He is sending back a bottle of 1965 Croft because it ‘doesn’t taste right’. I know that the odds of it tasting identical to the bottle we just drank in Pétrus are slim to none even if we were sober. He is miffed at the lack of label and they bring back the cork. I exchange an exasperated look with the sommelier, who woefully nods at yet another example of an Essex wide-boy embarrassing himself, and quietly brings another bottle. Our clients, traders visiting from Germany, continue to puff on their cigars.
The Essex boy is not a breed that most public-school girls from Devon often encounter. Historically, however, and still today, they make up the gritty backbone and furry underbelly of the City’s inter-dealer brokers, acting as intermediaries in the trading of numerous financial instruments, making money whether the market goes up or down. It is therefore understandable that one of the Germans asks if I too am from Essex like my port-rebuking colleague. I stop short of attempting to explain the nuances of the Essex accent compared to my own when my colleague chips in with ‘Nah mate, she’s a posh bird, ain’t she? But she’s all right.’ My tag of ‘posh, but all right’ has stayed with me over the last year, and is a label I fought hard for. During my first week on the trading floor bets were taken as to whether I’d outlive the last girl, who managed a mere four days; balls were hurled at me from the other side of the room and I was asked countless times what on earth someone with a degree in Russian from a top university was doing rejecting the world of investment banking and grad schemes in favour of broking at the most aggressive, archaic and male-dominated firm in the City.
However, after the initial shock of working with hundreds of marauding barrow boys who shouted and swore from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., only breaking for football discussions, the odd read of the tabloids and lunch (pie and mash, fish and chips and pickled onions became my staple diet — always eaten at my desk), I ended up fitting in better than I ever did at boarding school or university. My first trade was greeted with the obligatory chants of ‘RUN!’, meaning a lap of the entire floor while other brokers hurled water and hammered their phones on their desks, creating a deafening blast of sound. I soon developed an entirely different language: cockney rhyming slang mixed with trading terms, sprinkled with a hefty dose of obscenities, all said with perfect RP, much to everyone’s amusement. But this wasn’t without various misunderstandings, the most memorable being hearing a colleague referred to as The Ferg and assuming this was simply a nickname. ‘Ferg’ was in fact short for Feargal Sharkey — rhyming slang for ‘Darkie’ — not a nickname you really want to be throwing around indiscriminately.
My boss was a 50-year-old American ex-trader and one of the most disliked and thickest-skinned people in the City. His greed was notorious, which, in an industry where greed is largely taken as read, is really saying something. I had heard various stories of the many times he had been attacked in his career, and the countless phones he had broken by smashing them in a fit of frustration and rage. Every time a fight broke out people would spread rumours in the market that he had been hospitalised or was dead. The news would only ever be greeted with merriment or disbelief that someone had finally got rid of him. Over the past year I have witnessed him being throttled and pulled off his chair in a headlock, and most recently he hurled his Bloomberg keyboard at someone sitting opposite, causing all the keys to fly across the room. Having stormed off the floor he then called and abruptly asked if I could make sure his faulty keyboard was reported, as he would not be returning that afternoon and would be needing his spacebar on Monday.
Physically the job had begun to affect me. Getting up at 5.45 a.m. having often been out until past midnight with clients began to take its toll. I discovered that getting up so early invariably meant not having enough time to sleep off the alcohol and thus meant turning up at my desk at 7 a.m. still drunk. Tube journeys often consisted of half an hour of deep yogic breathing where I attempted to put myself into an anti-nausea trance. On the rare occasions I got to go straight home after work I would be fast asleep, dribbling on the sofa by 7 p.m. My friends barely saw me for months, dismissing my job as consisting of eating, drinking and partying with a lot of shouting and the odd bit of bond trading in between. The girls balked when I recounted the traders’ venomous tirades that I frequently endured.
‘I would never consider a female broker girlfriend material,’ announced one of my clients, a trader at a European bank. ‘All that testosterone is bound to eventually rub off on a girl. My girlfriend works in fashion PR, I know that she’s safe there, she’s not out three nights a week with different traders having lavish meals ordering ridiculous wine — she’s in bed with me.’ I had never previously considered that my femininity might be somehow at risk. I’d apparently rendered myself ‘unmarriageable’ and destined to roam the planet alone in a testosterone-fuelled rage, armed only with an empty bottle of Krug. After this revelation I had frantically checked with my other male clients what their views were on the subject. Most agreed that it was simply not a job for a girl to be doing and that maybe I should consider something less male-dominated and less ‘ball-busting’. These were successful men, largely in their twenties and early thirties, from similar backgrounds to myself; men that in my pre-broking days I may have dated but who now viewed me as nothing short of the Incredible Hulk, but a good broker nonetheless.
At a time of such uncertainty within the financial markets the inter-dealer broker is, however Hulk-like, sitting pretty while the vast majority of traders at investment and merchant banks scramble around in search of their long-lost bonuses to guarantee that their PR and fashion assistant girlfriends don’t leave them. Meanwhile I’ll be helping myself to another glass of Château d’Yquem over dessert with my much-loved Essex boys, safe in the knowledge that they’ll never feel the urge to ask what school I went to, always treat me impeccably and, if I happen to make more money than they do, they’ll simply shake my hand and pass me a cigar, their balls still very much intact.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 9, 2008