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  1. Long reads
8 November 1999

Why I can’t take the City seriously

For 13 years D J Taylor worked with corporate heroes and accounting executives. Then he realised tha

By DJ Taylor

For quite a long time after I stopped working in the City – perhaps six months, or even nine – I used to dream about the place. It used to puzzle me sometimes. There I was, mysteriously not having to dash for the early-morning Tube, happily embarked on a completely different kind of life, and yet somehow the subconscious part of me had simply refused to catch up. To make matters worse, the dream was nearly always the same: sitting in a windowless room in front of a mass of accusing faces and being taken to task for some piece of work that I had or hadn’t done. It was sheer mental exhaustion, I suppose, of the sort that makes your brain run on the spot, so to speak, long after the original stimulus has burned itself out.

To talk about “working in the City” is faintly misleading, perhaps. Throughout the 13 years in which I possessed a day job, I never penetrated further than the fringes of what is known as the Square Mile, and Plumtree Court in EC4 was about the limit of my progress east. I never rose above accountancy firms – more or less peripheral to the real work of the City – and the jobs I had to do were infinitely removed from the wheeler-dealing and the boardroom intrigues of popular legend. All the same, it was an instructive experience. If nothing else, especially if you are the kind of person whose natural environment is a study filled with books, there is satisfaction in discovering how the world really works – and the mentality of the people conducting it.

It was a queer life, this devilling in back rooms in odd parts of WC2 and EC4: Chancery Lane, Rolls Court, Farringdon Street – as far south as Bouverie Street, once, when the News of the World was still quartered there and you had to dodge past the print lorries turning into the loading bay. Officially my job title was “copywriter” or, in very exalted moments, “financial journalist”, but this gives no idea of the various tasks I was expected to perform. These ranged from writing press releases and compiling the staff magazine (“Hailing the excellent progress made during the year, senior partner Brandon Gough said that . . .” and so on) to devising new business proposals and, a bit later, drafting articles that would eventually appear in the trade press under the signature of one of the firm’s partners. Towards the end I spent most of my time writing the firm’s annual report and accounts – months of unremitting tedium involving as many as 30 drafts, interminable fights with the lawyers and arguments with people earning £250,000 a year over the admissibility of splitting infinitives.

The compensation for this endless round of meetings, redraftings and repetitive conversations of the kind that only professional people seem to be able to hold with each other – my record for a meeting was 11 hours – lay in the chance to observe the workings of a big firm (some of the larger operations have as many as 2,000 people in their London offices) at a fairly high level. Oddly enough, as a 30 year old attached to the marketing department, I had greater access to, and intimacy with, the bigwigs of the tenth floor than men ten years older and earning five times as much money: writing a speech for one executive to deliver at some sponsorship dinner, say, or waiting anxiously at the lower end of the table while the other executive strained to find a form of words suitable to convey news of the closure of the Dundee office. Invariably one had to be careful. “You’ll find the joke in the third paragraph,” I used respectfully to explain to a very senior eminence at Ernst & Young for whom I wrote speeches. Another time I was booked to compose an address for a dinner at which one of the firm’s partners proposed to welcome Richard J Daley Jr, then mayor of Chicago, to London. I gave this task quite a bit of thought, worked in all manner of local colour and several references of which I thought Mayor Daley might approve. “Very nice,” the partner complimented me on receipt, “but there are one or two points I need to make clear. I mean, what is the Windy City?” I explained. The next question was: “Is Muddy Waters a person?”

I used to wonder sometimes how this extraordinary lack of worldliness could co-exist with the ability to manipulate columns of figures. In the end I decided that it was entirely characteristic of the odd mixture of complacency and ambition, inertia and go- getting by which the big firms were administered. I arrived in the City in the mid-80s, with the Big Bang and deregulation just around the corner and a whole range of professional constraints (no advertising, promotion and so on) lately thrown into the wastepaper basket. One consequence of this shake-up was that the larger outfits were crawling with people such as myself (marketing men, advertising agency throw-outs) whom most of the partners looked down on but put up with rather in the way that a public school common room tolerates the arrival of the IT specialist.

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Simultaneously, though, much of the profession lay sunk in a prewar routine of gentlemanly torpor and chilly protocols. One of the first items I remember being shown on my arrival at Coopers & Lybrand, for instance, was a page-long memorandum addressed by a partner to one of his senior managers on the correct use of the comma (there was another partner, I recall, who rebuked a secretary for eating an ice-cream in the street). Rather in the same way, I remember a meeting in the office of some secrecy-obsessed corporate hero where, every time the phone rang, I had to pick up my things and go and stand in the corridor. Even at the time this struck me as ludicrous, but it was perfectly typical of the way Coopers went about its business. No point in complaining either, because, as another of the firm’s partners put it at the time (I think he may have even banged his fist on the table as he did so), “The partner is always right”.

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The partner is always right. Always? Even on subjects not connected with accountancy? The curious thing about these absurd pronouncements and the constantly uttered platitudes about “service” and “integrity” was their habit of standing side by side with the most flagrant bits of sharp practice and dubious client work.

During the time I worked at Coopers, for example, the firm’s most notorious patron was Robert Maxwell. Everyone – this is not a retrospective judgement, it was said at the time – knew him to be a crook. Equally, everyone below the rank of partner knew there was something shady about the way in which the Maxwell audits were carried out. In the event, it took over a decade before anyone was brought to book. Maxwell, interestingly enough, provided the only occasion on which I knowingly broke the contractual stipulations about confidentiality. This happened when a friend from the investigations department told me that Maxwell – then at the height of his spat with Private Eye – had asked them to do something so underhand at Companies House that the firm had actually declined the work. All of which implied, according to my informant, that a less reputable outfit would be taken on to do it. What did I do? I locked the door and got on the phone to Ian Hislop.

And yet, despite the partners with their you-be-damned airs and a series of rituals that wouldn’t have been out of place at a masonic lodge, the accountancy profession in the late 1980s was still a relatively civilised place in which to work. Applying for a job at Arthur Young, for instance, which was eventually swallowed up by Ernst and Whitney (it was called a merger, but we at Arthur Young knew different), I got taken on merely because a literary-minded interviewer was impressed that I had written a novel. Come the early 90s, though, commercial hard-headedness had begun to take over. The nice chaps interested in Korean poetry who dashed back on the train to Brighton to act in their local rep were being dislodged by sturdy young philistine number-crunchers. An ex-boss of mine told me that he first began to think of resigning on the day he had to escort the firm’s newly appointed marketing partner round the Royal Academy. “And this is where they stage the summer exhibition, Bob,” he remarked at one point. “Oh yes,” Bob innocently replied, “what’s that?”

Worse, the whole way business got done was changing, caught in a tide of neologisms and American management-speak. Doubtless it is very funny when grown men start talking about “synergy”, “interfaces”, being “pro-active” and all the rest of it. Yet somehow they don’t convey the enormous sense of depression that sets in whenever anyone actually utters a sentence such as: “We must pro-actively strive to synergise with our joint-venture partners.” It is as if the other person were simply saying: “I am going to talk rubbish. But as I am senior to you, I shall expect you to talk rubbish in return. Deferential rubbish, too.”

Some of the buzzwords, such as “empowerment”, which usually means giving the secretaries a choice of flavours at the drinks machine, are merely downright wool-pulling.

Towards the end of my time, branding was suddenly all the rage, and I shall never forget the time a keen young lady marketing director announced, with apparent seriousness, that “the brand is a promise kept”.

In any case, all this had ceased to matter. By this time I had realised one highly important truth about the job I did, or pretended to do. It was, simply, that I could not take accountancy seriously. Never mind the inanities of the average proposal document or annual report, which is for the most part a series of lies; placed under the lens of commercial usefulness, the accountant seemed a kind of parasite – harmless, perhaps, but a parasite none the less. Despite the perpetual babble about “all-round business solutions” and “adding value”, auditing – the profession’s staple – seemed to me a glorified box-ticking. Tax meant “not paying tax”. Only corporate recovery, increasingly used as a polite word for insolvency, carried the sense of clever people working at speed to solve financial problems.

Irony is always supposed to help in these situations, and yet in the eternal atmosphere of “rationalisation” and “downsizing” that began to prevail in the mid-90s, a sense of irony was notoriously difficult to maintain. One of the things that annoys me about compendia such as Sir Keith Thomas’s recent Oxford Book of Work is their complete ignorance of the landscape in which the majority of City-bound work takes place. “What is modern office life,” Thomas wonders in his introduction, “if not a matter of birthday cards, anniversaries and retirement parties, overheard telephone conversations and encounters at the photocopier?” Well, judging from my experience, “office life” meant harassed women worrying about their sick children, a tax manager whose husband was suffering from cancer being told “not to bring your domestic problems to work” and pregnant women having their lives made hell by female superiors. (This last habit puzzled me above all. Surely some kind of gender solidarity ought to supervene? In fact, most women who aspire to a partnership in the big firms have to fight so hard for it that they tend to look down on their inferiors for sheer lack of guts.)

In the end I got out, but the experience was quite unforgettable. A year on, it sticks in my mind as a sort of blur of boredom and unease – a summons back from a family holiday once to rewrite two paragraphs in a report – above all a voice (a woman’s voice, as it happens), sibilant, calling me by my Christian name more often than would be thought natural, and talking the most ineffable nonsense about “positioning the brand”. And even today, oddly enough, I will go out of my way to avoid walking down Bouverie Street or Chancery Lane: they are too closely associated in my mind with cheerless, white-painted offices, the evil little susurration a desktop computer makes when you switch it on, and whey-faced women drudging in fear of the sack.