He was giving me the chance to jump before I was pushed…
It took me until I was 23 to realise that getting wet was avoidable. I bought a cheap folding umbrella in a hardware store on the Kilburn High Road. I couldn’t have known the effect it would have on my career and my life.
It had not been a good year. Accountancy, my career choice on leaving university was not going well. I didn’t enjoy auditing, which made up ninety percent of the work: demoralised and unmotivated, I was struggling with the professional exams. I failed my driving test for the fourth time. I was sharing a damp and cold flat in Kilburn, playing gooseberry – third wheel these days – to a young couple very much in love. Their comfort and happiness contrasted with my lonely malaise.
In November I had a halfhearted second effort at PE1, the first and easier part of the accountancy exams. The year ended on a suitably miserable note with the murder of John Lennon, a brutal full stop marking the end of my youth, as it did for a generation.
1981 did not show any immediate improvement. In January, I learned I had, as expected, failed my PE1. I was called into an interview with a partner in the firm. It seemed Deloitte Haskins + Sells could no longer overlook my technical differences with, er, the examiners, and he asked me where I thought my future lay. He was giving me the chance to jump before I was pushed, and I took my cue. “Not here” I replied. I was allowed to continue working there for a few months while I looked for a new employer.
There followed a discouraging parade of interviews: some jobs sounded interesting, but not the ones I was offered. I was pointed towards vacancies as bookkeepers or junior accountants, where it was obvious that without any qualification, responsibility and reward would be modest.
On my rounds I visited a slightly down-at-heel employment agency on Liverpool Street. A young woman there scanned my CV – a basic thing in those days – and said there was a vacancy for a statistical assistant at a small firm of stockbrokers. It didn’t sound glamorous, but what could I expect? So I said yes please, I’d like to go for an interview.
So one dark morning in May I set out on the half mile from the audit I was currently plodding through. Rain was pelting down, but luckily I had remembered my cheap umbrella. One of the ribs was buckled and it was a crumpled mess. But it just about did its job, and I managed to reach Gilbert Eliott’s offices looking more or less employable.
I was ushered in to the small room which served as the stats department, where I was interviewed by a formal and slightly grumpy man in his early sixties. He said his name was Denis, but everyone called him Dick. I wondered why anyone would go out of their way to be called Dick.
He told me about the job: I would be working just with him in that small room providing statistics and publications for the fixed interest department. He tried me with a few questions: I remember giving him a passable definition of a debenture.
When I reported back to the agency, I was ambivalent. I liked the idea of working for a firm of stockbrokers – stocks and shares had fascinated me since my school days – but the work looked deadly dull, and the thought of spending five days a week cooped up in a small office with this fellow and his cigarette smoke wasn’t enticing.
The agency woman pointed out that once I had my foot in the door, I might get the chance in due course to move over to the broking side. I was sceptical – that stats room had the look of a prison about it, and of course the agency were keen to take their commission – but could nonetheless see the possibilities. So when, a few days later, they told me I’d been offered the job, I decided to take it.
From that point, things started to look up. The young couple bought a flat and moved out: my rent wasn’t high, so I didn’t look for a new tenant, but enjoyed coming and going as I pleased. After a few months of work, I had established a steady if low key working relationship with Dick, and had my feet firmly under the desk.
I had taken a cut in pay compared to Deloittes, but Gilbert Eliott made up the difference with a bonus equivalent to about a month’s salary. In those innocent days of relatively affordable property, I had saved enough for the deposit on a flat. So with the help of a mortgage from the Abbey National and a contribution from my parents for furniture, I moved into a two-bedroom flat in Tottenham at the end of the year. It wasn’t grand, but it was modern, neat, warm and dry: and the area wasn’t smart, but it was decent, and the commute to the City was tolerable.
The following year the agency lady was proved right. I was asked to join the broking desk, initially to help out with the admin, but with a view to training as a broker. It took a while to get going, but within a couple of years I had become established on the desk. My personal confidence grew with my career, and a few years later I proposed to a wonderful girl called Debbie. And it’s nice to think that that umbrella led me to a vow.