I flew south a thousand miles. Spring comes earlier here and I could not wait any longer. We all need a place where we never go but we think we’d be happy if we did. So I’m there. And I’m not.
At some point on Monday, I was confronted with a dilemma: calling the NHS and offering to donate all my organs there and then because I had no further use for any of them — particularly those dedicated to reproduction and breathing — or going online and booking a flight to France. Someone had been outside and come back in and commented, innocently enough, about “How beautiful it is out there.” It might have been. How was I to know, having been chained to the desk by my capitalist shackles since dawn? Clement without, but the emotional weather within was decidedly inclement.
I’ve had one half-day off since Christmas. Salvation Bank’s year-end is March and I suppose I thought I should maximise the chances of getting halfway to my revenue target by then. One thing I know, though, is the relationship between effort and reward is dysfunctional at best. I consulted the Hang Self Index and registered an all-time high. So free we seem, so fettered fast we are. The office had started to feel like a bordello, bingo hall and bull ring all at the same time and I was neither the punter, the caller nor the matador. British Airways: take me away from all of this.
This morning then, the cab which I normally only call as an indulgence when suffering from a hangover of extraordinary dimensions turned left at the bottom of Richmond Hill towards Heathrow and the freedom of the skies rather than chugging laboriously up it towards the City’s bucket shops and boiler rooms. A few hours later I was flying towards the sun and touching down within sight of the sugar-coated Pyrenees.
As befits an investment banker of the lowest echelon, I had booked the cheapest and smallest car-hire available. Group A normally constitutes a shopping trolley powered by a hair-dryer but on this occasion when I pressed the remote on the keys in the car park, the lights on a cheeky Fiat 500 ‘décapotable’ flashed. The holy trinity of
You might think.
I have a history with the convertible, though. In the wilderness years, when I was a singleton and desperate to rid myself of that status, I bought a silver Audi convertible which I knew could never compensate for my patent undesirability, but which I thought might momentarily distract from it. The problem, though, or one of the problems (by now Gentle Reader, you no doubt realise no solitary problem persists in isolation in this life) was that I was too self-conscious to put the roof up. When the dealer delivered it to the office and parked it ostentatiously outside, I couldn’t force myself to get in it. It was too clichéd. I made a colleague go park it somewhere.
The nineties, it must be pointed out, was an era when flash cars were delivered to wide-boy brokers in the City with all the regularity of the morning post or milk bottles.
Having no girlfriend of my own, I borrowed a friend’s to make a sally down Kings Road one summer’s afternoon. Halfway down she suggested I take the top off. I started tugging at her T-shirt before she explained she meant the top of the car.
“But everyone hates me when I do that!”
“Don’t talk nonsense. Retract it. This is why you have a convertible. I want to feel the wind in my hair.”
I pushed it back, we felt the weak London sunshine on our faces, I pulled away and rolled to a stop at the next set of lights. A geezer crossed the road. He took one contemptuous look at me and my girlfriend on loan and shouted, “You ****ing ****er!”
“I see what you mean,” she said.
Over time, I suppose I did become more comfortable with the exposure but after the roof jammed in a thunderstorm when I was stuck in traffic halfway around the M25 and the footwells had to be bailed out, I had enough. Even though it wasn’t quite JFK and the grassy knoll, I don’t think I’d sat behind the wheel of a convertible ever since. (I should mention here that I traded the Asian convertible bond book for Salomon Brothers in the mid-nineties and that didn’t go very well either.)
I negotiated the airport and pointed the car towards the mountains. There is a feeling I have whenever I arrive in France, a sense of freedom that results from no one knowing exactly where I am or what I’m doing and also the exoticism that has never faded of this, the first “abroad” I ever experienced. Le douce vivre. La France
I realised a childhood dream when I bought a tiny cottage here on the eve of the millennium. I intended it as the location of countless orgies of Neronian decadence. I thought to host, and, naturally, to seduce, a conga-line of women prepared to overlook my shortcomings for the pleasure of waking up to the sound of woodpeckers and cowbells. It was like the Audi in that respect, except with a roof. Unfortunately, nothing works out as planned. I have to work to fund it, which precludes visiting too much, and so I tend to come when I’m depressed and seeking refuge.
After circumnavigating the péripherique of Toulouse, the signs heading south told me to take the next exit for the motorway, down which I normally bomb, collecting speeding tickets like Mike Ashley does struggling high street chains. At the last moment, though, I peeled off and turned onto the Route Nationale instead. The engine wasn’t big enough for an autoroute and the car wasn’t big enough for me to sit in comfortably.
Unless I wanted to arrive at the house with a hump like Jean De Florette I was going to have to put the roof up. I stopped at a lay-by, did exactly that, tuned the stereo to ‘Born to Be Wild’ and drove, head poking out above the windscreen like a tank commander, through the rolling countryside.
The opening and closing auctions, block trades and crosses, dark pools and capital commitment, placings and rights issues, profit warnings and raised guidance, popping out for coffee, sneaking out for lunch, outgoing and incoming, upgrades and downgrades, the rhythms of the City and markets be damned. I’m trying to light a fire, unsuccessfully so far, I have a bottle of red open and Schubert is tinkling the ivories in the background. When I wake tomorrow, at a natural hour, I won’t feel like I spent the night with an insurance salesman. It will be woodpeckers and cowbells, easing me into consciousness.
And that’s why the column this week isn’t really about the City.