The London Paper – 19 Sept 2008
When I first saw the footage of Lehman Brothers’ employees this week walking out of their Canary Wharf office holding boxes containing their possessions my initial selfish thought was – ‘thank God I left the City 6 months ago.’ I also felt we City boys had brought this trouble on ourselves with our endless greedy short-term gambling. It’s now crystal clear that the party we’ve been dancing at like embarrassing drunken uncles is most certainly over and we only have ourselves to blame for the hideous hangovers that we are going to have to endure. Not only that but we’re trying to remember who the complete moose lying next to us is and why our credit card is completely maxed out.
However, when I started calling up a few characters I know at Lehmans and other banks it dawned on me that what I was witnessing was a genuine human tragedy. One former competitor from Lehmans, but a half-decent bloke nevertheless, had just impregnated his newly-married missus and had also purchased some big gaff down in South London. This poor critter had few savings (having lost a few hundred grand in Lehman shares) and was now unemployed and seemingly unlikely to find another City job. A few years ago when he was a rival of mine I might have punched the air with glee at his appalling predicament such was my despicable City mentality but now I just felt terribly sorry for him. He was close to tears on the phone and I felt that, although there are far greater tragedies on this planet, I wouldn’t wish the hassle he was receiving from his wife on even my worst enemy! This poor chap hasn’t got a clue how to sort his situation out … he’s even thinking the unthinkable which is to go back to accountancy. When a man is prepared to go down that road you know he’s really reached rock bottom!
This camaraderie was quite unexpected but appears to not be as unusual as you might think in a cut-throat environment like the City as this crisis unfolds. I think there’s something of the Dunkirk spirit amongst my ex-peers such is the extent of the horror facing them all. It’s hard to maintain a vicious rivalry with someone when you both don’t know if you’ll have a job tomorrow. I’m hearing stories about former rivals meeting over a quiet pint of ‘Old Thumper’ to talk about ‘the good old days’ when stockbrokers could rape and pillage the financial markets with gay abandon and still go out for a four hour boozy lunch at a Michelin starred restaurant. Now, not only do these ‘poor’ surviving City boys face rubbish bonuses (perhaps only ten or fifteen times the national average salary) they are likely to find themselves about as popular as a turd in a swimming pool when their trophy wife demands their attendance at some dreadful dinner party. Such is the extent of this new solidarity that I half expect someone to organise a football match in Canary Wharf between Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs reminiscent of the one apparently held between German and English soldiers on Christmas day during the First World War. Hatchets between former sworn enemies are being buried and this time not in each other’s back. It almost restores my faith in Cityboys … well almost.