Therefore never send to know for whom the owl hoots; it hoots for thee.
For F Scott Fitzgerald, in the long, dark night of the soul, it was always three o’clock in the morning and he is almost right about that. I now place and accept bets on the exact time in the wee small hours that my eyes flicker open, and then remain steadfastly so, while holograms of angst are beamed across the ceiling and begin their nightly iteration.
Of late, though, I have not been alone. It being autumn, and the nights warm and clear, the local Strigidae has been making his long and low-pitched B flat vocalisations at regular intervals — and either the ghostly sounds travel a great distance or the owl has taken up a position right outside my bedroom window to wind me up.
Harry Potter had his own owl. Maybe I’ve got one. I would rather have an order. One always associates the hoots with melancholia, as this is the time of year for owlish courting, but reading up about the calls I discovered that the dolorous cries are territorial and not romantic, and I lost a lot of empathy for my nocturnal companion.
For while material concerns are superabundant and authentic, they don’t have the same power as emotional matters to grip the innards and terrorise the imagination.
Take Brexit, for example. I can debate its merits and demerits all the way through a dinner party — from the polite chitchat over nibbles and fizz to the shouting and the pounding of the table over whisky and cigars — and I can become absorbed and combative in that discussion. Like EU negotiators, I never concede an inch. I’m a Remaineur to my core (as the poncey, continental spelling of the word suggests) and will brook no argument, however sound, compelling or irrefutable. My mind has set like cement. That said, I do not lie awake at night and worry about a hard border with Northern Ireland, WTO terms of trade, fishing quotas in the North Sea or the extinction of the straight banana. It doesn’t exercise my mind.
At Salvation Bank, I am a sceptred isle of pro-European sentiment, encircled by ardent and hostile Brexiteers, foaming at the mouth at the intransigence of the EU and the ironically Albionic perfidy of British politicians. The very mention of Juncker or Barnier sets off paroxysmal, Tourettic outbursts on which my Remaineur’s approval and “this is what you voted for” sarcasm pours like burning oil.
However, no matter how close we come to crashing out of Europe on a ‘no deal’ basis or creating an ecosystem which allows Corbyn to stumble into No. 10 (and, more worryingly, McDonnell into No. 11) it does not bring on the night sweats and I do not beg Morpheus to come and alleviate my Brexit torture.
My workaday self is very much pre-occupied with the proscriptions and limitations imposed by MiFID II but I have never padded back from the bathroom in the middle of the night, beseeching God (who does not exist) not to fill me with regret for the commission rates that were and despair for those that are.
Sitting at my desk, during lulls that last whole quarters, I spend countless hours looking at orders and thinking what that might have been worth with a brokerage fee of 1% plus, like when I first started out, or fifty basis points, or twenty-five, and then calculating what the fusewire-thin margins on which I now operate net me.
The salesman who sits beside me is organising a conference for corporates later on this year, and he has a little price-list on his desk of what he must charge for meetings.
It is like a sandwich board of desperation a broker might cart up and down Cheapside. A one-to-one meeting with an in-demand management team might earn £250 but there are early-bird rates and two-for-one deals to be had. An analyst call can be arranged for as little as £20, and we don’t even mention the biscuits and coffee in the meeting because they are inducements to trade and the whole thing is off if their compliance department finds out. If you are diabetic and keel over during our banks’ analyst roadshow presentation then you are most likely a goner by the time we have had legal sign-off to force a custard cream down your throat.
The anachronistic gala dinner that used to be the highlight of this conference has gone the way of dwarf-tossing and lap-dancing as broker entertainment and been condemned to the past.
At lunchtime today, I stepped out for my passeggiata and took a savoury pastry from a high street baker into a bookshop on Cheapside to eat while I browsed in the anchoritic silence of the poetry section downstairs.
All at once, my phone pinged with an order from a client — my first this week (no poetic licence) — and I had to hightail it back to the office to execute. The proceeds barely exceeded $100. It’s not so much an order as a small pourboire for the broker. ‘Best execution’ — the stated aim of MiFID in the trading arena — is not best served by reducing the status of a broker to a Calcutta dungwallah. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys — really resentful, demotivated ones at that.
But when the owl announces to randy competitors that this is his manor and to leave his owlettes be, it isn’t thoughts of MiFID that he interrupts.
Nor is it the end of September cut-off for paper tax returns. I love deadlines and the whooshing sound they make flying by and every year I resolve that this will be the one when I work out how to file online and afford myself another four months’ respite. Handicapped by the technological dexterity of a really resentful, demotivated monkey, though, I’ve never got as far as acquiring a unique tax reference. I am paranoid that my insistence on sending off a hard copy will attract the curiosity of inspectors and they decide to audit me. I’m not worried about the dodgy ‘offshorka’ stuff in Russia, though. It’s the prospect of unnecessary admin that scares the living bejeesus out of me.
Trade wars then? Surely dealing in emerging markets, the prospect of tariff barriers being raised worldwide must diminish the appeal of your asset class, inhibit your earning potential… no, no, let me stop you there. We are so far gone in stockbroking and emerging markets especially that neither the application of 20,000 volts nor a multilateral free trade agreement can bring this corpse back to life.
No, daytime terrors are not the same as night-time terrors. What prompts bruxism in my waking hours does not impinge upon the sleeping. Business is exactly that and no more.
It’s the stuff inside which keeps me awake. Owls can see in the dark. That’s why they hoot, I guess. What do I see in the dark? C’est pour moi de savoir et pour vous a découvrir but if there’s an owl out there, then, surely, there has to be a pussycat somewhere?