Father to the man

No doubt I should have been learning more (or at least something) about the Phoenix Park murders, or rereading the turgid pages of Le Baiser au lépreux: I felt a continuous dull guilt that I was neglecting my studies. I wasn’t using my teenage years to take my first fumbling steps towards love, or taking advantage of the days when a small seventeen year-old could buy a pint of bitter unchallenged, as long as he had the money: no, instead I spent many hours buying and selling coins to improve my collection using ads in Exchange and Mart. I must have been fascinating company.

Only later did I understand that indulging my passion for trading had given me good practice for my City career. Luckily I didn’t completely ignore my studies, as I might not have been offered my entry level job at a stockbroking firm without a degree of some sort.

Sometimes your teenage interests suggest – if not always clearly – your direction in adult life. Ten years ago I met up with old school friends Charles and Richard. I remembered Charles at school had enjoyed tinkering with machines: he had become a railway engineer, specialising, when called upon, in crash forensics. Richard, I recalled, used to relish an argument on a point of detail – he had become a lawyer. I was now a City trader. We raised a glass to square pegs in square holes. Sometimes the pieces fit.

But life at school isn’t always a reliable predictor of adult life. I don’t imagine Jem, for example, would have forecast that I would grow into someone who runs marathons for the fun of it.

His name was Jeremy, but we all called him Jem. Perhaps we should have spelled that Gem: he was small and bright – younger than the official age group for our year, but sent ahead because he was clever – also friendly and funny. We were in different forms, but I met him on my first day at Watford Grammar when we found ourselves washing our hands next to each other in the luxurious toilet annexe. Two older boys were using the facilities, and one called out “Hey you two, come over here!” (Relax, this does not go badly.)

We went over there, and were asked to stand with our backs to the wall. “Blimey! You fellows are small!”. One produced a piece of chalk and marked our heights on the wall. He stood back and pronounced Jem narrowly the “winner” – i.e. the shortest boy in the school, he reckoned – and shook our hands. We looked at each other and shrugged, relieved that all the stories we had heard at primary school of blood curdling initiation rites had boiled down to this mild and good-natured ceremony.

I can’t speak for Jem, but I saw my small stature as a badge of honour: I was confident of my academic ability, and gained my self worth from that. In the following years Jem and I would often contend to be top of the year in the fortnightly maths tests – until, that is, my understanding of the subject hit a calculus brick wall.

About five years later, we were shivering in Cassiobury Park on a Wednesday afternoon waiting to begin a cross country run. These runs were almost universally unpopular. They took place in the winter when the pitches were too waterlogged for rugby or hockey: as a result it was usually cold, wet, and very muddy. There was the fearsome Jacotts Hill, which seemed to appear in every route, and the ritual instruction to keep to the path as you crossed the golf course – as if, were you slain by a ball, the knowledge that you had been righteous might comfort you as you drew your last breath.

I was competitive. Most boys didn’t try, or didn’t admit to trying – it wasn’t cool, and those who enjoyed sport preferred chasing a ball around. Many slowed to a walk as soon as they were out of sight of the teacher. But I did my honest best, and struggled: typically placing about 80th out of 120 boys, when few ahead of me cared, and probably none behind me. I plainly had no talent for this.

So I no longer put much effort into these runs, and on this day Jem – no great enthusiast either – and I decided to jog round together. It started off well: we set off about three quarters down the field, and settled into a relaxed jog/walk which left enough breath for conversation. But after a mile or so we noticed that we had lost sight of the Athlete ahead of us, and when we came to the next junction we realised that neither of us had been paying attention when the sports master had been outlining the route.

How lost can you get in a town park? Well there’s nearly 200 acres of Cassiobury Park, and over the next forty minutes we did our best. I might have felt a little annoyance: after all, Jem lived on the Cassiobury estate, dammit. Well I guess he didn’t spend his weekends exploring the park. Our navigation skills were roughly equal. By the time we found the finish line, the master (it might have been “Beery”) had given up and gone home, assuming he had miscounted, or perhaps indifferent to the fate of the boys in his charge.

So had I asked Jem, as we trudged shivering back to the changing rooms, do you think that in late middle age I’ll run through the very same muddy park regularly, often on cold rainy days, half way through a 21-mile training run, because I want to? Will I run fifteen marathons on thirteen different courses? Then he would have looked at me pityingly, assuming that the trauma of our wanderings in the park had scrambled my brain.

So what changed? In my mid thirties I took stock of my health and realised that I wasn’t getting much exercise: I tried running and became addicted. I found it therapeutic to apply myself to something so simple yet so difficult: as I ran, knots would untangle in my head. And there was the question of control: now running was a choice, I could enjoy it. I wonder if Jem ever caught the running bug?

I’m pretty sure that I haven’t acquired any new talent for running over the past half century. At least I no longer have to worry about navigation when I’m in a big city marathon: there are always plenty of people to follow. But it’s a sport where tenacity and sheer bloody-mindedness count for a lot, and if those are talents, I claim them.

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.