The NS Interview: John Varley

“If you’ve got thin skin, you shouldn’t run a bank” - John Varley, chief executive of Barclays

How do people react when you tell them you're a banker?
Not a lot of spontaneous applause.

Do you like being a banker?
Yes, I do. I like leading a big organisation, knowing that what we do, if we do it well, makes a difference to the 50 million customers we serve.

Have you had threats or abuse from members of the public during the financial crisis?
Yes, but that goes with the turf. If you've got thin skin, you shouldn't be the chief executive of a listed company, still less of a bank.

Do you believe bank bosses have anything to apologise to the British public for?
I've said in public many times during the past three years there is much to be sorry about. There have been many players in this drama, but it's clear that the banking industry got a lot of things wrong. As a chief executive of a big bank, I acknowledge that and am grateful that governments, through the injection of taxpayers' money, rescued the global banking system.

Why do you reject the proposal to split retail banking from riskier investment banking?
I don't think that the size of a bank is a good indicator of its riskiness. Nor do I think that combinations of activity, by definition, create risk - they very often diversify risk. At the heart of our ability to generate profits for our shareholders is the diversity of our business portfolio, which creates advantages for customers and shareholders alike.

Big, sophisticated banks can help society tackle some of the biggest issues that confront it - like the privatisation of welfare provision, the funding of health-care programmes, the development of infrastructure and even the tackling of carbon emissions. I don't believe legis­lation that was regarded as fit for purpose in the 1930s to deal with a very different economic crisis would be helpful to the world as it emerges from this crisis in 2010.

Do you understand why people are so upset about bankers' pay and bonuses?
I have to be sensitive to what the public thinks, because a lot of taxpayers' money has been put to work in the banking system. And if the pay of nurses and teachers is frozen because of the economic crisis, then the public is going to look carefully at what bankers get paid. Last year, Barclays profits were down 16 per cent, but total compensation was down about 50 per cent. That's an indication that we are sensitive to this subject. But pay judgements are difficult. I am obliged, as chief executive, to field the very best people I can by paying fairly. But be clear - we're seeking to pay the minimum consistent with remaining competitive.

Will the bonus tax really drive talented bankers abroad? Isn't that just scaremongering?
The banking industry is increasingly global. Talent is mobile. So if the best talent feels compromised by an unlevel playing field, then, yes, it will go. And it will not be good for the economy if talented people conclude they're better located in Madrid, New York, or Singapore.

Will Barclays be paying out a multibillion-pound bonus pot in 2010? Or will you defer it?
When we make our decisions about bonuses for 2009 - and we've not made them yet - three things will guide us. First, how we've performed during the year: we have a pay-for-performance culture. Second, we must pay in a way that serves the interests of our shareholders. Third, we must comply fully with the new FSA code on compensation. As we have done in the past, but more so, a lot of the compensation of senior executives will be deferred, with the objective of further aligning their interests with the interests of our owners.

Do you think the public will ever regain respect for banks (and bankers)?
Banks and bankers must show humility and acknowledge what's happened. That said, they've got to be good at what they do. If the global economy is going to grow, then that has to be facilitated by banks doing their job well. If banks are successful, they invest in business; they lend; they employ a lot of people; they pay dividends; they pay tax. Society benefits as a result. I don't expect these things to be much recognised in this environment. But in time they will be recognised again.

What would you like to forget?
There are a few days over the past three years that I would like to forget.

Has this recession harmed you personally?
If you're a shareholder in a bank, as I am, the experience has been a bad one over the past three years. So of course I've suffered economically.

Are we all doomed?
I'm looking out of my office window in our building in Canary Wharf. Below me there's a skating rink. Some of the skaters are skating elegantly, some tentatively, but they're all getting round the rink. That's how we all are, really. We're not doomed! We're getting round the rink.


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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously