Monday, 23 May 2011

Adventures in insurance: the Lloyd’s Year, 1990-1991. Part one (of five): the nice bit.

I promised in my last posting that I’d refrain from quoting my Diary and were you to see me right now you’ll notice, on my left, the wretched article open on page one again. I hold true to my word. It’s just there to jog my memory, and illuminate the twelve months, from summer 1990 to summer 1991, that proved to comprise one of the darkest times of my life. Before you get too intrigued, let me say up front that no one dies. I promise you darkness and I’m going to give you a teenager who hates his job. Bear with me and I’ll try not to make reading this too much of a swizz.

I had only just scraped into Sixth Form: with only three GCSE grades of C or above, I was not ostensibly qualified to continue my studies. At this point, my memory fails me entirely. How had I managed to stay on? I’d love someone to explain that one. I had pledged to take a fourth GCSE — in Art — concurrently with my chosen A Levels, in a condensed one-year course. I suspect that gave me some leverage, but when I consider that I was taking the A Level in Art itself at the same time, someone must have made a leap of faith on my account. I really am fuzzy on this most crucial of details: my life would have turned out very differently — and I’ll wager much less fun — had I been turfed out of school at 16. As it was, I remained in the familiar, protective bosom of Secondary Education for another two years. I also took English and Economics — the latter one chosen because it required no previous qualification to take. All-in-all some Machiavellian manoeuvering had taken place to secure me and I really don’t know who to thank for it. Certainly not me.

I spent the two years of Sixth Form drinking coffee and illicit nips of red wine, making smartarse quips during Economics classes until kicked out and always — always — listening to Steve Hillage, Syd Barrett, Genesis, The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and Jethro Tull. Heady, pungent stuff for a teenager! I owned a chunky, white plastic knock-off Walkman with a mains lead, which I used to draw off the school’s electricity supply with an indignant lack of shame. My wonderful friends at the time had commandeered the Head of Music’s office — he was a laid-back, progressive sort of gent to condone this sort of genial malarkey — and we made this our base of operations. Great days. I’ll tell you all about it some other time.

Anyway, the unfortunate result of all this rousing carousing was that I left school without a single decent qualification to my name. I failed all my A Levels. It was almost immediately apparent that I find myself a job.

I was 18 years old in the summer of 1990. I eventually went to University in 1992, but I can assure you with considerable understatement that I held no such ambition a mere two years earlier. My diary entries on the matter of A Level exams reveal an odd blend of cocksure fatalism. I messed it up, just as I knew I would, but who cares? sums up the sentiment of most entries and evidently I had decided the way forward was to jump onto the money-go-round as soon as possible. At this point, usefully enough, the Diary provides what I presume is a faithful list of all the jobs to which I applied over the summer. Reading it back, I find the successive details of failed interviews, rejection letters — and particularly my reactions to the companies that never even replied (“Bastards!” for the most part) — oddly comforting. At least I showed some motivation, even if the jobs applied for were a desperately dull, ordinary and unambitious bunch: sales clerk for a plumbing business (£6-7k a year), numerous banks, insurance brokers, clerical work, a TV hire company…and so on. Within all this tiresome necessity, there was also the small matter of seeing David Bowie live at Milton Keynes bowl on the 5th August, the setlist of which was outlined precisely in the Diary thanks to some fervent scribbling down of each number during the show. How delightfully anal. Clearly I had no idea how to enjoy a gig even then! I’ll say no more on Bowie for now, except that he was brilliant that day.

The other live rock’n’roll event of summer 1990 was my band Grimwade’s Syndrome performing live for the first and last time to an audience of three and possibly a cat. Full details can be found here.

I really can’t imagine wanting the kind of work that I sought, much less how I’d get on in any of them. In this respect, I’ve changed considerably, maintaining a healthy suspicion of avarice for many years now. Oh, the stupidity of cupidity. But I can appreciate that the theory is sound: if you want honest money, in abundance, and badly enough, then all you do is get a job in a bank, insurance or suchlike, keep your head down, work hard, spot opportunities and I believe you’ll ascend the ladder in regular, inevitable order. It’s a long game, for certain, but with the right eye for Pension Plans, TESSAs, ISAs and all the other things that people discussed endlessly in the early Nineties, you’ll soon be sunning yourself once a year in a hot place and deciding another hot place to retire to in your late Fifties. Easy. Now, making it interesting — that’s the part I find hard.

On August 9th 1990, my father decided I’d been too much of a fixture sloping and moping around the house, looking for locally-based jobs and experiencing only the localised pain of rejection. It was time to wheel on the big guns, and make big noise messing with the big boys in the Big Smoke. It doesn’t get much, er, larger, than it does there. So, for one day only, my father pulled out of retirement, pulled on his work suit and had me accompany him on the train up to the Square Mile, the business heart of the City of London. Now this was a world apart from anything I had experienced. Sure, I had been to Lloyd’s of London, where Daddy worked, once or twice as a child but I’d never really perceived how it was my father’s day-to-day reality  away from home. This was proper Grown-Ups’ Territory, comprising of boisterous, bibulous, middle-aged men, heartily slapping each other’s backs in well-kept antique suits smoked with tobacco and marinaded in Scotch whisky, Guinness, or both. I watched with fascination and admiration as my Dad shed years before me and became distinctly rumbustious, gregarious — one of the lads. These were men who really did converse in companionable “ARRRRRGH!!!”s after two pints. The experience of hanging about with these guys was a little overwhelming, akin to visiting Father Christmas in his Grotto as a child: he’s the greatest bloke you want to meet, the leader of the gang — and yet once you’re there, you find all you want to do is cry. At home, Daddy was quietly stern, never happier than watching television or eating a ham and mustard sandwich. Here in EC1, he had fashioned a way to make his work fun and agreeable, and had fallen in with a merry bunch of drinking cronies along the way. No wonder he used to spend as many extra hours there as he did. Only now, approaching 40 myself, do I totally, finally, get it.

High hopes and great expectations were placed upon my young shoulders, regarding insurance. My eldest brother had done very well for himself by following the old footsteps and my father himself was discussed by his friends and colleagues with hushed, reverent tones — a legend in the world of underwriting in the City, particularly in the Fifties and Sixties, so I was told. I sometimes wonder how well-off he would have become had he been a single man. As it was, he put me and six other children through school and beyond and we hadn’t, as the expression goes, wanted for anything. Everywhere my father took me that day in London I met gents who regarded me with what I can only describe as avuncular awe; I was pure, promising potential. I was a scion of raw underwiting talent. I was the Anakin Skywalker of Insurance.

I am pleased to say that I walked away that day having secured a job. Lest a charge of nepotism be levelled, and forgivably so, may I add that it was not directly on account of any of my father’s friends, or the old man himself. No, as I walked down Lloyd’s Avenue off Fenchurch Street, in search of an address given to me by one of my brother’s associates, I stumbled on an agency as I checked off the names on the doors of each impressively appointed building: Insurance Personnel Selection (IPS). I’d become familiar with job agencies in Sidcup and Bromley, with their little white cards in the windows promising the aforementioned sales clerk vacancies for small-time local businesses. Surely an outfit like this one, I reasoned, in the heart of a major capital’s financial sector, would come up with some seriously lucrative goods. So I ascended the steps and enquired at the upstairs reception. I was seen straight away, put on the books for any potential insurance work — and then, best of all asked: would I like to work right here in the meantime? £125 a week, plus I’d get first refusal on any job vacancies the agency would find that suited me. That’ll do very nicely, thank you.

It mattered not to me that I worked one day to pay the taxman, only taking home £100 per week — this was still serious cash to me. I can’t pretend it was loads of money in those days — it was entirely typical of a first-time employee’s wages in London, but it was enough for me to pay my mum some living expenses and still have enough to go out of a weekend. I hadn’t started my parallel career as a serial drinker quite yet, nor a girlfriend to lavish my attention upon, so I had little to spend it all on except CDs. My music collection expanded virally from this point on. It’s worth mentioning some of the treasures I acquired in the space of a few weeks around this time:

Revolver — The Beatles
Abbey Road — The Beatles
Quark, Strangeness And Charm — Hawkwind
Minstrel In The Gallery — Jethro Tull
The Best Of The Doors
Two by David Bowie: The Man Who Sold The World and The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
Framed — The Sensational Alex Harvey Band
Led Zeppelin’s fourth album 
Two from Syd Barrett: The Madcap Laughs and Barrett
Piper At The Gates Of Dawn — Syd's Pink Floyd

Brilliant purchases, every one.

I loved working at IPS. I sat on the end of a long table and did all the usual office junior tasks: filing applications and cuttings from various City free magazines that mentioned my company in them, photocopying, occasional tea making — but the best part was the extensive amount of foot courier work. If the numerous bundles of correspondence on my desk came within the boundaries of the Square Mile, it was obviously cheaper, more expedient and reliable to have someone deliver it by hand instead of by post. Consequently, I got to know the rats’ maze of streets and snickleways that crosshatch the EC area extremely well. I prided myself on being able to plan the most efficient route simply by looking at the postcodes and my colleagues would be pleased and impressed by the speed at which I returned. The soles of my feet became entirely blistered, but I daresay I’ve never been healthier in over 20 years of full-time employment. Just being in the City was exciting. I was offered several interviews that took me to all sorts of super-executive places and the rejections were tempered by knowing my IPS colleagues would find me another vacancy. Even nipping out at lunchtime to buy a sarny from one of the many delis starting to spring up in the area felt like you were happening and dynamic. One time I saw a chap ride a Penny Farthing down Fenchurch Street in full business suit, cool as a pinstripe cucumber. I never tired of giving directions to tourists and I loved varying my walk to and from the office just to venture down an ancient alleyway I had newly spotted.

My colleagues in the office seemed impossibly self-possessed, classy and glamorous to me. I can name them all with pride — and hope that in the unlikely event that they’re reading this they take no offence if I do. I remember being shocked that my colleague Paul, sitting to my left with his braces, blue shirts, Yuppie gelled-hair and smooth features was old and unlikely enough to have attended an X-Ray Spex concert in the late Seventies. There was Hugh, in his fifties at a guess, and the poshest man I had met up till then, with a calm, patient, effortless manner and resonant voice that hinted at some military background. Buffy, sat further down on my left, the most elegant woman I had ever seen — such a kindly manner and so far out of my league; quite rightly too. The two Eds, one dry and cynical, the other puppyish and nervily sweet. Nicola, head-girlish and gently mocking of masculine Friday night frailty. Andrew, uproariously funny, a quality drinker and a brilliant foil for his deskmate, the tall, bullish figure to my immediate right: Antony, exacting, often grumpy but always onside, reasonable and indulgent of my eccentricities. I’m not sure if they all got on with each other, but they certainly all got on with me. Well, thank you, every one. What a thoroughly big-hearted, witty and lively bunch you were to make an 18-year old squit feel so welcome in his first ever full-time job. I never felt like a junior in my entire time there. I’ve rarely had cause to enjoy work elsewhere quite as much as I did for the few weeks I spent at IPS. It remains in many respects one of the best jobs I have had and I salute them. Just typing this twenty-one years hence has warmed me with the memory.

On my last day there, only five weeks later in mid-September and days shy of my 19th birthday, I was given a leaving card signed by everyone. Nicola told me that office juniors normally never got cards on leaving, given their turnover. I had made an impression. My new job was in a Lloyd’s Brokerage near London Bridge. It was, my IPS colleagues assured me, a brilliant first step in a promising career. I was about to enter the world of insurance. All I had to do was keep my head down, work at it and I’d advance up the ladder to hard-earned wealth and the firmly forged respect of my new colleagues.

Naturally, this plan went awry within two days. That’s a whole other story.


Currently listening to:
pH7 (Peter Hammill, 1979)
A Black Box (Peter Hammill, 1980)
Untitled album by me, reviewing my recent recordings, to post online. (Paul Murphy & The Bishops, 2011 and counting)

Currently watching:
Ever Decreasing Circles (BBC 1984-1989) 

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