In the narrow courts between Cornhill and Lombard Street, where the old City lives on, I find the senior partner in his seasonal bad temper. He likes to get on with his work but, he says, nobody else does — and, what is worse, nobody thinks that they should. ‘Take that clerk of mine, Cratchit,’ he grumbles. ‘I never see him at all. First of all it was stress and now it’s paternity leave. He’s taken the year off. Still expects to be paid. Claims he’s looking after Tiny Tim. When I told him that’s a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket, he threatened me with a tribunal.’ His mood does not improve when a sharp-suited figure bounces in: ‘Merry Christmas, uncle! Can I cut you in on my new hedge fund? You pay the fees and I top-slice the profits. It’s sure to make money.’ ‘Money? What’s Christmas to you but a time for paying bills without money?’ ‘Yes, uncle, and quite right too. It’s consumer confidence that keeps our economy so strong. That and public spending. The Governor was saying so. Or was it the Chancellor? I read it somewhere. Well, can’t stop.’ At the door, he collides with a portly pair whose patter marks them as consultants. They want to introduce the senior partner to the joys of corporate social responsibility: ‘There’s not a line about it in your firm’s accounts. Modern boards have reports that go on for pages and pages, explaining all they do to make this a better world. Diversity, the environment, global warming — what are your policies, what are your strategies? What shall we put you down for?’ ‘Nothing,’ he snaps. ‘It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!’
Alive and working
Later, a small Fernet Branca in the City Club helps to calm him down: ‘Those two spoofers were wished on me by my non-execs. Typical. They don’t understand the business, because the Code says they mustn’t — it would mar their independence. So instead they get fired up about the work-life balance. As if work and life were two opposite things. You know, if they were, what poor things they would both of them be! Dear old Antony Hornby at Cazenove used to say that we spent most of our lives in the office, so that it needs to be fun. Fat chance, these days. We get loaded down with more rules, more compliance, more alternatives to work. ... But then, how easy it is to be generous with other people’s time and money. I know about that. I help to support it.’
Club rules applyThe last of the Fernet Branca goes down the wrong way as a sudden anxiety strikes him: ‘By the way, all this is between the two of us, isn’t it? Club rules apply? I was terribly let down by that fellow from the Daily News, what was he called — Dickwick? Pickens? Wrote it all down in a book. Little wispy beard. Never trust a chap with a beard. That’s a good rule in the City. Out of it, too, come to that. The same thing happened to poor Melmotte — well, rich Melmotte, really. What a genius, how well he understood credit — light as air, he would say, strong as iron. ... Another chap with a different beard wrote a book about him called The Way We Live Now. Claimed that when it all came unstuck, he took poison. Nonsense, he jumped off his yacht and then swam to Australia. Changed his name again. Now he’s promoting a nickel mine. He hasn’t lost his touch. Don’t forget, I never told you...’. I forbear to wish my friend the compliments of the season, and am heading back across the City when Timmy Yellowbird hauls me into the Gantry.
Close to the shareNow here, I reflect, is someone with a grievance against authors. The youthful Alan Clark put Timmy into his City novel, Bargains at Special Prices. Copies are scarce — mine was unearthed by the ace of book-sleuths, Hilary Rittner — no doubt because Timmy and everyone else in it threatened to sue for libel. It describes his wideawake broking firm, Blowdon & Debly, on the fourth floor of Breadenhall House. (The Gantry, of course, is the bar in the basement.) There is nearly always something ‘on’ at Blowdon’s, we are told, and in a mining share, Glasma, a ramp is in progress. Unhappily, Timmy and one of his clients (but never mind her) are left holding the parcel when the music stops. Can a bigger fool be found to take it off their hands? Yes — ‘In a sense, we here at Blowdon’s are pretty close to the share, we’d pass it through a tame jobber, “Bargains at special prices”, you know’ — but ... Normie Fryer of the Daily Grunt agrees, on terms, to run a suitable story. City grandees fuss about the Stock Exchange’s image and complain of not being tipped off. For a delicious girl called Polly, worthy of her author’s imagination, all ends sexily, but not for Timmy.
Fill your bootsEven today, Timmy looks grumpy. The Gantry’s house champagne (faint aroma of rhubarb) is doing nothing for him. ‘You know,’ he says, ‘it’s hard on a firm like ours, which still tries to give personal service. The rules are written for the big boys and they walk all over us. I wouldn’t dare to suggest that markets get ramped nowadays. It was just that Citicorp woke up one morning and blitzed every bond market in Europe. When it was over they sort of apologised. Of course, if you’re in the bulge bracket, what does a fine matter? It’s just an incidental expense and part of the cost of the deal. As for planting suitable stories, well, Normie has retired to Spain now and the rules are different. You pay an agency to wrap them up nicely and leave them on the right doorstep. They tend to look pretty in pink. The Treasury does this all the time, so it must be legal ... I don’t say there’s no enterprise left. The other day, someone at Evolution — funny name for a broker, that — went short of a share and sold two and a half times as many as there were in issue. Something like that happens in Alan’s book. Now, I know you can’t touch it yourself, but there’s a red-hot new issue just coming along — an Australian nickel mine — and we at Blowdon’s are pretty close to the share. Fill your boots. Well, fill your readers’ boots. Happy Christmas.’
Christopher Fildes’s book, A City Spectator, is published by Nicholas Brealey (£12.99). ‘Fill your boots!’ — Timmy Yellowbird. ‘Bah! Humbug!’ — Ebenezer Scrooge.