Once upon a time, on a far-away island on the other side of the world, the king’s daughter was looking for an internship. The royal coffers had been drained to pay for her education in a foreign university high up in the world league tables, and she could no longer afford to buy expensive clothes. She realised that she needed to put her degree in economics to good use.
It so happened that a delegation of high-ranking officials from global multinational corporations was due to visit the island kingdom, hoping to secure drilling rights in the small remaining area of primeval forest. The King identified the company CEO with the largest private jet and drew him aside at an official function.
They looked across at the King’s daughter who was gracefully haggling with the delegation over legal issues. She was enrobed in a sparkling gown woven of gold threads, from an outlet store in an industrial town.
The King winked.
‘She can spin straw into gold,’ he boasted, ‘metaphorically speaking.’
‘Really…’ breathed the CEO. Unfortunately he was dazzled by the golden dress, could not decipher the King’s island accent and only grasped the first part of the sentence.
‘I’d like to see her resumé…’ he murmured.
A few weeks later, full of hope and ambition, the King’s daughter arrived from the City Airport at the London headquarters of the multinational corporation and was issued with an ID card and ushered into a huge basement. In the basement was a spinning wheel, and one half of the room was filled with bales of straw. The Director of Human Resources arrived, flanked by some tough-looking security guards.
‘Get spinning,’ she said.
‘Are you crazy?’ replied the King’s daughter. ‘Call this an internship? It’s exploitation!’
‘Sure, our last intern developed post-traumatic stress disorder,’ admitted the Director. ‘But, to get to the top, you have to start at the bottom. Rock bottom. Now, get spinning or you will be imprisoned in a bedsit in Mile End on minimum wage for the rest of your life, unable to save the airfare to see your island home again.’
The door closed on the King’s daughter with a clang.
She examined the spinning wheel. It was not something that had been included in her degree syllabus, but she rotated it a few turns. It was hard work. She found out how to feed the straw into it, but all that came out was straw. She sat on a bale of the stuff to weep, despairing over her career prospects and certain that she would never return to her beloved home and her royal father.
Suddenly with a puff of smoke and a little pop, like an indoor firework at a New Year’s Eve Party, an imp appeared. He had a devilish little face, a dark goatee beard, and wore a long beige tunic and an explosive vest.
‘Have you come to radicalise me?’ asked the King’s daughter, wearily. ‘You’re wasting your time, I’m a neoliberal. I tried all that at university.’
‘Nah,’ said the imp. ‘Heard you cryin’, innit?’
The King’s daughter explained the impossible task which she had been set.
‘Piece of piss,’ said the imp. ‘I can get that turned into gold for you, no sweat. But, hey, what’ll I get in return? I ain’t no charity.’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘although I am a King’s daughter, I come from a poor country and have no money to pay you. But I own a lot of land in my home country and I can give you fifty hectares.’
The imp considered.
‘Have you got a bit near an airport?’
‘OK. Deal.’ The imp grinned and held out a sinewy hand, and they shook.
‘Abracadabra,’ said the imp, and behind him the straw took on a golden, softly glowing hue and solidified into rows of shining oblongs like the ones in the Bank of England.
‘That’s amazing!’ exclaimed the King’s daughter. ‘How on earth?’ But the imp was gone. She ran to the wall of gold bars and tried to lift one, but it was too heavy. Even the straw in the spinning wheel had turned into gold wire, heavy, pliant, and glittering.
‘I will surely get a place on the graduate scheme now,’ she thought to herself, and that evening she went home on the tube to her miserable bedsit with a glow of happiness in her heart, expecting praise and reward to be heaped upon her by the grateful CEO.
The next day when she arrived at the ugly monolith where she worked, she found that all the gold bars had been removed and a second basementful of straw had been delivered.
‘You’d better get cracking with this,’ said the Director of Logistics. ‘Rumours are going round and the price of straw’s going up. Bought up all we could get hold of overnight. It cost a fortune and I don’t want that money going to waste. You want a future with this company? Get to it.’
Again she heard the basement door clang shut and waited despondently, hoping the imp would return.
And sure enough, with a puff of smoke and a little pop he appeared.
‘Ho-kay!’ he said. ‘Where’d they get all that from?’
‘I will give you a hundred more hectares of land,’ said the King’s daughter, ‘if you can turn this into gold. Also we have convenient money laundering facilities and tax privileges for certain types of income.’
‘Yeah,’ said the imp. ‘Was kinda thinking ‘bout a training camp, you know, for wannabe imps, like?’
The King’s daughter shrugged.
‘Fiddlededee,’ said the imp, and the huge mountain of straw turned into solid gold.
These events repeated themselves for some weeks.
By the second week the multinational was recording profits greater than ever before in its history, whilst its buyers scoured the countryside for straw. Stocks ran low and equestrians had to lock and guard their supplies. Even a small bale from a country store could fetch a thousand pounds. People started to invest heavily in straw, inspired by tales of farmhands who had become wealthy overnight and purchased top-spec luxury all-terrain vehicles. In their rush to make money, they even imported rotten straw from America without checking it out properly.
The King’s daughter promised ever larger swathes of her birthright to the imp until she had no more to pledge.
One day she said to him: ‘They’ve offered me a package of shares and rights issues in return for the work on the gold. I’ll give you half that in return for the land.’
‘Sounds cool,’ said the imp. ‘I wanna more central location, innit. Middle East, somewhere, right?’
But a few weeks later, the Director of Finance was starting to sweat.
‘We can’t sell this gold anywhere,’ he complained irritably to the King’s daughter. ‘We’re having to reduce the price. No-one wants it.’
‘Supply and demand?’ she mused.
‘Plus they’re all complaining that it’s just glorified straw, and what is it good for anyway? Why is it better than, well, steel for example? Or even lead?’
‘How low has the price fallen?’ she asked. She flinched when he told her.
‘I’ll have to stop production,’ she said. ‘It’s not economic. We’d better not buy any more straw.’
Within days, the value of straw had plummeted to an all-time low and commodities dealers were hurling themselves from tall buildings in the Square Mile in such large numbers that the lifts had to be put out of action.
‘It’s all over,’ said the CEO to the King’s daughter. ‘We’re billions in debt and having to be bailed out by the Government. Shares are worthless. There’s an economic crisis. Bonuses are going to drop by nearly 10% this year. You’d better go home – economy class, mind.’
She met the imp for the last time in the empty basement, to give him his redundancy notice, and inform him that his share options were now valueless. He stamped and swore, furious at her ingratitude and betrayal. He totally lost it. In his rage, he stamped his feet so hard that he detonated his explosive vest. Above him, fifty floors of award-winning architectural design shivered into a pile of broken concrete and glass.
And that was the end of all of them.
Fortunately, everything was blamed on the outgoing government, and so the grieving King on his little island could still hold his head up high whilst enjoying his oil revenues.