Up to the job

(From Accountancy magazine, February 1982)

Gripping read, isn’t it? That’s how I spent my leisure time when I was 25. It’s the most important thing I’ve ever written, by a wide margin. Having left Deloitte Haskins & Sells the previous year citing technical differences with the examiners, I obtained a measure of closure by getting this article – criticising an aspect of their audit techniques – published in Accountancy, the most widely read magazine of that profession.

As a failed accountant, I didn’t exactly have the world at my feet, so I had settled for a fairly dull job as assistant in the two-man Statistics department of a small, specialised stockbroking firm, Gilbert Eliott & Co. My boss Dick was about sixty, and I could see my future etched in his closed, tetchy old face, measured in endless priority percentage calculations, monthly preference and bond updates, and in thirty-nine annual fixed interest handbooks.

But while Mr George Baylis FCA – the firm’s personnel officer and a qualified accountant – was enjoying his complimentary copy of Accountancy, my face stared back at him from page 136. He let me know he had seen the article, and he must have mentioned it to his fellow partners. Within a week, the head of the preference department, Peter Thompson, had come into our tiny office – carefully choosing the hour when Dick was at lunch – and asked whether I would like to transfer to his department: initially to help with administration and dealing, but with a view to graduating to broking.

In the early 1980s the City was still largely populated by the old guard of aristocratic third sons, blackguards unsuited for the army or the church and lazy old gents wandering in to to the office at ten from the Waterloo train, disappearing for lunch between one and four. Many were lazy, some were plain stupid. Steadily they were being replaced by sharp- witted lads from Essex, grammar school boys and even the odd graduate.

So when Mr Thompson made his offer, I didn’t hesitate. Given the calibre of some of my colleagues, it shouldn’t be difficult to make a mark. My knowledge of the stocks was comprehensive after the stats training, but the sales aspect of the job didn’t come easily: for a long time I was nervous of making a fool of myself on the telephone.

The partners must have thought the safest course was to assign me accounts where the firm was doing little business, so I couldn’t do much damage, and might improve our revenue there. After a slow start, ambition eventually overcame fear. One lunchtime when I was alone, minding the shop, it was as if a switch had been flicked in my head: suddenly I knew what to do. I made four sales calls, and two of them were successful. The two partners on the desk came back to a couple of decent dealing slips they hadn’t expected.

But the day I really got my feet under the desk was in 1983, on 3rd August which happens to be my birthday. A fund manager from a previously barren account which I had been carefully (but so far unsuccessfully) cultivating – supplying a stream of what I hoped was helpful information and analysis – called me up out of the blue. “Are you busy this morning?’ she asked. “Oh, one or two things on” I lied. She ignored my reply and pressed on. “Well, you will be now. Have you got a pen and paper? I want to sell these.” And she read out a long list of holdings. Over the day we got all the business done. Now I knew I could do the job.

Of course, the problem for the firm in assigning its dead accounts to the new guy was that I now knew that the revenue I had generated attached to me personally as much as it did to the firm. This made me confident of what I was worth to my employer.

If a person gives you something, it is instinctive to thank them. But when Mr Thompson handed me a bonus slip representing an amount of money I could only have dreamt of three years earlier – and of course exceeded the social value of my work by a huge factor – I resisted the impulse to thank him. I simply nodded acknowledgement and said “OK.” Because the bonus was clearly a miserly percentage of the increased revenue I had brought in.

This was Thatcher’s decade, the age of the yuppie. Before long, opportunity knocked again in the shape of an approach from a rival firm. “Big Bang” was on the horizon, and broking firms, buoyed with cash from US and other banks, were aggressively recruiting. When Simon & Coates (soon to trade as Chase Manhattan) named the salary they were proposing to pay me, I needed time to consider it. About three seconds. I tried to contain my excitement. “I think that sounds reasonable” I said. I was on my way. And all thanks to that very dull article.

The Excellent Trap

Alan looked listlessly at the minutes he had taken of the meeting. It wouldn’t be difficult to tidy them up so they would read smoothly. A coherent and complete account of – what? The bickerings of academics, mostly old, male and white. No wonder there were so many murders in Oxford.

It wouldn’t be difficult, and that was the problem: he was bored, although the professors would often praise his diplomatic skills. He had the knack of nudging warring parties to compromises, quelling storms in this parish teacup. Perhaps he had no enemies because he was so mildly flavoured and preferred to avoid conflict.

He remembered with a start the school reunion he’d agreed to attend the following Saturday in Reading, a group of five gathering to mark thirty years since leaving school. He should probably book a room at the pub. But the website showed no rooms available. Damn, left it too late. There was a Premier Inn within ten minutes’ walk, but he couldn’t face it. He resolved to forego alcohol and drive back to his own bed.

**********

When he arrived the boys were already onto their second pint, and the conversation was lively. The others had all arranged taxis or booked rooms in town, and after the initial greetings he felt out of step, excluded by sobriety as they grew louder. Disengaged, he let his eyes wander round the group.

Look at Robert, the cool one, who’d been in a band at school and dropped out before his final year. After a decade of trying and failing to make it as a musician and songwriter, two failed marriages and three children, his dad had lent him the money to buy a beat-up old studio, and he’d refitted it, and done very nicely, thank you: now he rubbed shoulders with rock royalty, and was regaling them with stories of Eric Clapton and Van Morrison. Like the gold rush, thought Alan, the prospectors don’t often get rich, it’s the guy who sells them the picks and shovels. Robert had lived.

And Martin the nerd, laughing enthusiastically at Robert’s anecdotes – already alternating his G&Ts with straight tonic water – who had wanted nothing more, since he was fourteen, than to be an accountant, and had applied himself single-mindedly to this steady ambition. Surely he was even more boring than Alan? Maybe not, Alan had to concede, because he had such an air of contentment – seemed so relaxed in his skin – that he made very easy company, never seeking the limelight – one of the gang.

Mark, he remembered, had come in to school on a motorbike almost as soon as he reached sixteen, and had spent his weekends tinkering with it. Whether to make it faster or just noisier Alan never knew. Mark had trained as an engineer, and had wound up in charge of a large car plant in the Midlands. He still favoured a leather jacket – although the evening was warm – and walked unevenly, the steel pins in his leg a souvenir of his biking days. He asserted, as he waved his pint about, that Brexit would make no difference to the business.

Alan went to challenge this view, but mistimed his effort to be heard over the volume of his alcohol-fuelled friends. His mind drifted back to the sixth form: his French teacher “Your work is excellent, Loudon. Have you considered Oxbridge?” And Mr Kershaw had been right, in a way. Alan had sailed into Oxford with near perfect A-levels. He hadn’t enjoyed the atmosphere of the college – initially he found it stifling – but he applied himself well to his studies, and when his tutor pointed out that he was on course for a solid first, and encouraged him to study for a doctorate, Alan had felt flattered.

Eager to please, and not drawn to any external careers, he had remained in academia out of inertia and…lack of imagination? He’d found exams easy since primary school, and had been happy to let himself be swept straight ahead, as long as he received approval, never curious about other avenues, wary of the world outside.

So Alan started a doctoral thesis. On, then, to R. But he soon realised he was not yet at Q: he was not sure he had even reached N yet. He could answer questions easily, it seemed, but was he smart enough to ask one? He felt his intellect – or fatally, his curiosity – reaching its limit. With help from his tutor, he had concocted a question, and answered it in a way that was…fine, and duly collected his doctorate. But – and he was still embarrassed by how long he had taken to realise this – even if he became England’s greatest expert on Maurois, Molière and Mauriac, so what? He would still rank behind a hundred professeurs and professeures who had grown up speaking French, steeped in the literature and culture.

So he had lost any interest in pursuing a teaching post, but having met Alison he didn’t want to leave Oxford. He accepted a modest job in administration, and had risen to become secretary to one of the smaller colleges.

Nigel, who had got wind of the gathering and invited himself along, was now holding forth on how share prices were about to plummet. Annoying know-it-all little Nigel, Wormtail of the group, who had gone to work in the City and now owned a huge house in Beaconsfield. Thirty years on, bumptious as ever.

But that was it. The others all loved what they did. Square pegs who’d found square holes. Except for the accountant Martin, there had been no career plan, just trial and error, opportunistic – sometimes desperate – leaps from rock to rock. But here they all were, full of life, brimming with stories. Alan found himself fingering the car keys in his pocket, although it was not yet ten o’clock.