We are back in the familiar surroundings of the 05:14 Richmond service, I’m afraid, Gentle Reader. It’s delayed by three minutes, which means I needn’t have high-kneed and fist-pumped it along the high street, because I had time to spare. The filthy weather matched my filthy
mind mood and I settled into my seat for what promised to be a dramatic, wet and woolly Shipping Forecast and a short half-hour of reading.
Now, unless you are an owl, you do not look out of a train window at right angles, especially if it’s dark outside, well-lit inside and you resemble Sid James with a hangover. One’s gaze tends to be directed slightly downward and say, 30 degrees off straight ahead.
This coincided with the precise location of the reflection of the smartphone screen of the woman (or, in the interests of political correctness, the person presenting as a woman whose gender I dare not presume to know) sitting in front of me. She was browsing the underwear range of some retail website or other and scrolling absent-mindedly through a series of delectable images. I’m not one for snooping. Sure, there are times when you see people playing Candy Crush on their personal devices and the urge to take your book and crack their skull open with its spine is overwhelming, but generally I’m too wrapped up in my reading or the cultivation of my various personality disorders to pay much attention to others.
This was, though, an ocean-going, weapons-grade, château-bottled distraction with which neither my book (which until then had gripped me like the Ancient Mariner did his wedding guest) nor the soporific rhythms of maritime meteorology could compete. Two stops in, it was clear she was undecided on which colour was most flattering and struggling to match tops and bottoms. By the time we had reached Clapham Junction and were halfway there, the shortlist was skimpy and equally divided between creamy and sable and I was almost there.
I was close to tapping her on the shoulder and shouting: “I’m a half-educated Englishman of literary proclivities but the black ones! It has to be those!”
Luckily, the driver made up time and we pulled into the terminus before I had to pull the emergency cord. I nearly met my Waterloo at Waterloo. I was defeated, she wore the drawers.
I had barely regained my composure before the next twist of fate’s knife was working its way between my shoulder blades. Salvation Bank’s financial year closes at the end of the month and my line manager wanted to complete something called a PDR, which stands for personal development review for most employees but personal deterioration review in my instance. There was no emergency cord to pull now. We both sought to contextualise the scale of my failure this year and began the conversation by simultaneously blurting out the disclaimer “It’s been a difficult year”. It takes talent to recognise genius instantly but mediocrity can be descried by mediocrity very efficiently too.
The conversation was awkward because I think we both acknowledged the irrefutable truth that we operate in the cyclical downtick attached to the structural decline of investment banking and in the time of MiFID, and I have carved out a little air-pocket of private, Pain Trader weakness within that. A few months back, when Human Resources asked me to assess my key performance indicators and how I matched up to the benchmarks I had been set a year ago, I had the foresight to amend the commission target from USD to GBP, reducing it by a quarter with three keyboard strokes.
Unfortunately, I have fallen well short of that too. In this environment, you need to run twice as fast as you did just to stay where you were — and I broke my foot in January, remember. As the end of March approaches, then —never mind Brexit — I could be making my sales-trading exit. Yes, barely a fortnight from now, this rare and exotic breed of stockbroker, the only one in captivity (there being none left in the wild) is staring straight at Strexit — and a no-deal Strexit at that. At moments like this, you realise that three decades working in the City unfit you for working anywhere — and that includes the City.
The conversation meandered aimlessly for a while and lasted longer than it should have done because neither of us could think of a positive note upon which to end.
“Let’s see what happens”, was the most hopeful resolution we could strike but we both realised its ambivalence. If your client list isn’t big enough to form a five-a-side team, there are few grounds for optimism about driving your business forward unless there’s a cliff nearby.
I came back to the desk afterwards and spent the afternoon watching the telly where Brexit vied with Cheltenham for airtime. MPs and horses alternated on the screen with the government falling over every obstacle put in front of it and all the nags I backed doing essentially the same (note to self: discount professional bookmaker from my list of potential vocations when I am transubstantiated from this present one).
When the trading floor is filled with the cacophony of racing commentary or the lowing of politicians, I have an excuse to put my headphones on and pretend that I’m engaged in serious, stockbrokerly intellection, which must not be disturbed. In truth, I turn to Schubert. The book I was reading on the 0514 cum 0517 stopping service, and from which only an unexpected lingerie exhibition could derail me that morning, was entitled Schubert: Anatomy of Obsession and that’s a fairly accurate description of my relationship with him at present.
Schubert was short and unattractive. Very much like me then, except short. He died from syphilis which in the 1820s was a painful, protracted but certain death sentence, a bit like broking emerging markets in the time of MIFID. The last thing I hear at night when my head hits the pillow is the opening chords of Impromptu No.3. It’s barely six minutes long but Morpheus descends long before I hear its end and the rest of his oeuvre is the soundtrack to my bed’s motionless journey through the dark night of imperfect sleep. The notes are like a woman’s fingers thrumming on your abdomen or strumming your heartstrings and now, courtesy of the woman or the tranny on the train, I have a few mental pictures to accompany the background music.
Schubert’s most beautiful compositions came in a late flowering of creativity towards the end, when he knew the game was up. I can’t say the presentiment of the same is having an identical effect on me or if my handful of clients will think the same of my last market commentary. His Swan Song will touch your heart. My Strexit will too. If you have one.