If I miss my bus in the morning, the knock-on effects are ruinous. The transport timetables have been rigged in such a way that if I arrive at the stop one minute late then I miss two trains and must wait for the subsequent stopping service to Waterloo, accumulating an overall delay to my journey many times greater than the original margin of error.
To counteract this worst possible start to the day, I have developed a habit of walking backwards, down the centre of the road so that a) I have the best chance of seeing the bus as soon as it swings round the bend and b) if the driver is determined not to stop, he will be obliged to run me over and there are days when honestly, I wouldn’t mind if he did because calling the desk from an ambulance, informing them you are on your way to A&E having been flattened by the 371, is a very credible excuse for one’s absence from the coalface.
A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus may indeed count himself a failure but a man under bus can count on a day off at least.
This morning, suffering from a hangover of immodest dimensions, all the faculties in my sensorium assailed, and more desperate than usual to avoid half an hour retching on the station platform, I was performing my reverse march when a white van accelerated round the corner.
I tried to take a few evasive steps, but unsteady on my feet after a vat of wine and a big, fat robusto the night before, (that’s a cigar, he adds for clarity) I developed unintentional momentum, lost my balance, tottered over backwards and found myself sitting on the grass verge as the vehicle went past.
It screeched to a halt. White van-man road-rage at 5.30am? Or is this the moment when Russian or Turkish special forces, fed up with my constant carping about their regimes on the newswires, bundle me into the back, whizz me to private airfield and render me back to a detention facility for months of waterboarding, tickle torture and prolonged exposure to the woman who finds me resistible? It backed up a hundred yards. Here comes a spot of bother/lifetime of agony.
But no. The driver leaned over and opened the passenger door, beaming beatifically. Was I OK? (Not really but this was not the appropriate forum for such a wide-ranging discussion.) Where was I going? (At that moment — and more generally — nowhere.) The train station? Hop in. It would be his pleasure to drop me off. (Admittedly, he said this before I contaminated his cabin with a toxic fug of stale booze and tobacco. He offered this halitotic hitchhiker a mint which might have been tactical.) His name was Ali. He was from Sudan. He was delivering newspapers to supermarkets. He had been here for 11 years and was studying plumbing at night school. He listened to classical music on the stereo.
All this I discovered while Ali drove me two miles out of his way into Richmond and a day that could have begun so badly and misanthropically was off to a surprisingly life-affirming start. (By way of contrast, as a child in a grim, northern metropolis, I was once a victim of hit-and-run, and that was an ambulance.)
I doubt Ali was earning more than the minimum wage, his family were all back in Khartoum and his job involved getting up even earlier than me, but he still seemed to be considerably happier than the crapulous stockbroker trying to make it into his cathedral of glass and steel in the City to prostrate himself at the feet of Mammon.
I am sure if I’d asked he would have driven me all the way to Gresham Street. Heart-warming human exchange it might have been, but I still felt like death.
I’ve been thinking about Ali a lot today. No, not like that. It’s just that this week alone, I’ve registered the departure of one colleague, one friendly competitor with whom I first lunched in 1990 and one client to whom I’ve spoken for two decades. All gone the way of all things.
I doubt any of them will return to the markets in a recognisable capacity because Stockbroking In The Time Of MiFID is, as we know, in the middle of A Cyclical Downtick Bolted Onto A Structural Decline and no stories within it end on a positive note.
Enoch Powell was right when he said “all careers end in failure” but it would have been more accurate to point out they start there too. I have once again been forced to contemplate what life might be like on the other side of the Square Mile.
Should Ali, revving round auroral, suburban London, listening to Classic FM and palpably content, provide me with a template for a future in which, with expectations lowered accordingly, I can hope to find the same? Is despair inevitable in investment banking when the yardstick of success — how much you have in the bank — is so stark and sterile? Will a less cutthroat competitive environment allow the soul to heal and the lungs to fill with a purer air?
I’m sure one of the reasons I felt so wretched this morning was its cause, an all-afternooner with an immensely successful hedge fund manager I once shared a mingy flat with when we were graduate trainees together at Salomon Brothers in 1989. He has amassed great wealth, sufficient to buy Sudan I expect, he radiates self-confidence and says things like “My daughter was only riding her spare pony” and so on.
Lunch had to be a Wednesday for him because he only ‘works’ a three day week and he mostly uses his office to conduct his private affairs — business and romantic. His finger heads unerringly for the fine wines on the list which he ordered unhesitatingly and unflinchingly, and the cigar he chose in the divan afterwards was the size of a hot-dog. I came away from lunch feeling vastly reduced. I doubt he ended up in a hedge this morning, not least because I think his transport waits for him as opposed to setting off with him in pursuit of it.
When Ali deposited me, almost literally, at the station this morning, he shook my hand, flashed a set of dazzling white teeth and bade me farewell in the hope that Allah might go with me. The hedge fund manager said, “Ta-rah” with all the disengagement of a checkout clerk bidding you “Have a nice day”, the tone implying it was a matter of utter indifference whether I dropped dead in the car park a minute later.
We spend our lives in the City dreading an eventuality which might be the best thing that ever happened to us. It could also be the worst.