Thursday, 23 June 2011

Adventures in insurance: the Lloyd’s year, 1990-1991. Part five (of five): a revolution in the head spills out into the workplace. Gets a bit messy. Happy finish.

Mr Murphy has the second of two epiphanic moments, continues drinking, returns to academia. 

Well, hello again. My second day at my broking job brought a moment of clarity, an epiphany, in which I knew — like no sense of certainty ever felt before — that I was not cut out for this kind of caper. It was not dissimilar to falling in love, that sensation of realisation, of utter conviction and purpose — only this was incompatibility at first sight. It felt as wrong as love feels right…oh, sod it, I’m not even going to recap this time around. I share what I suspect is your sneaking sense that this twisted tale has gone on considerably longer than I had planned. How easy it is to write about things you despise. Damn my bad motorfingers. I shall turn them to other, more varied enterprises next entry.

So, January 1991 — still! Something rotten stirred and stank in the state of Southwark. Returning to my desk after lunchtime one day Richard ‘Col’ Collander, my immediately adjacent workmate, sat with his henchman Don and Rick, our squat superior, smiling smugly at me. He weighed the silence beautifully and asked the killer question: “So — leaving us, then, Paul?”

No, why? I asked with enough incredulity, I thought.

“Because you’ve said you will on March 18th” He held up my desk calendar triumphantly.

If you are reading this now, leave now. You’ve changed, Paul, you’re not the person you used to be.

Oh. Damn, rumbled. I’d written this reminder, you may recall, sometime earlier, long before Christmas, choosing that specific date as six months on from joining the company. But this memo for future days had been hidden in turn under days and days — months in fact — of pages, to be discovered as the preceding leaves had been ripped off above it. In order to find this message, Richard must have been leafing deliberately through my calendar. The bastards had started going through my things for fun, for sport.

The growing light and longer days of the New Year distinguished themselves from the dark ages of the old by an increasing sociability. Playing that one-off gig as a last-minute draft member of Mary Jane was one of several instances of getting up and out of the house in a way I hadn’t really done the previous autumn. Friends who had previously been incommunicado at University — understandably so, busy marking out territory and establishing themselves in their new academic environments — had got back in touch over the Christmas holiday and addresses for digs exchanged. Best of all, I suddenly had people I could visit of a weekend in fairly far-flung corners of the country — and oh boy, was I going to take them up on their kind offers in the coming months.

Some of these folks hadn’t seen me in six months or so and if there’s one motif, almost a running gag, that informs the earliest months of 1991, is the shock and pity expressed by all concerned on learning what career I had chosen, in spite of my supposed pedigree. Can’t see you behind a desk, Paul was the recurring refrain. Insurance? I thought you’d do something arty came a close second. Mostly, their openly crestfallen faces said it all. Interestingly, the most vociferous reactions came from my friends’ parents; those people old enough and worldly so to speak their opinion out loud without fear of rebuke and who clearly viewed my future differently from me. I had neglected my principles, betrayed my reputation and everyone knew it — knew it quicker than I had done.

Late January brought in a newcomer to the workplace called Samantha. She was an Essex girl, as was almost mandatory, with tumbling curly blond hair and somewhat huskily built. I was initially pleased, as a new face in the office took the heat off me as ‘the new boy’, but I never got to know her at all as Sam had the most painfully shy demeanour. The chaps in the office couldn’t hide their disappointment when she turned out not to be all that much of a babe and the girls would bitch gleefully about the sound Sam would make as her thighs rubbed together when she walked. After several weeks enduring remarks of this calibre — from Andrea and Michelle in particular — about everything from her work to her looks, Sam went out for lunchtime one day and simply didn’t come back. She had left a note on her desk: I resign. I remember Rick’s anthropoid face scrunched up with contemptuous laughter as he tore up Sam’s note that afternoon. Poor Sam. I imagined how she felt as she walked out of that building: mostly I suspected a sense of overriding joy, rather than a fatalistic, Captain Oates-style stoicism in the face of hardship. She had got out, at least, before the agony had become protracted. I reflected on my own situation: what was my excuse?

At this point I need to introduce you to my old school friend Alex. He was taking a French degree, a subject he enjoyed a head start in due to French ancestry and the advantage of a bilingual upbringing. I’d known Alex since I was eleven, on joining Secondary School, although we never really became close friends until the Sixth Form at school. Several things joined us — the spookiest being that our respective mothers had been neighbours on the maternity ward in Queen Mary Hospital, Sidcup, while busy giving birth to us, a day apart, in 1971; both ladies recognised each other instantly when next they met some 18 years later. Alex was easy-going, good-natured and breezily witty. We enjoyed a similar sense of humour especially where music blurred into it in such places as Monty Python, the whimsical absurdities of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and the chummy, laugh-out loud anarchy of Vivian Stanshall and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. In the space of two short years we got on a storm. Between us, our mutual friends numbered some of the funniest, sharpest, influential and finest people I have ever known — the best a chap could have asked for in those formative A Level years. Unfortunately yet again, I must say that I should write my comprehensive essay on my halcyon Sixth Form days and the amazing camaraderie we all shared some other time.

Late in February, with the remains of the heavy snow of a few weeks earlier still compacted on the ground in chunks of dirty grey ice, Alex and some of his newfound college cronies arranged a gathering at the White Cross pub in Bexley. I am tempted to think that my mother, charmingly, may have given me a lift there — dropping her son off for a wild night on the lash, for all she knew. Some of the usual old school suspects had gathered, including, pleasingly, my future girlfriend Christine, plus Alex’s brilliant, effortlessly sparky younger brother Dom. I met Alex’s new friend Richard, a big lad with aviator spectacles and the neatest side-parted haircut of anyone my age. I instantly got the impression that he was executive material and I initially bridled at his confidently spoken, ‘grown-up’ demeanour, so similar did it seem to people I had met in Lloyd’s. My misgiving was delightfully unfounded. Due to the number of Richards I seem to have amassed in one lifetime already — in this series of blogs alone — I am compelled to call him here, as I never do in real life, by his surname Snell. I am sure he will not mind this formality for the sake of clarity, as I have nothing but unvarnished praise for the dear boy. Snell is one of the sweetest, most trusting, kind, fun-loving and warm individuals I have the pleasure of still knowing; a devoted husband, a loving father, an absolute credit as a son, a levelheaded businessman and a damn good friend.

At this gently inebriated gathering, Alex invited me up to stay at his digs at the University of East Anglia (UEA), which consists of — considerable reputation aside — a vast, sprawling complex of Brutalist concrete structures, set in acres of heavily landscaped countryside in the outer limits of the Fine City of Norwich. You may recall that I had experienced what my beloved Sixth Form English teacher would have called an ‘epiphanic moment’ when I had decided — no, it decided itself for me — that I had made A Big Mistake joining the insurance game. In early March my Diary states unequivocally that the trip to Norwich was the ‘best weekend of my life.’ There follows a breathless list, a whirl of record shopping, drinking Earl Grey tea by day and whisky by night, visiting art galleries, meeting a panoply of people with comedy-daft nicknames such as ‘Dave the Rave’, ‘Dave the Piss’, ‘Dave the Real Rave’, ‘Big Liz’, ‘Medium Liz’ and ‘Small Liz‘ — and let’s not forget Snell’s goldfish, Vroomvondel and Magickthize. Many of these people I would never meet again, as is so common with the manic vortex of First Year student circles, but I am pleased to say that one of them — ‘Big’ Liz — remains a truly excellent friend for some twenty years now; thoughtful, kind, witty and wise — still a tall one, too.

“You’re the only person I know who drinks whisky in quarters and halves, Murph!” said Snell over the weekend, after we caned all but a finger’s worth of a litre bottle of Glenfiddich while listening to The Monkees and Abba at three in the morning. Crazy times, ladies and gentlemen, crazily pursued! But as well I might: it was as if a switch had been flicked and suddenly the sullen, beaten-down Paul of recent months became the happy-go-lucky, fun-seeking ‘Murph’ to all around once again. London and insurance simply ceased to exist for 36 hours or so and I had made like-minded friends. People liked Murph, it seemed. I confess I liked him too. To this day I answer to my nickname instantly and it reminds me of happy times with splendid people, our heroic drinking sessions across East Anglia tempered with meaningful, serious, quality conversation, or at least as much as 19/20-year-old students can do — which is to say as serious as life ever gets at that age, perhaps.

Alex, his family and his Norvicensian pals were to prove the catalyst I sorely needed to orchestrate my escape from insurance. From the tranquil comfort of a cottage tucked away in a secret corner of the beautiful Suffolk market town of Bungay, and suitably lubricated with the finest wines and excellent food, they set about me with benign precision. Would I have made a better teacher than a broker? My perceived suitability was to follow in my father’s profession, but my mother was a teacher, and Alex’s mother was one too. With a combination of gentle, loving encouragement, many compliments and much affectionate ticking-off as only one’s elders and betters can deliver, I left East Anglia with something of a radical change of career plan. One decent weekend living the downtime of student life and an afternoon in the company of Alex, his friends, his parents, grandparents, one aunt and one great-aunt had brokered Epiphanic Moment No 2. At the bottom of my passionate Diary entry for the weekend is written, in different colored ink, and possibly some time afterwards:


Unlike my previous instance of revelation, where I had been chary of decisive action and elected to adopt a ‘suck it and see’ attitude towards my job, the UEA weekend was — as people often like to say these days — an instant game-changer. The next Diary entry, just a day later, is short and tellingly matter-of-fact:

12th March 9:25pm

At work, there are rumours of bad things going on at pay review time — the signs of leanness are manifest & I wouldn’t be surprised if I got laid off before long.

One can almost detect a fatalistic note of anticipatory displeasure, as if I had received some insight into my future and knew deep down that I had been spared the axe. Oh, how boring. Finally, after months of messing about, I knew exactly what I had to do — and my work had provided me with the financial means to do it. I must have applied to retake my A Levels immediately as I had an interview at Orpington College, my local place of Further Education, sorted out within a month. I have a vague recollection of telling my father that I was jacking in the insurance caper to return to gain some qualifications — and furthermore, I was going to pay the fees. My poor father. I remember the look of stoic, resigned disappointment he gave me, frowningly, through his moustache — but also meeting his glower as evenly and intractably. My father was a stubborn man, but I rarely found him unreasonable. Only once, several years later, did he ever bemoan my decision to throw away what he viewed as the best, the only worthwhile career for a Murphy with my promise; I bitterly replied that had I stayed on in my brokerage, I should be swinging from its church rafters and I said it with such asperity that he never broached the matter again.

April sent sweet showers of sociability. The drought of March dispersed in a frenzied burst of fierce fun and frolics. The old magic crept back into the veins with such liquid fervour and I positively flowered, became immensely, intensely gregarious again. I met Snell’s father Peter, a splendid Viking of a man who looked like an older version of, well, me funnily enough. He grew up in the Seventies and his knowledge of music from that time was comprehensive and eagerly consumed. He was currently doing a degree course himself and his relationship with Snell Jr, consisting of amiable intellectual sparring, communal drinking sprees and a shared love of certain comedy shows, was more brotherly than father and son. We all liked him immediately and stories of his exploits were recounted by us with the tagline ‘What a guy!’, referring to the character of Ace Rimmer, the dashing Space Adventurer in Red Dwarf. Soon Snell Sr was dubbed ‘Quel Homme‘ — oh, those French degree students. May time brought another long-term friend as Liz introduced me to her new beau, Peter, a splendid laid-back fellow with a vast mane of beard and hair, like a young Ian Anderson brought to laughing life before us all. We got on instantly. Peter remains, like Liz, a good friend, with a whimsical sense of life’s absurdities and a rich, sonorous voice that hops from region to region like Jon Culshaw crossbred with a hummingbird.

I phoned in sick on the day of my interview for Orpington College — I didn’t think it was tactically sound to let my workmates know my intentions until I successfully passed the interview. It never occurred to me that I would breeze the gig due to admitting ready, able and instant payment of fees — not a given for the College, when you consider most of the students would be failed A Levellers being put back into the grinder to have another go. I just thought I had to acquit myself as with any other job. I remember the interviewer smiling encouragingly with Terry-Thomas gapped teeth as she informed me I clearly had the motivation, suggesting furthermore, that I take in addition to the English and Art A Levels retaken, an A/S Level in another subject simply to make my weekly hours up to those of a full-time student. BANG! I was back in the education system — but the term didn’t start until September. I had six months to kill. The time had come to destroy things.

Who has not fantasised about leaving their job to do something better, more fun, for more money or enjoy that outright Lottery win — and instantly had the secondary, attendant fantasy of strutting up to one’s Boss and informing them (breezily or bitterly, the choice is entirely yours, my friend) that permission has been granted to affix one’s present career appointment up towards a location noteworthy for a distinct lack of solar activity? That was me in mid-April of 1991. I did no such thing, of course. I sensibly elected to work my ticket and earn as much cash as I could before I announced my intention to resign, hand in my written notice and make a smooth transition to college.

Besides, it was time to get creative. They had made my life a tedious, crushing misery for too many months now and it was time for my vengeance. I could — can — be a studiedly irritating little shit when I turn my mind to the task and several weeks ensued over the spring and summer where I mounted a passive but persistently systematic campaign, gently disendearing myself to every person in the office I despised. They already thought I was weird — now it was time to cement my legend. The things I did that fascinated and bugged them in equal measure were manifold by now. Col in particular would ask so many questions about my habits and personal life — though my insistence on calling him ‘Richard’ with each reply clearly irked him, just as it did with Rick.

“Paul, why do you write JOHN NOAKES on the side of your Post-It pad?”

So I know it’s mine, Richard.

“Well, why don’t you write your own name?”

Because I can write JOHN NOAKES on it and everyone in the office will still know it’s mine.

The beard went ever more wayward. On cold days I came into work wearing long johns under my suit and would vouchsafe this information to Col in a seedy, conspiratorial fashion on every occasion, as though we’d had a previous conversation on the matter. I would put my jacket on to go to the toilet and one time I was asked why I did this, I said it was because my wallet was in the inside pocket — implying that I didn’t trust anyone in the office. The doodles I drew on my A2 desk blotter aroused all kinds of questions: it was time to start caricaturing my colleagues and see if they realised who was who, as they rooted through my things in my absence. On trips up to UEA, Alex and I sent letters to my work address, written in coloured pencil and sinister, childish handwriting. Snell would send me faxes headed with fictional, anonymous, but wonderfully plausible corporate logos informing me — and therefore everyone in the office before me — that Charles will pick you up in the Bentley at 6.30pm on Friday, and don’t forget the shooting stick like you did last time! Gauging the simple, unreconstructed nature of most men — and several of the women — in the office, I made vague allusions to the possibility that I was gay, to predictable hostility. I got staggeringly drunk at several office leaving parties but said barely anything to anyone there, just like at Christmas, electing to leave early and let everyone get on with it — though crucially, I had learned to hold my drink better since then. I was cut out of the tea round after numerous instances where my ability to make the stuff was criticised. Rick, after one cup too many of my bespoke effluent infusion asked me to talk him through my tea-making procedure (“could you be pacific [sic]?”) and I cheerfully informed him that every cup had a little bit of the dust from the bottom of the teabag box sprinkled in — I mean, isn’t that how everyone does it? No? Oh. OK! One time I wrote an entry on my desk calendar in incomprehensible, made-up Latin:

quis ut deus non erat cogitatis vos putare Col verbum non caro meum infinitas
Perhaps a more Classical education would be useful, eh?

Pleasingly, some days later, the words YOU CUNT had been written diagonally over this page — Richard Collander, do we think? — and best of all, the flattened bottoms of each letter showed he’d used a ruler under the words to do so. Oh dear, some people get so institutionalised — and so easy to wind up, too.

“Paul, can I have a word?”

Ah, how often have I heard that question. It’s never just ‘a word’ though, is it? Mind you, I suppose ‘bollocking’, being three syllables, may have been two too many for Andrea, my tiresome, equine office manager. Her petty, proprietorial voice had jolted me from my semi-academic reverie and I was summoned into a small, wood-panelled room that I’d hitherto never noticed. It was a warm, sunny May afternoon without. Within, Andrea and Rick The Cro-Magnon Majordomo subjected me to an oddly entertaining game of Haughty Cop/Restrained Anger Cop as they tried to explain that my work and my ‘focus’ were clearly suffering and how I seemed to be distant from the rest of my colleagues. No, really? It’s a funny thing, but I seem to remember how awkward they appeared to me, not really giving me the impression they were laying the corporate smackdown upon yours truly at all. More puzzled than anything.

“Try and fit in, Paul,” said Andrea, wearily. “You’ll soon find we all get along really well, don’t we Rick?”

“That’s right, Andrea,” replied Rick over-brightly, making it feel like a parody of a breakfast television couple. “We talk about the same things, we often read the same books and we all seem to come in on Monday and find we’ve watched the same TV shows over the weekend!”

Give me strength. I thought of the note I’d written to myself, the one that gave me away when it had been discovered. It was time to level with them, put them out of their misery. I told them that if it seemed like I didn’t fit in, that was because I didn’t. Not here, not anywhere in this domain. Furthermore, I was going to pack this job in over the summer and go back to college to reclaim the A Levels I had failed, preferably leaving about mid-July if that’s all right? I see Rick, clear now as twenty years ago, look down at his huge interlocked fingers and bring his face up with an openly relieved smile. No surprise registered. I had explained everything in that moment to him. Instantly his default setting of smug condescension lifted and he became chummy and negotiable.

“Right, yeah, OK — we knew something like this was coming, Paul. That’s fine, fine,” he beamed, looking askance at Andrea who returned the expression. Clarity and relief at last — for all. I remember feeling slightly short-changed by this reaction. Could it be that that they had waged a campaign in turn to freeze me out? Admittedly I wasn’t concerned by this for long.

“Besides, you’ve been taking a day off virtually every week for about two months now,” Rick continued. “People always use up their holiday before they leave.”

Bum! I hadn’t thought of that. What a giveaway — but of course it was my first full-time job. Rick invoked what I understood to be standard company procedure regarding how much one could take off in the first six months of the year. I had taken more than half my allowance in that time. I would learn the subtleties of holiday pay later, but in the meantime, I had to pay back any remaining days  over the 50% margin I had taken. I have no recollection of how much this figure was, but it was certainly worth it.

The leaving date in mid-July was accepted, despite the considerably longer period of notice thus given than normal for a chap of my lowly ranking. In the meantime, they continued, would I mind swapping roles with an even lower-ranking colleague, to afford him a better chance of climbing that slippery broking ziggurat? Same wages, but less responsibility. Very nice, thank you. I hadn’t even played for that.

Not long after, I spent a May week in Lourdes. While not particularly religious, I was brought up Catholic and I rather enjoyed the opportunity to help out at this place of pilgrimage in the foothills of the Pyrenées. It was a holiday and a chance to speak some French if nothing else. This proved to be quite a life-affirming experience, helping push wheelchair-bound pilgrims around and generally making my able-bodied self available to help those who weren't. I returned home feeling I'd been useful and still able to make friends. My fears that maybe I had brought all my work misery down on my own head continued to be largely groundless and this proved valuable to my self-worth and worldview at this time. 

The workplace changed aspect for a while after my return. I had been discussed at length in my absence and Rick had informed everyone of my intentions. My reduced responsibilities meant I was left to my own devices for longer — which suited perfectly — and I had bought myself a couple of weeks of everyone being that bit nicer to me, just as people tend to put up with another fifteen minutes in the rain if there’s the promise of a log fire to warm your tootsies near afterwards. But just as similarly, the tolerance gave way towards the end to a keen impatience for P-Day. My decision to leave was, predictably, mocked by that increasingly tiresome Col. They had viewed me as a geeky intellectual type since the beginning — now, I had laid down my credentials as an aspirant academician and the circle was now complete. I could understand their mistrust: in a respectable, lucrative business full of self-made men and women, school-leavers at 16 almost every one, I had repudiated everything they stood for. They had long suspected I was a college nerd; now I was officially going to be one.

Elsewhere, and in totally unrelated news, Lloyd’s had begun to suffer. The devastating Hurricane Hugo, the tragic Space Shuttle disaster of 1986, various El Niño/La Niña incidents and that bloody ongoing Natalie Wood case all conspired to create a market where the fatal insurance equation — where payouts occur more often than premiums are paid in — happened. Additionally, the computerisation of the insurance market took those very human qualities of forgiveness, negotiation and patience out of the broking equation and in a trice underwriters found themselves hit with huge bills in quick succession issued by callous, unfeeling microprocessors rather than by imaginative and biddable broking individuals. Effectively, saying you could have the money ready by Friday week simply wouldn’t do any more. I heard older executives in my office mutter darkly about ‘The Spiral’. I never knew quite what it meant, but I think it was a gnomic title for the day when someone put an Atari ST in the driving seat of the 300-year-old Lloyd’s institution, so long founded on the principle that a word was as good as a bond. What a terrible shame too. I may not have loved my job, but that had nothing to do with Lloyd’s itself, a place for which I still retain the greatest respect. Some of the worst financial blows to hit my venerable place of business made the papers as numerous Lloyd’s ‘Names‘ — mostly celebrities, some mistakenly advised, some plain foolish — who’d invested considerable sums in the company, much like shareholders hoping to reap profits, aired their grievances so very publicly at the money they’d lost speculating on the disaster market.

The imminent impact of the formal establishment of the EU in 1993 and the attendant fear of Federalist principles conferred upon the UK by a puppet-master government in Brussels or The Hague caused ripples in the City.  ‘Up Yours, Delors!’ as they used to say of the EC President in those days. At home, Thatcher had been thankfully deposed and it was interesting to see how this news divided people in the office. We were in the midst of a recession the equal of anything we complain about now. Poll Tax had been introduced to what could be mildly described as mixed reviews. For good or ill, the business world was in a state of flux and people were nervy, prone to redundancy or jumping ship at a moment’s notice. In fact I have a memory of proclaiming deliberately and drunkenly at a leaving party the fearmongering sentiment that my company would have no more than five years left in them. I turned out to be completely wrong. Ultimately Lloyd’s would prevail, as mighty establishments tend to, but this wasn’t the feeling shared by many of my colleagues at the time.

My last weeks at work were marked by bouts of ill-health and tardiness — most of it genuinely unintended, I might add, but my attitude didn’t convey anything to allay suspicion to the contrary. On my last day at work I turned up 8 minutes late — a fact Rick pointed out to me with a theatrical point to his chunky gold watch.

“I promise you I’ll never do it again,” I replied tersely, with less wit, more thunder.

I received a small card, signed by everyone, with little in the way of messages or well-wishing. Michelle wrote ‘Good luck Paul – you’ll make a good proffessor [sic]’ – ruler having dutifully flattened out the bottoms of each word, of course. I don’t recall having a leaving drink that lunchtime. I certainly remember not having one come 5.30pm that evening. Instead, like virtually every other day, I walked out of the front door, crossed the forecourt and walked down St Thomas Street to London Bridge station without looking back. My Walkman pumped Black Sabbath’s ‘Spiral Architect’ and most of Some Friendly, the debut album by The Charlatans into my frazzled, relieved head. My insurance days were done forever.

The summer of 1991 was glorious and bright enough as it was without my new-found freedom to enjoy. I remember going to see Terminator 2 with June and Christine and having my tiny little mind utterly blown by what I saw that day. There were not one, but two brand new Guns’n’Roses albums to look forward to and I was starting, tentatively, to come into step with current musical fashion. Indie music was no longer such a strange beast to me. Guitar-based music seemed to be creeping back into the charts and synthesiser-heavy sounds were being supplanted in favour of something new that borrowed delightfully from the old.

Two, three, four:

Chunng-ga-chung (chaka chaka) chung-chung-chung chunng-ga-chung (chaka chaka) chung-chung-chung chunng-ga-chung (chaka chaka) chung-chung-chung

Go on, you recognise it.

Really, you do — although accept my apologies if you spend several minutes trying to decipher my phonetic interpretation and come up with ‘More Than A Feeling’ by Boston or suchlike. Easily done. It’s the opening ten seconds of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’: a surefire contender for one of the all-time great explosive opening salvoes on any album in recorded history — Nirvana’s Nevermind. I confess I was never that into it at the time. Indeed I have a distinct recollection of pronouncing, grandly, that I would wait two whole years before I bought a copy: if it was a truly good album, I reasoned, then it would still be worth getting two years later. I had a fear that it may turn out just to be over-hyped, transient pop. “It’s basically heavy metal with a boogaloo drumbeat,” I’d aver, boringly, to people rightly not caring.

Flash forward two years to muggins here buying Nevermind in September 1993 and feeling like a right berk in allowing the previous two years to pass by without making it an ever-constant presence in that good old Soundtrack Of My Life. It is, I know now and as time has proved, a stone-cold classic. Like many chaps of my age, I do subscribe to the common enough opinion that Nevermind’s release was like a clarion call to a generation of kids who had come to the gnawing conclusion that the music of the 1980s — or at least the stuff in the mainstream — was starting to get pretty damn irritating. I may have been a Nirvana sceptic at the time, but I certainly appreciated how they brought something close to ‘my’ kind of music back into the public consciousness.

I am quietly rather proud and pleased that I turned twenty the day Nevermind came out, on 24th September 1991. My teenage years were disparate and directionless where my self-regard was concerned. I’d sat through academically unremarkable years at secondary school and spent a year earning money in a worthless job. The previous ten months had been, like I guessed, a colossal mistake, a cul-de-sac in my personal and professional life. However, like the very best mistakes, it’s so bound up in my experiential makeup that I have a complete lack of regret about the whole caper after all — and although you may believe that the last several thousand words on the matter bear witness to the contrary, I hold no-one involved any malice. Fact is, I’d be rather amused to bump into any one of them now.

It was time to make new friends at college. I  had a better idea of what I definitely didn’t want to do with myself, if nothing else. That was a start. The Nineties had truly arrived. Life for me finally had begun.

Thank you for your time.


Currently listening to:
In Camera (Peter Hammill, 1974)
Nadir’s Big Chance (Peter Hammill, 1975)

Currently reading:

Currently watching:
Drop The Dead Donkey Series 2 and 3 (Channel 4, 1991 - 1992)

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Adventures in insurance: the Lloyd’s year, 1990-1991. Part four (of five): it gets better.

…in which our hero starts drinking, makes music, makes friends. Does a big poo first.
My continued gratitude to you for reading this. I can’t lie — it’s going to get a bit messy very shortly. Consider yourself warned. 
January 1991. I had spent three joyless months in my job at a Lloyd’s brokerage and my first week back at the office after the Christmas holiday found me wandering around in a fuzzy, muzzy haze. A dastardly ‘flu-type sickness had cast a melancholy pall over the Twelve Days, although by January — much like the economy, then as now — it was in recession. Nonetheless, its thin, pale green tendrils had dug deep and had left me more removed from reality than usual — which under the circumstances was great, absolutely fine by me. I sat upright in my swivel chair, tried to keep my head from gimballing with giddiness and regarded Richard ‘Col’ Collander, my work mentor sat opposite, with eyes that didn’t blink often enough. I felt decidedly ropy. 
“Did you have a nice holiday, Paul?” he asked. I replied mildly that it was ok, thank you.
“Well, you’re back here now,” he concluded, with familiar, smiling negativity. Well, whaddya know, I certainly was. Happy New Fucking Year. Same as ever it was — meaning, of course, with each passing day it was worse than it had ever been. 
Something had been building up inside of me over the past few weeks, especially during the days spent in contemplation — and viral incubation — over the festive season. I had spent three months trying to get people to like me and had met with a uniformly humourless stone wall. The job was dull and I was spectacularly awful at it. I did not rate myself all that highly. In short, I had been ground down. 
On a more immediate, more base level, that wasn’t all that was building up inside me, though. 
Later the same week, I had what I can only describe as an eventful trip to the toilet. There’s a wonderful expression I first heard said by Clint Eastwood in his final outing as Harry Callaghan in The Dead Pool, in which he bemoans his lot as ‘flopped lower than whale shit.’ Well, I had compromised my fragile — nay, virginal — teenaged system just before Christmas with my first ever alcoholically-induced vomiting bout (full details here, bodily fluid fans) and a stinking cold over the holidays had kept the rancid pot belly simmering, as it were. Those green tendrils were turning to a distinct brown by the hour. You know where this is leading. I don’t care, I’m going to describe this. No, really. 
Jesus, what an absolute mess! It was as if someone had filled a balloon with chocolate mousse and then poked it with a pin inside the porcelain — spattered and splattered it was, up the cistern, speckling the back of my white shirt with brown and pebble-dashing the rim of the bowl. The sheer hopelessness of the situation hit me within seconds and I felt that cold fear clench my chest. How the hell was I going to clear it up? What about my clothes? What would I tell the others if they asked? Then, amidst the fetid feculence, flopped lower than ever before in my very own shit, I started laughing. A lot. Really, really loudly. I can confidently state that I never laughed so hard or so loud in the previous six months of my life as I did that afternoon in the tiny toilet cubicle on the ground floor of my office building. That bizarre survival mechanism had kicked in with a distinct snap. Fuck it. Fuck it all. Fuck them all. I spent a good, semi-solid 40 minutes patiently tidying up my magnificent muck, sniggering all the while, then cleaned and composed myself, put my jacket on and went back to my seat in the office as though nothing had happened. I was dying for someone to wonder where I was, why I’d been gone so long and — hope of all hopes — ask from where the hell that bloody stench was emanating. I was fully, totally prepared to tell them exactly where. It was a measure of my reduced circumstances that the highlight of my career in insurance so far was an explosive attack of virally exacerbated diarrhoea. Back in the office, no one had noticed my absence. Oh well. Seems I’d have to be a little more blatant in future.
All these shit-nanigans coincided with what could be dubiously described as ‘interesting times’ in the world, but I was clearly too wrapped in my own situation. My Diary picks up 1991 on the 14th January and the entry concludes:
Tomorrow 5am is the deadline for Saddam Hussein to pull out of Kuwait. With no real chance of this happening between then and now it seems that we will be at war with Iraq tomorrow.
Vomit, then shit — and now a rare display of phlegm. The following days of entries dissolve shamefully into the briefest Boy’s Own account of the first Gulf War — a veritable I-Spy Book list of military hardware and tactics: Scud missiles, Patriots, Tornadoes, talk of ‘designated targets’ and the Geneva Convention. I didn’t have a bloody clue about any of it and precious little concern too, it seems.
I increasingly found all sorts of reasons to keep myself out of work on the feeblest of premises — and in this regard I had some assistance. In early February of 1991, it snowed in vast quantities: one of the heaviest, deepest and most sustained falls I have ever known in my tiny part of the world — as records still hold to this day. It started on a Sunday lunchtime as I recall and by Monday morning the situation was looking bleak and still bleaker by the minute. My Diary again details this titanic struggle to get into work:
Bus at 8.30 [am], Sidcup [station] by 9.55 — turned away, went back up to School, walked home — home by 10.45 — 4 hrs in all. 
No, I can’t work out the maths on that now, either. It’s worth mentioning that I still maintained good relations with various people from my old school and they were happy to welcome this particular snow-sodden alumnus back into the building for a defrosting cup of tea, half an hour of catch-up chit-chat with ex-teachers and remaining friends, plus free use of the telephone to let my workmates know that I wouldn’t be coming in. Remember, 1990: no mobiles! The other thing I remember that day was the black felt wide-brimmed hat I wore. I had picked it up in a Goth shop on Oxford Street several weeks ago and it made me look like a cross between an obese Doc Holliday and a rabbi. It caught the snow beautifully in the brim and elicited some tart comment from my old Physics master, Mr Aspin, on my way out of the premises. I didn’t mind because I had always regarded him as a total dickhead, and I muttered something to that effect on my exit. Oh, I’ll talk about him some time soon. The dickhead. 
The snow kept me housebound for three days and in that time I played and replayed a magnificent CD set of music I had borrowed from Bromley Library: The Pilgrimage To Santiago, a collection of tangy, Moorish-influenced Spanish music from the 13th Century, performed with considerable zesty gusto by Philip Pickett and his astonishing New London Consort. It remains one of my favourite albums to this day. Amidst the warmly devotional secular songs, the hotly devout chants, those hazy, trance-like cantigas and some fiery, heads-down Hispanic dance grooves I can still discern the crisp, white snowy chill soundtrack that accompanied three blissful days off under circumstances joyfully out of my control — and better still, beyond the power of my contemptible superiors. I’m serious about the dance grooves. It’s a brilliant record. It mattered not that my enforced stay at home incurred an overdue fine from the Library.
The IRA renewed a bombing campaign of London a week later, initially starting with an audacious attempt to launch a mortar on 10 Downing Street itself. My friend Tony worked at the Ministry of Defence and over a bottle of Beck’s one lunchtime gleefully told me his first-hand account of the events as they unfolded from outside his office window. Again, my Diary sketches out these attacks with either phlegmatic brevity or frankly chilling callousness, as you choose: 
Feb 18th 4.00pm

Didn’t go to work today — there has been two bombings — Paddington & Victoria — 1 person dead — no trains running — went to Bromley instead & bought two more Deep Purple CDs.
As someone who was caught up, albeit distantly, peripherally, in the ensuing chaos of the horrendous suicide bomb attacks that blighted London on the 7th July 2005, and as someone who silently and thankfully checked-off his colleagues as they came into the workplace unscathed on that terrible, bleak day, I read back this 19-year-old child’s attitude to this grim phenomenon now with a degree of admiration. Although I’d clearly ascribe my sang-froid primarily to the blinkered, self-absorbed worldview of the young, I still believe this the best attitude to handle these events. Never let the bastards win. Never let it get to you and never let it show if it did get to you — it’s what the monsters want. No more on this subject.
Deep Purple were but one of the many bands who had bubbled up to the forefront of my consciousness and that of my best friend Chris. Over the preceding months we had decided, through a series of trial and error tests, that the kind of shit we were into was hard, heavy and fast wherever possible. Drawing up a shopping list of the must-have albums was relatively easy. A swift glance through some old copies of Q magazine — I had started to buy it upon working in the City as it seemed like a grown-up thing to do — listed the big names to check out. Led Zeppelin we knew already, providing marvellous background soundtrack to many a school experience for some years. Ditto Pink Floyd. Adding to the colour cards, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath were the next logical bands to seek out. We had no idea what albums to buy, but from our adolescent love of Jethro Tull and David Bowie we knew that the prospective purchaser’s rule of thumb for Seventies rock bands was simple: pick an album from 1973. Either side of 1973 was more than likely awesome, but by 1975, most of those groups had gone off the boil, if not earlier. Try it! It’s not infallible, but this system will get you really far in some directions. 
Alternatively, you could do what I did on one occasion in early 1991 and choose albums by their covers. A trip to Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street, a smallish financial outlay and a few leaps of faith saw me walk out of the shop with three excellent albums: Iron Maiden’s Powerslave (1984), Deep Purple’s In Rock (1970) and Black Sabbath’s Greatest Hits. In Rock’s cover parodies the Mount Rushmore heads of the Presidents, rendering instead the five band members as monolithic faces carved in the side of the cliff face. It was unsubtle, but cheerfully so. It felt right. It almost smelled right on looking at it. The Sabbath album had a blow-up detail from a Flemish artist of the 14th Century — either Bosch or Breughel, I forget which — depicting unchaste ‘souls’ being chased and roasted in a fiery industrial vision of Hell. This one positively stank of the right kind of stuff all the way to high heaven for me. Powerslave had a typically detailed, intricate cover, by long-term Maiden artist Derek Riggs, depicting an ancient Egyptian complex. Some pictures say a thousand words; this one, brilliantly, said just two: ‘Heavy Metal‘ — and that was all you needed to know. Besides, we already knew Maiden could deliver the kind of chunky thrills we sought; they had a recent hit single in the charts: ‘Bring Your Daughter… To The Slaughter.‘ It may not have been their finest hour and was possibly the weakest song on the accompanying album, No Prayer For The Dying, but their mere presence in the tepid, mediocre Pop Charts was validation that we were onto something good with all this noisy racket.
So, were they any good, these albums? Too bloody right they were. Through a blend of educated guesswork, aesthetic value judgement and our working graph theory on musical quality [x] over 1973 band albums [y], we’d hit a seam of rock’s golden nuggets — at the time they were, as people tend to say a lot these days, game-changing. In Rock is possibly the rawest and most consistent blast of grooves from Deep Purple’s entire discography — at once both a blueprint and an archetype; Powerslave is a solid and totally thoroughbred Maiden album, representative of its kind. The Sabbath compilation covered the early Seventies, their best period — period: a time when Ozzy Osbourne rightly dominated the band, with his tremulous years as everyone’s favourite Rock Uncle decades improbably ahead. We listened to these treasures again and again over the first quarter of 1991. It set us up for what was to come in the final quarter — but more on that later.
Music started to dominate my life outside of work in more personal ways. I launched into prolific composition like never before. Some of the earliest examples of what I would consider to be finished, thought-through pieces were written either side of Christmas 1990. It proved to be an escape and a release from everything else getting tense around me, but I think my secret life spent recording music over more than twenty years truly is a subject for a blog all its own another time. Something else however, late in January 1991 was to have a far-reaching effect on me: my first ever live gig in a band! I played keyboards, at very, very short notice, in Mary Jane, a band formed of my friend Rich’s erstwhile school colleagues, performing at a ‘Battle Of The Bands’ at their school hall. My Diary records the bands on that evening faithfully, and I’m glad it does. Carve their names with pride: The Hitch Hikers, Death Before Disco, Mary Jane, The Flowerpot Men and The Clap. Mary Jane played crowd-pleasing rock covers in a hard and funky style and their guitarist Matt and drummer Bell were both particularly powerful and accomplished. Able bass-istance came from Pete, the quintessence of the affable, quietly competent bottom-end provider. Rich played a scratchy rhythm guitar and capitalised on a look somewhere between Keith Richards and Guy Pearce — the consensus being that he fixed the ladies to the spot. Their lead singer, Dan was — and indeed still is — a throaty vocalist who’d pace the stage back and forth, smoking distractedly and engaging with the crowd. The evening is a blur, but apparently we
knocked ‘em dead! The 2nd band got sent off for being crap! I got Shanghaied into playing live!
Little really came of this coalition in the short term, but I had considerable dealings with these boys and their associates in various permutations several years down the line — and indeed to this day. I didn’t realise that I’d laid the groundwork for years of extracurricular activity playing in bands — it just felt great to be asked to play, to be part of a musical entity for one night and be regarded by my newfound friends and the audience as a proper performing musician. You never ever forget that first time.
What has all this got to do with insurance? Absolutely nothing — and that’s the point. Life for several months had consisted of insurance or nothing else, a veritable vacuum, save for misery and boredom. The latter situation was due, over the space of a few short days, to become filled with joy, a sense of freedom and renewed self-determination. As the saying goes, you never know what’s around the corner.
Currently listening to: 
In Camera (Peter Hammill, 1974)
Nadir’s Big Chance (Peter Hammill, 1975)
Over (Peter Hammill, 1977)
The Rising Of The Lights (William D Drake, 2011)

Currently reading:
A Rural Affair (Catherine Alliott, 2011) - the chick lit review was postponed, so I’m back chasing the miserable dollar.
Currently watching:
Drop The Dead Donkey Series 2 and 3 (Channel 4, 1991 - 1992)