds’ to ensure that they weren’t forced to pay too much of the impost. Well obviously the usurer didn’t pay the impost, the client did, but still, a usurer who could find some almost legitimate way to avoid it would be at an advantage when compared to his fellows. He or she could either win business by being able to offer better terms, or they could merely collect the impost and keep it for themselves. Or indeed they could do a little of both.
So first they developed ‘Country Loans.’ The argument was that the impost was only on loans taken out in Port Naain. So if you took out a loan with a usurer not based in Port Naain, you didn’t have to pay the impost. This seems fair enough and anybody could have travelled to, for example, Avitas and availed themselves of the services available there. But obviously there is a cost, and the usurers of Avitas are less familiar with Port Naain clients and might be less obliging. So the obvious thing to do was for the Port Naain usurer to have an office outside Port Naain. This meant that the business might be transacted outside Port Naain but you had the advantage of doing business with people you knew.
Now there is the issue of just how far outside Port Naain you had to be. The suburbs of Roskadil and Saskadil had always been considered part of Port Naain for legal reasons. (Except for matters regarding inheritance and Levirate marriage where they follow Partann.) The inn, the Dilettante’s Repose, did rather well out of the whole thing. It is an easy day’s journey from Port Naain on the Avitas road. Any number of Port Naain usurers paid the landlord a nominal sum to hang their plate on the lounge wall. This gave them the right to hire a small room to conduct business in.
The problem with Country Loans is that it still involves a trip to the Dilettante’s Repose. Somebody then came up with Maritime Loans. These followed the same logic as Country Loans, but rather than being outside the city on land, they were outside by sea. Rather than travelling for a day, you merely had to go out to a boat. Eventually the courts decided that as Port Naain had always refused to accept responsibility for a boat until it had tied up to the wharf and dropped the gangplank, this defined whether the boat was in Port Naain or not. Indeed for some years one usurer conducted quite a lot of business from a barge which had ‘become stuck on a sandbank’ barely a foot from the wharf and was ‘expecting to be lifted off by the next tide’ for the entirety of the period.
At this point Jos Bumblewin Junior had retired and his son Jos Derde Bumblewin was in charge. He pointed out to the Council of Sinecurists that these expedients were causing the city to lose income. His remedy was to charge Port Naain usurers who negotiated Country or Maritime loans a separate tax. You could avoid paying this by not being registered in Port Naain as a usurer, but if your registration lapsed you then had to pay a separate tax on all your loans. It was during his time that the family produced the first volume of ‘Bumblewins Guide to Loans; Town, Country and Maritime.’ He was assassinated by a madman. Apparently the assassin had been a simple usurer’s clerk, driven to irrational fury as he desperately tried to keep abreast of the situation.
The next heir, Jos Vierde Bumblewin, saw no reason to make changes. He realised that the system had reached a level where it was self-sustaining. Without any effort on his part it would continue to grow in complexity. All he had to do was to keep updating Bumblewins Guide to Loans, as well as making sure that with each volume he produced a parallel volume of tables to allow usurers to easily calculate the various imposts. His fortune was guaranteed.
As for the monies raised by the impost, these were initially to cover cost of decorating the dining room for the Sinecurists’ annual dinner. Over the years, as the arrangements grew in complexity and various rebates were built into it, one Sinecurist calculated that the system didn’t actually produce any income for the Council. Still, by this point a thriving industry had been built up and it was considered unwise to do anything which might cause it to collapse.
If you wish to see more of Port Naain, then you could do worse than read
When mages and their suppliers fall out, people tend to die. This becomes a problem when somebody dies before they manage to pass on the important artefact they had stolen. Now a lot of dangerous, violent or merely amoral people are searching, and Benor has got caught up in it all. There are times when you discover that being forced to rely upon a poet for back-up isn’t as reassuring as you might hope.
As a reviewer commented, “What starts off looking like a theft at sea, followed by a several findings in the mud when the tide is out, soon morphs into an intriguing tale where Benor, Tallis, Shena, Mutt, and a plethora of other folks, get involved in dealing with dark deeds in Port Naain.”