Are smartphones fuelling a pandemic of youthful anxiety and depression? That’s the question parents will wrestle with this Christmas as their offspring clamour for the latest Samsung or Huawei. And the answer seems to be yes: these must-have accessories are corroding the nature of human interaction for the next generation — but the young can’t live without them, so we’d better get used to it. And that gives rise to an even trickier yuletide dilemma: what of the previous generation? Is there a digital device that’s safe to pop under the tree for an elderly relative?
The solution, I suggest, is the iPad. Not the iPad Pro — with more power than anyone who’s not a Hollywood film editor and part-time nuclear physicist could possibly need — but the basic £300 model that techies will tell you passed its sales peak five years ago, swept aside by the smartphone surge. Yesterday’s fashion it may be, but it’s also a timeless example of its maker Apple’s philosophy of simplified, intuitive design.
Last Christmas I gave one to my 90-year-old mother. With a certain amount of human assistance, it’s now her constant friend for email, family photographs, online shopping, crossword clues and most successfully, talking books. In that respect it’s the very opposite of the satanic, soul-eating gadget in the teenage hand: what could be more uplifting, when your eyesight has faded, than a time machine the size of a table mat that transports you back to the worlds of Trollope, Galsworthy and Somerset Maugham?
In 2018 I have found myself writing less about the City of London, giving space instead to the carmakers, coffee-shop chains, infrastructure cock-ups and maverick entrepreneurs that provided more colourful parables. Not that financial markets lacked entertainment value, whether I was laughing at bitcoin or counting the profits of ‘Faangs to Banngs’ — the winning switch from over-valued US internet stocks to undervalued gold miners suggested here in September by our veteran investor Robin Andrews. But I worry that the characters on today’s financial stage are duller than their predecessors — a fear confirmed by my traditional year-end review of City obituaries.
Roll of honour
Leading this year’s roll of honour were Sir Roger Gibbs, doyen of Lombard Street discount house men, who transformed the fortunes of the Wellcome Trust charity while also serving as president of the Cresta Run; and Peter Wilmot-Sitwell of Rowe & Pitman and Warburgs: ‘a ruddy-faced Old Etonian who favoured plain English food and a Brigade tie’ but perfected the stock-market ‘dawn raid’ and had a hand in every City coup, including persuading Robert Maxwell to rescue Eurotunnel’s flotation by investing in it for the Mirror pension funds.
Next came George Pinto, an eccentric amateur golfer who was also Kleinwort Benson’s sharpest proofreader of prospectuses, never missing an errant comma: so much so that colleagues commissioned a cartoon in the style of H.M. Bateman, in which a group poised to sign a lucrative deal are halted by a cry of ‘Oh no, someone’s shown the documents to Pinto!’ Then there was the senior partner of Laurence Prust & Co, of whom my predecessor Christopher Fildes wrote: ‘In the days when thought was not a pre-requisite, among stockbrokers or among their clients, Philip Darwin was known as the thinking man’s stockbroker.’
A friend recalls Darwin muttering: ‘I hate the City!’ In my own 43-year relationship with the Square Mile, I’ve never felt that way. Indeed, I still love the place, so well chronicled by Fildes and the historian David Kynaston, where my working life began. It’s just that among today’s bankers and brokers — tieless, humourless, gym-honed, over–regulated, stressed out by their smartphones and dispersed across the capital — the real City is becoming harder and harder to find. How I wish I had a time machine.
Lunch of the Year
‘But MVW gets to have many lunches’ was the punch line of a recent email from a reader — implying that my judgment on whatever issue he was cranked up about had been influenced by hospitality. I hope I hardly need deny the allegation — though frankly I might be more open to that kind of persuasion if City lunches, like City characters, were as much fun as they used to be. Nowadays I travel afar in search of livelier tables, and more polite readers tell me they enjoy my summer restaurant tips from la France profonde rather more than my gloomy Brexit prognostications. But my Lunch of the Year award goes to the Steelhead Diner at Pike Place Market in Seattle, where the Alaskan Razor Clam Chowder was as rich as the Trump gossip among a group of old friends, and we laughed till the sun went down over Puget Sound.
Frocked up again
Back home in my North Yorkshire town of Helmsley I’m frocked up for pantomime, this year as Red Riding Hood’s glamorous granny Harriet. As so often in modern theatre, the traditional tale of little Red’s encounter with the Big Bad Wolf has been spiced with an anticapitalist subplot, involving a wicked property tycoon called Gertrude Gazumper. But happily Gazumper is outwitted by Harriet, who ends up rich, popular and married to the mayor.
So justice and joy prevail as they always should on the panto stage, and the question for the actors is whether to let the show stand as a dose of pure escapism from grim realities, or risk some topical ad-libs. I’m afraid I couldn’t resist ‘Keep your hands off my backstop!’ — and, in a district where hydraulic fracturing to extract underground gas is a far more divisive issue even than Brexit, I’ve been tempting fate with: ‘Fracking? I’m all for it! At my age, how else am I going to feel the earth move?’ Boom boom — and Happy Christmas to you all.