What would you pack in your time machine to travel back and also possibly forward in time?
In the UK, 97% of our money exists only as squiggles on a computer screen. Governments effectively wave the magic wand of belief to give value to otherwise worthless pieces of paper and metal, and in another step removed, to their electronic incarnations, in what is akin to the biggest confidence trick of all time. Think of this as financial abracadabra.
Without the magic spell of belief, fiat money is worthless. If we travelled back in time to the 18th century armed with one of our twenty-pound notes and a debit card and attempted to buy a pail of milk, we’d likely be thrown in the stocks and pelted with potatoes. The note and the card would be useless because they’d have no context: neither king, government nor citizens would recognise them. No one would believe in them and this lack of belief would render them worthless. And as for the Swedes with their payment-enabled embedded microchips, paying for public transport with a wand-like wave of their hands, they’d likely be burned at the stake.
But if we took back a few gold coins, we’d be received with glad cries because gold is a recognised, useful and coveted commodity. Everyone in 18th Century Britain would know all about gold, they’d all believe it could be used to buy goods and services as well as to make valuable jewellery.
So thinking of what we might arm ourselves with, what we might pack in our time machine, can give us insights into the value that humankind has placed and may continue to place on different asset classes. Find out more in my latest book: discover it at bit.ly/10thingsmoney
Ad agencies know better than to use that loathsome expression to exhort us to contort, distort and “ought“ our body into their conception of how it should look. That was more about the superficialities in buying whatever product they were flogging than about our underlying health anyway.
I’ve come up with an alternative:
How to get our finances beach-holiday ready.
But we can return to the analogy. This is not a question of deprivation, punishment and then binge. It’s more about balance throughout the year, mindful spending, mindful investing and mindful saving. It’s about consciously avoiding loathsome comparisons, whether about our body, what we clothe it in or what home /holiday /vehicular backdrops we choose or don’t choose for our social media shots.
So how do we get our finances holiday-ready?
First off, set a realistic bar. Resist social spending, keeping up with the Joneses. This holiday is for you not for your platform.
Once you’ve set your bar and given yourself a goal, you’ve taken the first decisive step as the act of having a goal will help us achieve it. There’s a ton of research to show that saving towards a specific goal is much more effective than just random saving (although that’s good as well!)
Next, in terms of reaching that bar, think step-by-step. Try and maintain balance, not depriving yourself excessively which can actually set you up for binge-spending.
One way of increasing a holiday budget very simply is to have a “sinking fund” where we transfer money out of our monthly income into a dedicated bank account. That is great but I would not let it sit in that bank account unless you’re going to use it within the year. If you’re planning for holidays in several years then take money from that dedicated bank account and invest every month in the stock market, via an ISA if you haven’t already hit your £20,000 annual upper limit. [Have a read of my book for different stock market investment strategies and time horizons: discover it at bit.ly/10thingsmoney .]
This also has the advantage of what is called “pound cost averaging.” This is where you are not attempting to time the market by picking the perfect moment but just steadily investing month by month and riding out the shorter term gyrations while taking advantage of periodic market dips.
In this way, you can plan for holidays in years to come by putting your savings to work, not just amassing cash in the bank where its value will be eroded over time by inflation. And yes, gyrations in stock market values can also erode the value of your savings which is why you might want to split them into cash saved for next year’s holiday and cash invested in the stock market or in “alternatives” for holidays in five years’ time.
Another way of saving for future holidays is via “alternatives” like casked whisky or fine wine or coins. Any increase in the value of these assets over time has the advantage of being free of capital gains tax as they are classed as “wasting assets.” Saving coupled with investing in this way gives our holiday budget a positive double whammy in helping us to live within our means and making our means go further.
That, my friends, is how we get our finances beach–holiday ready or mountain-holiday ready or spa-holiday ready or whatever you have in mind.
Why did I decide to write 10 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Money?
What makes it different?
What is its special alchemy?
Sometimes books are the fruit of a long obsession, of years of dreaming, plotting, planning.
Sometimes they’re born of a throwaway remark, a chance encounter, a lightbulb moment when you think what if.
This book, 10 Things Everyone Needs to Know about Money, is all of the above.
There are lots of ingredients in this creation of mine.
I’m interested in the subject of money, personally and professionally.
I studied economics (along with politics and philosophy at university) and as the daughter and the sister of economics professors I was fairly well versed in the subject academically.
I worked for eight years in the heart of the money machine, as an investment banker, in London, New York and Eastern Europe, and I have continued to work in the financial services sector as a consultant and investor.
I’ve written a series of financial thrillers portraying the shenanigans, the glamour and the dark side of money, as well as the nature of the people who work in the money-world: their motivations, the temptations they face and how they navigate them.
I hadn’t written non-fiction about money since my university days but a few years ago, I decided to write a Preface to a new special 20th anniversary edition of my first bestselling book, Nest of Vipers. I decided that I would write about the main developments in the financial world over the previous 20 years. One of the main events was the global financial crisis. As I wrote about it, I developed a growing sense of outrage. I discovered a new voice speaking within me, bubbling up to the surface.
I also, in 2018, spent a term as the inaugural Writer in Residence at my old Oxford college, St Edmund Hall. There I spoke with my old professors and new academic friends about all things money.
I plunged deeper into the money-world, and so insistent was this new voice, and so carried away did I become, that I ended up writing over a quarter of a million words.
There is no point writing even if you think the content is good, if nobody is ever going to read your book because it’s too dense, too impenetrable, too wordy.
And so I started cutting and pruning, what Stephen King called killing my darlings, as I pared down the book, as I conceptualised it around the framework of 10 things everyone needs to know.
Because the thing is, our knowledge of money, our financial literacy, is surprisingly limited.
We’re not taught it at school.
We don’t like to talk about it – see my section on the money taboo!
We’re not as fluent as we could be.
As we need to be.
We cannot afford NOT to speak money well.
Money is one of the most important languages on the planet and in this book I want to help everyone understand and speak it better. I want to explore how global financial systems impact our everyday lives, what we can do about it, how we can improve our own and their family’s financial literacy.
I also wanted the book to be vibrant, eye-catching, to speak to people…
In the midst of all this, a friend came to stay: the artist Nick Bashall.
Nick is a very old friend of my husband, Rupert, and had gifted us a couple of hilarious cartoons on the birth of two of our three children.
Nick is by training and profession a portrait painter and war artist but he is also an exceptionally gifted cartoonist.
And this is where the throwaway comment comes in.
Nick had mentioned years earlier that he would like to illustrate and write his own esoteric version of the Asterix books, but life had rolled by and he’d never got round to it.
So I thought to myself what if Nick illustrated my money book? The eccentricities, pretensions and excesses of the money-world make it ripe for satire. Sometimes a picture can speak a thousand words. Nick also happens to be a former corporate lawyer and so he understands that world very well.
I put it to him:
Would you like to illustrate my book?
We had a number of discussions which culminated in me saying to him, bearing in mind he is an artist with all the attendant issues relating to deadlines, free-spiritedness and general anarchy:
It’s all right if you say no (I was fervently praying he would not say no) but if you say YES, you need to deliver and you need to deliver on time.
To my delight, Nick said yes!
I’ve never worked on a book with anyone else before, other than with editors (often but not universally a pleasant experience).
But, working with Nick has been a joy.
It has also brought a new language into play.
Seeing my concepts, my arguments, my words, transformed via Nick’s glorious artistic alchemy into images has been unique, thrilling and powerful.
As I write this I have the book open on my desk and I look at his cartoons, at the faces in particular, and I smile.
Many people have told me how much they enjoy the cartoons and the whole approach of the book. Yes, money is serious, yes, it is important, but we learn as we smile and laugh, as we read and see.
In my quest to help people speak and understand the language of money, I have deployed the language of art and humour along with words and numbers.
The three key psychological hacks financial fraudsters deploy.
Not for them the glinting knife in some dark back alley. The tools of their trade are Savile Row suits and exclusive golf club membership. As we saw in the case of Bernie Madoff.
He defrauded thousands of investors out of tens of billions of dollars over the course of at least 17 years. How did he do it? By hiding his fraudulent activities in plain sight. By joining the finest golf clubs, by being seen at all the right charity high society parties, by becoming Chairman of NASDAQ. He consistently returned 1-1.2% month on month, year on year for decades. Too good to be true? You bet!
Madoff deployed three key psychological hacks: greed; not wanting to appear ignorant; and wanting to belong.
He appealed to greed, not obscene greed such that people would disbelieve him, but a low level, steady, gateway greed – returns of between 1 and 1.2% per month, year on year on year on year. And, really, no one achieves that over a sustained period of time unless they are a vanishingly rare genius or, more likely, they are fraudsters.
He spun in lots of references to clever derivative products that he used, blinding people by science. No one wants to admit that they don’t understand something, further, investors never want to look too closely at the golden goose, so it seems that nobody questioned him in great detail, certainly not enough to expose his fraud. And then there was the third thing: exclusivity, membership of a club for the rich and well-connected. Madoff would not allow anyone to invest in his fund with less than a $1 million stake. It was reassuringly expensive to people used to inhabiting this high-stakes world.
He exploited these three things, and parlayed them with his dark, corrupt alchemy into a billionaire’s life of high living until inevitably it all came crashing down.
Hello my friends. Most of what I post on Twitter is about sunrises and sunsets and my periodic swims in the North Sea. I post things that raise my spirits because boy, do we will need it.
But I have a day job, I’ve always had a day job. Once upon a time, in a long distant world, I was an investment banker. I gave that up to write financial thrillers. I’ve written six to date. I’ve also written a memoir about my kidnap and imprisonment in Iran. I’ve also written children’s stories because I love escaping into other worlds, and because I have three children of my own and I wanted to give them something special that they could read and enjoy. But something happened a few years back when I was writing a preface to the 20th anniversary edition of my first book, which went on to be a global best seller, Nest of Vipers. I discovered a sense of slow burning fury about some of the excesses, idiocies and culpabilities of the financial world (in which I still work incidentally, as a company director and consultant). I found I had a lot to say.
I wanted to lay bare my take on how the money world works, for good and for bad and what we individuals can do about it. The financial demons that can destroy our lives and the financial angels that can help save us. There is so much to say about money, about what it really is, about the money psychologies we all harbour, often unconsciously, which can impede our best efforts at money makeovers et cetera.
Essentially, my message is this: money is one of the most important languages on the planet and I want to help people understand and speak it better.
I have focused on 10 things which I think everyone needs to know about money which, by no coincidence, is the title of the non-fiction book I have written for readers of all ages. 10 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Money will be published this April by Atebol, a creative, dynamic, wonderfully supportive and huge fun publisher, and let me tell you, the last is as important as the other qualities.
This is a serious book about a serious subject, but I have always believed in the power of humour and as a writer of thrillers, I want to entertain. So I commissioned an old friend of mine, a renowned portrait painter and war artist, Nick Bashall, to illustrate some of the more absurd aspects of the financial world about which I write. So the book is interspersed with Nick’s brilliant and hilarious cartoons which shed light in their own humorous way.
So, interspersed with my nature tweets and my wild swimming tweets will be some more serious ones about money.
This book has been a labour of love. I only wish my late father and my late brother could have been here to read through drafts, to comment and discuss and to share their wisdom. They were both economics professors and my father’s speciality was money. His last and greatest work, which won multiple prizes around the world, is called The History of Money.
I was very lucky, however, to have academic support. I progressed this book considerably during my term as Writer in Residence at my old Oxford college, Saint Edmund Hall. Professor Dimitri Tsomocos (Professor of Financial Economics and Fellow in Management, Saϊd Business School) read through several drafts and commented and guided me. I also have had much input from practitioners in financial services such as Alexander Chartres (Investment Director at Ruffer LLP).
And I’m particularly lucky to have an in-house specialist, my husband, Rupert, who has helped me with the very real world challenges of writing a book, preparing it for publication, and raising a family in the midst of a pandemic.
This pandemic makes taking control of our finances more important than ever. I hope this book will help all those who need it, and entertain everyone along the way.
Shocked by the antics on BBC TV’s bank drama Industry? The real Square Mile was even WORSE in the 80s, says one survivor
IT was 1985 and the Big Bang was transforming the Square Mile from a cosy gentlemen’s club of bowler-hatted Home County-dwellers who caught the 4pm train back to Tunbridge Wells, into a cut-throat arena of sharp-suited, fast-talking, moneyhungry types from across the pond.
They brought with them entirely different business ethics – or rather, lack of ethics. Their focus on short term profits liberated them from antiquated constraints of probity, shame and soundness.
It all came flooding back to me in the first moments of BBC Two’s new drama Industry which depicts naked ambition, sex, drugs, lies and lethal overwork among a band of young bankers, fighting for a handful of jobs at a City investment bank. Because back then, I was one of the first female investment bankers to break into that gilded money pit. I was recruited, like the spies of old, at Oxford University during the so-called “milk round” when big financial firms scooped up ambitious undergraduates with offers of money beyond the dreams of avarice.
During my first three months in London I worked three weekends out of four on a deal as one member of my four-person team went down with glandular fever, and another got married before a long honeymoon, leaving just me and the most senior member, who was charismatic, brilliant and congenial, and also an alcoholic.
I headed off to the company’s New York HQ to begin the official training programme. The bank infamously sacked 40 per cent of participants during this six-month period. To succeed, someone else must fail. My particular training was modelled on a mini MBA. We were regularly given assignments that required us to pull all-nighters. We needed to get A grades for every one of these. Two Bs in a row meant we’d be on the next plane home.
I remember being given a B for an assignment which I profoundly believed was an A. I pulled another almighty all-nighter, secured an A and kept my place while others around me didn’t. I learnt not to fear these marathons. They were manageable, albeit grisly, and I was to repeat them regularly for real when I returned to London.
I remember one where I was tasked with pricing up acquisition targets for a certain, now disgraced, mogul – Robert Maxwell. He was infamous for pouncing upon a potential target, ringing us and saying: “I’m considering taking over company X. I want a proposal on my desk tomorrow morning.” I would pull the all-nighter, go back home and shower, return and present my findings to a team of eight – Maxwell, my boss and a few flunkies from his side.
One time, tired, hungry, in need of sharpening, I lit a cigarette and began to smoke. Cue horrified looks from around the table. “No smoking,” bellowed Maxwell. “But you’re smoking,” I observed, pointing to his smouldering cigar. He gave me a long look, then burst out laughing. From then on, he let me smoke. I was the only one at the table who did apart from him. A small victory.
Nicotine was my drug. I could not drink whilst doing my job. I would never have had the energy or the clarity of thought to pull it off. I didn’t take drugs either, though I was aware that many did. One of the biggest deals done at the time was, as the man who made it happen told me, fuelled by cocaine. But adrenaline and the fear of being fired were a strong enough stimulus for me. The pressure was relentless. After four years, I decided it was time to leave the wild American waters to seek the sanctuary of what appeared more like a tranquil backwater – an oldfashioned British merchant bank. We had a client, an American cowboy who had been run out of Wall Street and had come to London to reinvent himself. We were sorting out various issues for him in an attempt to boost his share price. A team of ten bankers and lawyers were advising him. I was the most junior. Periodically, the cowboy would announce he wanted to clear the room to talk to his chosen adviser. I remember tripping out but he called me back. I was the one he wanted to keep behind. And you know what? Eight people trooped out, leaving me alone with him. He then proceeded to proposition me verbally, grope me aggressively and finally chase me round the boardroom table. After a couple of laps I ran to the door, opened it and called everyone back in. They all knew what had gone on, but no one said a word. The groping and the propositioning continued. Finally, I’d had enough and told the senior director in charge of the deal. I wish I’d thought to record it. He listened, saying nothing until finally, with a Delphic smile, he drawled: “My dear, did nobody ever tell you, the customer is always right.”
I stuck it out till the end of the year so I could claim a guaranteed signing-on bonus, and then jumped ship, back to another US investment bank, one of the wildest of the lot. It was known as a nest of vipers. The new bank sent me to Eastern Europe just after the Berlin Wall came down in search of venture capital opportunities. I met with one prospective client in his tower block office with its thick steel door, just him, me and my translator. We discussed his business idea, which seemed to have merit, we progressed to the equity investment he was looking for – $20 million would have done it – then out came a large black briefcase. He opened it up, gestured to the contents – wads and wads of high denomination Deutschmark. “I have a problem that I hope you can help me with. I have all this money and nobody to help me spend it. Perhaps you could help me…” The translator dutifully relayed all of this, blinking rapidly. I tried not to blink but looked back steadily and said: “You’re very kind but I would never take any upfront payment. Let me deliver and then we can discuss your very generous suggestion.” I made small talk for as short a time as I thought decent, escaped into the rickety lift, and travelled back to central Prague. “What will you do?” Asked the translator. “Think about it of course,” I answered. Back in my hotel room I packed, checked out, and flew home three hours later. Dealing with the Eastern European mafia was not quite what I had in mind.
I decided it was time to try life at the sharpest end of investment banking – the trading floor. There were even fewer executive women here (just four on a trading floor of around 400) but there were many female support staff and a lot of fraternising. There’s something visceral about trading floors in particular and the highs that come with successful trades. It’s a feeling born of conquest, winners and losers, Darwinian pre-eminence. In the days before people got tech savvy, the on-floor antics after the markets closed were source of considerable entertainment for bored security guards.
I still smoked to aid my concentration. One day, as I was mid-trade, my colleagues thought it might be amusing to extinguish my cigarette by shooting me with water pistols. Another time they thought it would be funny to tie me up with Sellotape mid trade, pinioning me to my chair. They wouldn’t have found it quite so funny if I’d botched the trade, put the decimal point in the wrong place and cost them their bonuses. And those bonuses… you wouldn’t want to miss them. Why else, apart from rampant ego, would you ever do a job like this? The cage was 24-carat gilded but it was still a cage. Many people found they just couldn’t escape, simply matching their spending to their ever-increasing income. The truth is, in terms of pure numbers, it’s hard not to save when you’re in that environment. So much money gets thrown at you. But there’s a competitive element to the spending. The “must have” was not a handbag but a Porsche, customised by AMG, followed by ever bigger flats and houses, ever more expensive bottles of wine. Friday evenings in the ski resort of Verbier looked like something out of Apocalypse Now as helicopters choppered the bankers in. The manic spending left people precariously exposed to the risk of sacking, ramping up stress levels that were already stratospherically high.
I had a different aim. I always wanted to write and my plan was to save up my “running away money” so I could do just that – run away and write. I left after eight years and I wrote my first book, Nest of Vipers, which went on to sell more than three million copies in 30 different territories.
I watched episode one of Industry and realised how glad I am I walked those citadels of money. But I’m even more glad I walked out of them.
What do we know of the Druids? The answer is not much. They were said to be illiterate though opinion is divided as to whether they could not write or chose not to. They were learned as well as warrior-like. They were magicians, priests, healers, seers, apothecaries of nature and they did not want their extensive knowledge to fall into the wrong hands, i.e Roman hands and so their tradition was to share that knowledge orally. There have been records of the equivalent of household accounts which does suggest they were literate. I shall never know for sure.
We do know that they lived in a world of omens and symbols and messengers. The Common Raven was deemed a messenger between worlds. They saw portents in the skies and stars, they believed in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, of night and day, of the wheel turning. And they believed that the veil between worlds was permeable on the night of Samhain, what we call Halloween.
Sadly, most of what we do know about the Druids is gleaned from the writings of their Roman oppressors. History is typically written by the victor and typically slanted. The Romans feared the Druids and their supernatural powers. They feared their practices of congregating under oak trees which they deemed sacred, drinking bull’s blood (literally), and spilling the entrails of their enemies and reading signs from the coiled intestines.
I had a conversation a while back with the renowned historical writer Tom Holland about the problems of writing, albeit fiction not non-fiction, based on historical characters. His view was that the lack of historical data was in one way liberating. You can make it up!
I read extensively and I attempted to put myself into their minds, travelling back 2000 years to the wilds of Wales, to the strongholds of the Druids in the north. I’ve done some work on a novel for young adults based on Druids. Here is an excerpt:
Happy Samhain. Mind how you go…
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The inspiration of place can strike us anywhere. Wherever you are, it can inspire your creativity, whether it be in writing, painting, drawing, or in business and charitable opportunities too.
I wasn’t always a writer. I started my career as an Investment Banker. Some might think that a place of numbers was not an inspiring place, but believe me, it was.
A place where huge sums of money can be made and lost in seconds makes for a very interesting study of human nature. Just how far will people go to make a lot of money – and then how much further to make a truly stupendous amount of money? The answer to that, and the desire to lift the lid on some of the practices that went on there, inspired me to write my first novel, Nest of Vipers. I went on to write five more financial thrillers which were published around the world and translated into over thirty languages: it’s fair to say I found a lot of inspiration in the City of Money.
Then I moved with my family to Dubai. Now, I’d always wanted to write children’s books, and I’d always been interested in Djinn. Then one day, the two things came together.
I was walking on the public beach in Umm Suqeim when I found a shell with a very intricate pattern… Sea Djinn was directly inspired by that moment on the beach.
For Fire Djinn, I was walking in the Suffolk countryside when I came across a huge rubbish incineration facility. It was surrounded by massive fences topped with barbed wire. Why, I wondered, should rubbish warrant such robust protection? What if it were merely a cover, literally and metaphorically, for a hidden underground bunker of some sort? I transported that underground bunker to the deserts of Dubai, and gave it to my Dark Fire Djinn, Jehannem, for his own evil purposes.
For Storm Djinn, I found inspiration in the Rub al Khali, the magical Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world:
Finn smiled back. ‘Tell us about the desert, about the Empty Quarter.’
‘The Rub al Khali? It is a beautiful, heartless place where death licks at your heels with every step. Even the Bedu just skirt the flanks, rarely if ever venturing in very deep. Perhaps it is the ultimate test of survivability.’ Hareb paused and a wistful look settled in his eyes. ‘It’s a worthy foe. Most people would die before they got a few miles on foot during high summer. The temperatures reach 55 degrees centigrade, so hot the air sears your nostrils when you breathe. The dunes are taller than the Eiffel Tower. Imagine trying to claw your way up and over them in the blistering heat.’
‘Why would anyone want to?’ asked Fred.
‘Because it’s there.’ Hareb smiled enigmatically. ‘But don’t worry, our trip will be just a short escapade.’
‘Tame,’ murmured Finn to himself.
Hareb heard him and raised a sculpted eyebrow. ‘Finn, believe me, tame is what you want in the Rub al Khali.’
‘Yes, I suppose it is,’ conceded Finn, mind far away. He gazed out of the window, green eyes sharp with longing.
The dunes of the Empty Quarter stretched out for a quarter of a million square miles around them, a sea of sand, with mountainous waves towering away into the horizon; empty and desolately beautiful. Scary too. They were miles from civilisation, driving back through time it almost seemed, to another age, another millennium where there was just sand and that huge, towering sky curving away to the ends of the earth. No houses. No people. No help. Finn laughed to himself as a flicker of unease rippled through him. Why would they need help? They had ten desert experts driving them, ready to set up their tents for an overnight camp, and all the vehicles were loaded with enough food and water for a week. It was going to be tame, he chastised himself.
Finn frowned at the sky and checked his watch; four p.m. – too early to get dark, yet the light was fading. The roar of the Land Cruiser mounting a dune was matched by a louder howl; the wind. Suddenly the atmosphere in the car changed. Finn could feel the tension. He could see it in the veined hands of Shaukat, the driver, as he gripped the steering wheel, and in the hunch of his shoulders.
Fred glanced uneasily out of the window. He saw the sun. It looked odd. It was tinged green, as if burning feverishly. A strange ring of dull brown-grey ran around it, like a dark halo.
‘What’s happening?’ asked Fred, fear churning his stomach.
‘A shamal,’ answered Shaukat. ‘A sandstorm. Coming from nowhere. The sky was blue a minute ago.’
‘That’s what shamals do,’ answered Hareb. ‘They come from nowhere. We should stop.’
‘As soon as we crest this dune,’ replied Shaukat. ‘If we stop here, we’ll get stuck in the sand.’
Finn glanced at his teacher. Hareb’s voice had sounded oddly ominous. But then he was an Emirati, he had grown up in the Liwa Oasis on the edge of the Empty Quarter, so he would know better than any of them what a shamal could do.
Suddenly, Hareb flinched as though in pain. Finn watched him, concerned.
Sand wheeled through the air and pummelled the car windows as if it were trying to break in. Finn wondered how the driver could see to drive, yet the car powered on, racing upwards towards the top of some hidden dune. Finn tried to spot the other cars ahead, but there was no sign of them. Perhaps they had already crested the dune and were down on the other side.
Atop the dune, the car shuddered as a gust hit it full blast. Shaukat gasped as the car began to angle up on two wheels. Fred gulped, Georgie turned white and Hareb glanced round, face tight with apprehension.
‘Hang on!’ he shouted. ‘Brace yourselves!’
Sickeningly and seemingly in slow motion, the car toppled. It rolled one hundred and eighty degrees, suspending them in the air before tipping the whole way over and thudding down again. Finn covered his head with his hands, like air hostesses show you to do in the safety demonstrations on planes. He held his breath as the car rolled again, then again, then again, picking up speed as it went, like a demented fairground ride, only there was no getting off this ride. The screams were real, the danger was mortal and they were trapped. The wind screamed back at them. Darkness fell, devouring the light.
Storm Djinn by Linda Davies, Chapter One
So, all around us, we have inspiration. But only if we LOOK!
Think about the synonyms for ‘look’:
see, perceive, discern, look, witness, glimpse, notice, distinguish, regard
And its antonyms:
ignore, deny, overlook, disregard, overlook, look right through, discount
Do we see, or do we disregard? Familiarity breeds contempt, or perhaps, more gently, comfortable acceptance. To be inspired by where we are, we need to look with a questing eye.
There is a great quote from the poet William Blake:
The next step on from seeing is imagining.
I have another great quote for you:
So see what is before you, then really look, imagine what is hidden, what happens next, what buildings could be built, what stories could be written, what paintings could be painted.
Look around, see what is there, be inspired by the beauty of the landscape, the vision behind the buildings. See how you can be inspired by it in your own life. Maybe it is to write, or to set up a business, or to help a friend who you hadn’t noticed before needed help.
Try it for yourself: try to see something new in your surroundings and describe it in three crisp sentences…
An afternoon well spent in an office tailor made for intrigue
By Linda Davies
It was a dull day on the trading floor. Business was thin. The clients were like reticent fish. The atmosphere was brooding. Pasty faces tinged green by the flickering of hundreds of computer screens glowered at each other. The big swinging dicks prowled the floor, looking for sport.
I wandered through the maze of tightly packed desks to the machine for my tenth black coffee. Traders along my route entertained themselves by dissecting my outfit. Was it as good as yesterday’s? As flattering, as well tailored? I paraphrase, their language was rather more colourful.
I returned to the relative sanctuary of my desk where I sat, elbow to elbow with fellow salesmen and traders, all bored, all amusing themselves in their particular way: computer sex, the Racing Post, 0898 telephone numbers.
I retreated into day dreams. What, I wondered, was the biggest crime I could possibly commit, using the apparatus at my disposal?
My purpose was fictional. My mentality, good or bad, falls short of criminal. But trading floors can be corrupting places; huge pressures, huge money, huge scope and the glorious sense of alienation from any limitation which accompanies the “can do” ethos which permeates the City.
How easy to slip from the legal to the illegal trade, especially when the law is so patchy and the temptation so great.
Millions can be made almost invisibly, just numbers on a screen, a few telephone calls, a couple of squiggles on a piece of paper. Financial crime is the smoothest thing.
But how to commit it? I set to musing. I was alarmed by how easily the core idea came. It took just minutes.
The finance ministers and central bankers of G7 were meeting in Frankfurt. Perhaps they were going to decide to intervene in the foreign exchange markets to support or depress one of their member currencies. What if a foreign exchange trader knew in advance? What if one of the ministers tipped him off? It would be like knowing the winner of the Derby in advance.
And the stake? A top FX trader could take a position of half a billion dollars. Just a well timed word or two of inside information – “buy dollars” – and he could make 5 or 10 million in an afternoon.
And the beauty of it? No one would suspect. He takes huge positions in the markets every week. It’s his job; the perfect cover.
I sat back with a smile and lit a celebratory cigarette; I had discovered the perfect crime.
But do the perpetrators get away with it, or, as in all good parables, are they destroyed by hubris and greed?
It took me two years to write Nest of Vipers. In that time “Black Wednesday” showed the awesome power of the FX markets which destroyed a major strand of government economic policy, felled the Chancellor and abolished hopes of the medium term achievement of European Currency Union.
Black Wednesday also showed how billions of dollars can be made in days on the FX markets, legally. Imagine how much could be made illegally.
[Originally published in The Independent in their True Stories series, 9th June 1994]
The Goldman Sachs scandal, which cost three traders their jobs, may have shocked the world at large. To Linda Davies, who worked for seven years in the City, it comes as no surprise at all.
To outsiders, the Goldman Sachs sex case must seem mystifying: three foreign exchange traders, each reputed to earn $1m, fired for their imaginative suggestions as to how a secretary might secure promotion. It might seem unreal, paranoiac, manically politically correct, but the alleged harassment is all too easy to imagine. The reaction is measured, entirely appropriate. But it is also surprising.
I speak as a former insider. I worked in the City for seven years for three prominent merchant /investment banks, in corporate finance, management buyouts, venture capital and bond sales. Two years ago I left, not because I didn’t enjoy the job, but because I didn’t enjoy the environment. I think the City’s achievements – its huge contribution to GNP, for example – are impressive. But the environment and prevailing attitudes – harsh, blinkered, inhospitable, aggressive and lacking in humanity – are less so.
The firing of sexual harassers may be extremely rare but the harassment itself, in its various forms, from the outrageous to the subtle, is extremely common.
It is difficult for those outside the City to gain insight into its inner workings. Try to get anyone working there to talk to a journalist on the record about sexual harassment or any vaguely controversial topic and you will see self-censorship in action. It is also difficult for insiders to gain any perspective into their insular, all-consuming environment. If you put in 12 hours a day for all your working life in the City, objective judgement is clouded, and other bases of comparison lacking.
So how does sexual harassment manifest itself? It is different from pure prejudice, although both are on the same continuum, denoting a fundamental lack of respect. It is concentrated on trading floors in the City, although it is by no means absent from corporate finance. It starts early in the morning, around 7:30am on a trading floor, a time when you might think most people’s thoughts would be far from sex, but, then, sexual harassment, I suspect, often has little to do with sexual desire, more to do with power.
At 7:30am, as you arrive at work and walk across the catwalk of the trading floor, you will receive a stream of comments on your outfit from the innocuous, ‘You look nice,’ to speculation as to what you might look like without it. A few propositions follow. Then, at some stage during the day you might hear the popular trading floor refrain about what you might have to give to get ahead. The details of verbal sexual harassment might sound petty in isolation; many of them are. It is more the barrage, the constant background noise, the expectation of it, that make it so insidious.
Other forms of harassment are slightly more oblique. Trading floors are dotted with pornographic calendars. These calendars are, at best, off-putting. When you are talking to a trader, trying to get a price, and three inches from his screen, facing you, is a naked woman, it is slightly disconcerting. This is chiefly because of the suspicion that this is what he thinks of women, how he likes to relate to them publicly.
Then there are the deliberately loud conversations where traders discuss last night’s conquests. That most of these triumphs are probably fictional, does little to make the conversations less offensive. If, while trying to analyse the direction of markets for the day, you have to listen to a catalogue of sexual exploits, all in white-knuckle detail, again, it is, at best, distracting. The tenor of the conversation denotes an aggressive lack of respect for women.
The volume of the conversation, its very broadcasting, is intended to convey that lack of respect. I’ve seen the look of triumph on too many male traders’ faces as I’ve turned and told them to shut up to give them the benefit of the doubt.
When the Goldman case broke, a friend of mine, in the media, asked me about sexual harassment in the City. When I gave him details, he asked why I had done nothing. Very simple. During my time, there was nothing effective you could do. In theory, there were a number of options: the first is to fight back. This very quickly disintegrates into a slanging match, one which the offender – cruder, louder, better practised, more vulgar by far – will always win. The danger in fighting back directly is that you harden yourself. To immunise yourself and to repel attack, you can toughen yourself, become unfeeling and aggressive. Look around at some City women: it happens. After I had worked on a trading floor, one close friend remarked that I had changed in a not altogether welcome way. I had developed a hard, protective barrier, which, incidentally, my having left the City, is now gone. But when in the City, why should you have to neuter your softness and femininity just to defend yourself from the advances of reprobates?
In any case, a meek ‘shut up’ will just be rewarded with a smile of satisfaction as the offender realises he has ‘scored’ by provoking you.
Another reaction is to ignore it and do nothing; traditionally the wisest and only viable response. Or, you could go to a superior and complain. The result of this will be a comment to the effect of ‘if you can’t take the heat…’ as if there were something admirable or worthy in putting up with offensive behaviour, as if it were an integral, necessary part of the job, and that if you did accept it, then you would be doing your job better. Clearly, the latter supposition is nonsense. But sexual harassment is an integral part of the job.
Why is this? The answer is, I suspect, money and power. Money is the prime motivation of those who work in the City, many of whom make sums running into millions for their employers and themselves. That much money confers power, and a feeling of potency, upon those who make it. The link between money and power and sex is strong. The terminology of the City accolade, ‘big swinging dick’, is no coincidence. The atmosphere in the City is aggressively masculine. The level of excitement, particularly on a trading floor, is high. The testosterone level is high. Volatile markets produce excitable people. Add to these feelings of power and potency, a sense of invulnerability, an enjoyment of risk, and it is easy to see the genesis of a desire for sex, or at least its verbal proxy. It is just another form of droit de seigneur.
The other component is competition. The motivation here is not sexual, it is to do with rivalry and dominance. Because of the sums of money at stake, the competition, especially on trading floors, is intense. The encroachment of women into what was traditionally a male monopoly has exposed them to that competition. If a man loses a large sum of money, very often, more than his professional competence is threatened. His job is closely tied up with his identity. The link between money and power and sex becomes inverted when some male traders lose money; they feel impotent. One quick remedy is to force their sexual persona on to female colleagues, by propositioning them, by making offensive sexual references, by any of the means described above.
The motivations can be both conscious and unconscious. The City, international force that it is, is parochial, self-obsessed, blinkered, lacking in perspective. It is all too easy to accept the status quo as immutable. New male recruits pick up the prevailing culture and soon find themselves engaging in some of the minor, almost unconscious forms of harassment; the jokey propositioning of female colleagues assumed to be weaker, easier targets, and secretaries. So what can be done about sexual harassment? Perhaps the banks could admit that it exists and confront it. Goldman Sachs, as part of its selection process, will interview candidates up to 25 times. Many City banks have similarly rigorous procedures. What they do not test is the ability of female applicants to tolerate and accommodate sexual harassment. But, given its incidence, perhaps they should. As well as asking whether candidates are willing to work 18-hour days and sacrifice their private lives (which they don’t ask, but should), perhaps they could try asking whether women are willing and able to put up with a constant background of sexual harassment. No, they don’t ask it. It is tacit. It goes with the job, a perk for the boys, penance for the girls. We take City jobs, but they don’t warn us what we’re buying into. It is a case of caveat emptor, the buyer takes the risk; but then so much of the City is, these days.
Part of the problem in dealing with sexual harassment has been that, in the past, there has been so little desire to do anything about it. Those who made the rules, who established the culture, were almost without exception, men. They had no direct, immediate interest in changing the status quo.
The prevailing ethos has been that those who make enough money can get away with whatever they like in terms of the way they treat their women colleagues, as long as they do not become violent. But, finally, the times might be changing. The Goldman case was encouraging. After receiving much support from her female peers in a meeting convened in the ladies’ loos, the woman concerned reported her case to a committee which had been specially set up to deal with such complaints. This committee took action, and sent out a message, loud and clear, to Goldman’s employees and to the rest of the City. In one easy stroke, three big swinging dicks were felled.