THERE was silence – apart from a few distant, random shrieks: desperate cries that local legend dictated came from what had been known as the Square Mile. Truth or fiction… neither of us flinched: one lesson quickly learned by all who remained alive was to ignore what didn’t directly concern you. After the initial bank riots revenge had spread quickly to become measured more in fatalities than distance. Tower Hamlets – research had informed me – was particularly bad and it would have taken more than a good cigar to calm the mind if you’d witnessed what had occurred there.
It was as if we were both waiting for retribution… I half expected a crazed businessman to rush accusingly into the room in a finger-pointing frenzy: or lightning bolt justice from on high. But the events of the last half-century had conclusively proved that there was no moral arbiter out of sight: if there was we were definitely out of mind. And if there was something greater he/she was as about as effective as the Coalition, the FSA, the Governor of the Bank of England, the European Union and the IMF – and all those other anachronistic abbreviations of action that once existed to con us that someone was in charge or even cared. With both silence and retribution conquered he turned and shuffled back to his seat and I once again gazed at a shadow.
I had met tyrants, wannabe tyrants, cold-blooded murderers, rapists, paedophiles, terrorists, arms dealers, black marketeers, gang members with ice and heroin in their veins; and good old common or garden criminals who looked after their mums through my years of journalism. At least this is the vocation I would present to any final judgement: the one that had appeared imminent for decades or that wishful thinking could conjure into existence when confronted daily by yet another horrific low for humankind. And yet… his confession still stopped me in my tracks.
I had believed there were none of the Originals left (the hard core of London traders at the Big Four banks were called the Original Sinners by the tabloid press as the third cataclysm played out) who hadn’t fled or been thrown from the Gherkin or a top floor in Canada Square – in what were termed the post-recession purges. No more remaining to make what was in the popular vernacular – the Banker’s bounce – onto the unforgiving pavements of the broken capital. These were the lucky ones – those that hit the water instead were fished out and ritually paraded for entertainment in whatever state or pieces they were in and for however long peripatetic revenge took to finish the job.
He shifted in his seat, adjusted the trilby and cleared his throat – his pale hands gesturing for me to sit in another chair placed at a respectful distance – and in carefully measured words he began as if he needed to get something off his chest…
“Did you know my father was a banker also? It was in the family genes so to speak. He was always careful with money and most other things in life. He often used to joke that was why he was fifty-odd before I was born – I should have taken it as an omen: I upset the family balance sheet that my older brother and sister had put into profit twenty years before. Mother was just as shocked – probably that he was still interested in anything that couldn’t be neatly parcelled up in ranks of figures. As I said he was that careful.
“He was a local branch manager for Barclays in the late-’50s and throughout the ’60s. Careful is what got you somewhere in those days – no evidence of the swinging epithet about his town. He was very young to get it – I suppose he was the definition of the high-flyer when it was defined by the decidedly small beer of respect rather than reward. It was a small town in Surrey… quite near Guildford: he was the hub of the local community. My mother said he was never at home – all the local businessmen counted him almost as a friend. Dinners; talks at the local Chamber of Commerce; Round Table, sponsorship of local fetes that sort of thing: school prize givings with citations written in Latin…
“When I went into the City he was dubious – proud of course that I’d joined his alma mater but dubious of what they had become: he’d seen the aggregation of branches at the beginning; the isolation of his role to almost a back office job; the end of the banking generalist; the impersonality of the Personal banker. Then in the ’80s as the greed is good wide boy mantras got a foothold; the moves to phone – then internet banking – and what he saw as the exploitation of the customer: ‘If we keep charging fees or inventing them to cover our own incompetence we’ll be seen as little more than financial traffic wardens in suits with all the lack of respect that entails.’ I still have a copy of this speech he gave to a banking union meeting. And he hated unions. I guess all pillars of the community become pillars of salt in the passage of time…
“Anyway, he retired early and there were still enough locals who remembered when the bank was an essential, trusted part of the community to turn up at a dinner in his honour at the town hall. Hmmm, now they’d only turn up for a lynching… I wouldn’t say he died of a broken heart but he was ashamed of me and my first job in the Capital division – especially when hints of the shit hitting the fan started in 2007 – and when I moved to Equities; well… The whole sub-prime, PPI thing and all those other notches on the stick of financial infamy had him shaking his head – ‘For God’s sake: we’re a service industry not an industry helping itself!’ – I used to get that every time we went out to dinner here or when he came round to visit just before the end. Drove Sophie, my wife, up the wall! He thought our image by then had us as little more than high street protection racketeers. And it pained the silly old sod: ‘I have to excuse myself in polite company if anyone asks what my job was!’
“Personally I don’t really remember the deregulation or the Yuppie boom of the 80s – just before my time – but I do remember the legacy. It was like that film – Wall Street: of course they were Yanks in that but we had more class. Father – see how he still haunts me – called them all ‘braces and bullshit’ which was really strong language from someone who had built a lifetime of careful bricks in the wall. I can recall at work that there were still the banks of screens, the information boards, the screaming in to phones, yes… the braces, the striped shirts, the bear pit attitude – the smell of high-end luxury fragrance enhancing the sweat of the trader’s room and the base excitement of the deal. It gave us a massive hard-on although I can barely remember how that felt. The FYM we used to call it…
“Sorry, one remembers these things then forgets that they were that long ago. The Fuck You Moment – when the deal was done. Greed? No, we never saw it as that really; well we wouldn’t would we? Original Sinners they termed us – as I’m sure you’re aware – otherwise you wouldn’t be so keen to listen to an old man… we didn’t invent greed for God’s sake though you could be forgiven for thinking so with all that hysterical rubbish in the press– we just refined it: gave it a tweak. As I was saying once the deal was done it was just the chance to shout – do that awful American high fives: I was a young man – and go down the local hostelry for a few choice bottles of Dom Perignon and something stimulating to the nostrils. Rattle all those little people in their boring nine-to-five wage slavery… I could earn more money in a few seconds than those noses to the grindstone morons could in a lifetime.
“No morality? Whose to judge? We were like the SAS back then – especially when they formed the internal global dealing group in a meeting of what was termed the back room stars. Back room?! We were the bloody engine I can tell you – the A-Team! It was pretty secret stuff at the time. We felt honoured to have been high profile enough to be chosen. The regular bank staff, the wider financial community and even some of the bosses didn’t know we existed as we did; what we did or how far we were prepared to go to do it. Futures, commodities, government stocks, bonds, insurance markets: we’d wager on anything, bet on anything; try to engineer anything we could to win… insider trading? I’m sure you’ve done your research. Yes we inflated or downplayed companies worth and we were probably responsible for asset-stripping, redundancies and perfectly good enterprises going to the wall but that was our job and we were damned good at it – they were grateful when they saw the difference we made to the balance sheet in difficult times – believe me.
“We didn’t invent greed… we just refined it: gave it a tweak”
“As I say we felt like an elite corps – the so called Masters of the Universe. I didn’t particularly crave those comments but some of the guys swallowed it whole and regurgitated it like some ruddy great seagull as something even bigger. Like the SAS we were isolated from society – and similarly they taught us how to kill with great efficiency and expediency: well make money by any means. And just like old soldiers we gradually became an affront to their dignity, or guilt – call it what you will. They found they didn’t want our skill any longer – we were an embarrassment and their hands were dirty. We were hung out to dry: we were out of our time. That’s when we started to feel the hatred. I was spat at in the face quite randomly by some festering yob in 2008; I think it was when I walked to the DLR. That early it was. ‘Fuckin suit!’ Or something like that was said.
“Money is an inanimate object and as super traders we began I suppose to resemble the qualities of the very thing our success was measured by. I wouldn’t say I was cold or unfeeling; more analytical, like a good mathematician crossed with a market trader – with balls the size of footballs! It felt good… better than sex? – in my Father’s day probably but not with the extras I could afford. My God those girls, oh… sorry; that’s something I don’t struggle to remember. Were we patriotic? Oh don’t be naïve to make yourself look good my friend… No such thing: we wrapped ourselves in the flag of convenience only. If they had the temerity to attempt to cut our salaries we threatened to move abroad but we were already there if you wanted to confront the reality of the situation. The wharf was like a nation state – go on then: a banana republic! No? Okay then… Defensive? So would you be. I’m like the Last of the Mohicans. You probably see yourself as some sort of big game hunter… No?
“It was a nation within a nation – same way as London within the Greater United Kingdom – with its own laws and rules and in any case all our tax was dealt with abroad. Barely paid any if truth were told. No flags: no borders – just the anonymous click of one of those antique keyboard methods and the deal cut across any culture you care to name. I could tell you a few choice names and their attachment to deals that would surprise you but I still have some honour. Oh, you can smirk – mind you I expect father is smiling up there in straight banker’s heaven as we speak! Union Jack? No: more like up yours Jack!….
“Christ we even lived in communities – the bitter remains of which you can see here – so we didn’t have to see the jolly old Jack Jones of this world. Jealousy is so nasty don’t you think? We had no concept of ordinary people or our actions disturbing their lives. The motive was profit and no loss was more important than was necessary for the profit. Anyway, they’d have been just as squalid and boring with or without us as far as I can see.
“Changes in attitude? Like I was saying… 2008 then quickly, very quickly afterwards – we became the Aunt Sallies for everything that was wrong in society. Like I say jealousy; hell, even our own kind in government turned against us to save their own skins. It was funny at first – a little bit of edge in life when banker became a pejorative. You’re not a wanker anymore you’re a banker we used to say to each other – and laugh. Then someone told me that we had supplanted the ‘C’ word as the ultimate curse. From see you next Tuesday a banker’s bonus became slang for oh, anything unpleasant – whether hitting someone when they were down like the street gangs’ forte, to forced anal sex in prison. In any case some City commentator’s said that’s what we did – daily financial muggings and giving it to our fellow Brits up the arse! Hah! C’est la vie…
“Then of course came the blame game at its worst – the systematic persecution and the persecution by the system that was falling apart: all the deaths and destruction – just ghastly; and they even tried to blame us for their actions. Can you believe it?! Personal responsibility they preached at my public school. You probably don’t know what they were; do you? Well believe me it will take more than 60 years of a doomsday scenario to crush the advantages and backbone of that social grapevine. Post apocalypse and I can still get in and out of this oversized cesspit on a handshake! Anyway, I’m too old to be trumpeting about us having our day again. And now your time is up and I must slip back into the shadows. I get so very tired these days I’m little more than a shadow myself. Can’t imagine how I had the energy to make so much money and cultivate friendships with so many of the right-minded people but very grateful I did – else I wouldn’t be the last man standing in this elephant’s graveyard. As you can see I can never forget. And my bloody skin is as thick! Though I do feel the cold – hence the gloves.”
“Like a good mathematician crossed with a market trader -with balls the size of footballs!”
With that and a perfunctory handshake; a nod of his head – mouth sporting a lopsided non-committal smile – he shuffled out of the side door; ankles cracking, breath oozing unevenly. I waited the twenty minutes – as agreed in the terms of setting up the appointment – as the rats and cockroaches resumed their social lives. It takes a long time to slide back under a stone I guess.
Once outside, the sun had burned off the unseasonable mist – the weather was as disturbed as everything else in this blighted land. Global warming seemed a minor by-product of excusable profligacy given what else had happened in the intervening years. Why should the sun be any different? A silent witness to the daily depravity – it was probably debating on setting early anyway. Even natural processes were left resembling the unnatural. I was almost thinking of opening a debate with myself – even though I knew my self didn’t give a toss – when a cool breeze blew up across from the Thames estuary filtered by litter, smoke and desperation made manifest.
Many people still remembered or thought they did from a collective psychosis handed down like the old boogie man. They would have killed to take my place and to have then killed again. I was glad the secret was fulfilled; the appointment concluded; the risk over – suddenly I wanted to cleanse my hand. I had met a dinosaur – a still living, just breathing relic but one that had been as dangerous as biblical pestilence in slightly more than living memory: make that two living memories given current life expectancy. And I had shaken those hands…
The Thames appeared even thicker and blacker. I submerged my hand and stirred the bathwater of the countless sleeping suicides and the many more who were, ahem, encouraged in reaching the same destination. Who knew what I would disturb: for that matter what oily germ could be worse?
As I waited for the return of my transport and anticipated the riveting small talk of the pilot I gathered my wits about me like deposits in the account of sanity. I squatted on the river bank: a bank once feted by the constant tread of tourists from all over this out of control globe. The only 24-seven attractions of the capital were now misery, sudden death and decay. Despite the sub-prime odour, the weeds in high profit, the junk bonds that formed large islands, the recession of the water and the accumulated risk factors – it was the only bank anyone now trusted. The only safe way out of this madness.