In July 1987 my Aunt Ennie died. I remembered her only as an occasional visitor from London during my childhood, who always wore the same grey-and-white speckled tweed overcoat. She was eighty-three.
I was a beneficiary of her will. She left me a small portfolio of shares, invested in blue-chip companies: General Universal Stores, Shell Transport, ICI and Cadbury Schweppes. Not a young man’s portfolio: no Japanese warrants or call options on the Dow-Jones, no companies in the unlisted securities market or futures contracts against gold. The shares had been chosen by my great aunt’s advisers at her bank and were correspondingly impersonal: safe, mediocre, boring. Until probate was granted the shares were in limbo and I could do nothing with them. I wasn’t concerned; the market was buoyant and forecasts were optimistic.
Friday 9 October: It is still dark outside. I lean out of bed to switch on the light. Nothing happens. Damn. I stumble towards the bathroom and flick the light switch. No electricity. Damn.
The streets are littered with debris. I come to a house with a gaping hole in the roof, as if a massive fist has slammed into it, leaving the walls intact, and I begin to grasp the dimensions of the storm. Everywhere the roads are covered with fallen branches, and scattered with fragments of tiles, the remains of twisted umbrellas and crumpled sheets of plastic.
At the bank I sweep the electronic pass-key across the door and it opens with a satisfying click. The dealing room seems empty, and I switch on the screens at my desk. I tap through the electronic pages to read the market reports. Unusually, some of the shares still have no prices, even though it is past nine o’clock and the market has already opened.
I see Matthew light a cigarette. The stub from the previous one is still smouldering. Matthew sits at the desk next to mine and sometimes, when there is a lull in the market, like now, we talk. Since the beginning of the year he has made seven million or eight million pounds for the firm, maybe more, which is why he earns as much as a Cabinet minister or a general. I admire his single-mindedness and determination, and he sees me, perhaps, as a latecomer to banking and occasionally calls me ‘young Perry’ although I am almost ten years older than him. He says this with mocking affection and it amuses us both. Sometimes he asks what I was doing at his age, but I avoid telling him about Benares or the stars over the Castle of Assassins because I imagine it will remind him of the price he has paid in the past for what he is earning now. He compares what I have with what he has, and wonders who has made the better deal. Neither of us knows the answer.
I switch on the screen and check the prices of Aunt Ennie’s shares. The choice of solid, multinational companies implies a philosophy of life, and the size of the holdings reflects the experience of another, older generation: Edwardian prosperity, the Great War, the 1920s, the Crash and the Depression. The portfolio is almost all that remains of a life which spanned the century, a record of economic and historical cycles. The thought of selling the shares seems disrespectful, like burning the letters of the dead. However, the market has been softening over the last two months and people are beginning to say that the bull market is over. Matthew, naturally, thinks I should sell immediately and buy some options.
I look around. There is an air of unreality in the dealing room. It is how I imagine the pace of activity in a bank before there was screen trading: unhurried figures walking between desks and leisurely telephone conversations between men who went to school together. Back then a gentleman could earn a reasonable income if he read the business pages of The Times. Now it’s different. But now it is the age of computerized banking and the systems have gone down.
Saturday 10 October: I get up late and read the Financial Times over breakfast. The major headline is the weather. The Lex column notes: ‘In the way that unnatural events accompany murders in Shakespeare, the stormy weather which kept trading in the London stock market to a minimum yesterday might have been paralleled to the turbulence in the world securities markets.’ I check the prices of Aunt Ennie’s shares.
General Universal Stores £14 3/16
Shell Transport £13 1/16
ICI £15 7/16
Cadbury Scweppes 277p
They are beginning to fall.
Monday 19 October: The dealing room is crowded. Voices are pitched high, and Matthew is eating a bacon sandwich. He mumbles something but I cannot hear what he is saying. I switch on the middle screen at my desk: Screen 2 SEAQ. This is the screen which displays the current prices of the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 – the index of the largest UK companies. Company names are reduced to three letters with the current share price given alongside. If the share is above the previous day’s closing price, both company and price will be displayed in blue letters, and if below, in red. When there is no change, the letters and numbers are green. When the price is rising, numbers flash blue, and when it is falling, red. Today the electronic page is almost entirely red. Here and there red figures are pulsing, marking further decline.
‘Exciting stuff,’ says Matthew. He leans forward and wipes grease from his mouth with a paper napkin. ‘Looks like we’re in for a bit of a drama. The FTSE 100 is already off a hundred points.’
The flashing red numbers rearrange themselves, like soot particles glowing and sparkling at the back of a chimney. The screen glows and flickers.
‘Wall Street took a knock on Friday,’ says Matthew, ‘and everybody’s shitting themselves. Bye-bye bull market.’ He shows more excitement than alarm. I feel the same. We are watching a stock market crash: it has the same compelling horror as the jerky film of the explosion of the Hindenburg airship in the 1930s. For a while the numbers stop pulsing. Here and there a share flashes blue as a few buyers come back into the market. But then the figures start flashing red again and join up with one another in irregular clusters until the screen is once again a mass of glowing red.
It is difficult to make sense of what is happening. Selling comes in waves, the onset of fever. I remember Aunt Ennie’s shares and call the Probate Office. Someone goes to find out what is happening. There is a long wait, and then I’m told the Office is unable to say when probate will be granted. It’s suggested I telephone again in a few days.
Christine sits on the opposite side of the desk. She is in her late thirties and her face is permanently drawn. She doesn’t look a happy woman. ‘I saw this months ago,’ she says, ‘it was tout clair. I have had all my monies in the bank since the summer. No one could support the pressure of the bull market. Everyone’s been wanting it to end: it’s a collective death wish, like being in love with Thanatos.’
Christine took a course of Jungian therapy after she divorced her husband.
‘How about you,’ she continues, ‘are you out?’
I tell her about the shares in my great aunt’s estate, explain how they are locked in the market. It’s like being trapped in a falling lift, I say. ‘That’s tough,’ she exclaims, with no change of expression.
I remember that the authoritative banker is expected to be wealthy or fortunate or intelligent, and preferably all three. I ought to say something clever but my mind is a blank. I smile, Japanese-style, and head for the coffee machine.
It’s easy to see who is heavily invested in the market and who is on the sideline. I see two or three people with glass grins. Those on the sideline, by contrast, are enjoying their role. Everyone says something different: ‘Cash is king’; ‘Wait for the bounce’; ‘Convertibles are sensible, except you don’t know about interest rates’; ‘Wait to see what happens in New York – the program trading may push it the other way.’
But nobody knows what is happening. It’s like a holiday, like the Feast of Misrule. Everyone is equal. The old hand who has been watching the market for twenty-five years and the school leaver who only shaves three times a week are as wise as each other. Neither of them has experienced a crash of these proportions. Everyone is a lamb in the slaughterhouse.
Phillip is in his mid-thirties. He’s five foot three and unmarried. Not rich, not lucky, so he has to be intelligent. But he has a problem. He wasn’t intelligent enough to get out of the markets, so now he’s telling everyone: ‘I’m not selling. You’re all crazy. It’s an aberration. You can do what you like.’ He has a Day-Glo golf ball which he throws in the air and catches, throws in the air and catches, throws in the air so that it almost touches the ceiling: hope, despair, hope, despair, hope – and he fumbles the catch.
Brian is one of the big boys. He’s in his early forties and he’s been riding the bull market for the last decade. He’s a financial troubleshooter. His face is a reddish pink and his eyes protrude, as if he has a thyroid imbalance. Brian is rich. Everyone knows he has a lot of money: Brian tells them. He shows people photographs of his estate in Wales, casually lets slip details of his holdings in certain shares, and buys muddy abstracts by successful artists. Socially, he is very brittle. He is uncertain which class he belongs to, a problem common among bankers. Earning more doesn’t make the problem go away unless you’re saving for ‘fuck you’ money. A month ago Brian told me about ‘fuck you’ money. ‘It’s the amount of money you need to be able to say “Fuck you” to anyone.’ Brian reckoned the current amount to be three million pounds.
Brian is wearing a doll-like expression: his eyebrows arch and his mouth bends in a simpering smile. I’ve seen him smile in the same way while listening to a girl describe how she fell from a horse and broke her collarbone. He is curiously silent and at eleven thirty announces he is going out for a long lunch. It doesn’t sound heroic.
Max, another dealer, looks off-colour. He’s tapping through the pages of SEAQ and no one makes jokes in his vicinity, as if there were an invisible cloud around him. ‘He had a few long positions,’ someone tells me by the coffee machine, and the words have an icy ring. I press the number for creamy whipped coffee with sugar: 62. A little sign lights up, saying, ‘Your coffee is being prepared.’
Tuesday 20 October: The alarm wakes me earlier than usual. I look at the Financial Times: ‘Rout on Wall Street Leads to Record Falls’. The headline is already history. I see also that Aunt Ennie’s shares are plunging.
General Universal Stores £11 3/8
Shell Transport £11 5/8
ICI £14 1/16
Cadbury Schweppes 245p
Click. The screens are red – completely red. No one can get through on the screens. No trades. No one is talking. I try to take notes. I want to describe what it’s like to be sitting at the centre of a stock market crash.
It’s fairly quiet. It’s like dropping a stone off a cliff and waiting. It’s all happening in slow motion. Here at the screens there’s no panic; there’s time to talk to your neighbour. But what do you say? Matthew says, ‘There’s so many sharks out there waiting to leg you over. They laugh like buggery when they shaft you.’
No one knows where the bottom is. The FTSE 100 is already another fifty off, and still going down.
It’s different from how I thought it might be. The market is in free fall, but here in the dealing room there are no wild-eyed figures screaming into telephones, no men in waistcoats with watch-chains sobbing that they are ruined, none of the clichés of stock market catastrophe.
The numbers flash and blink relentlessly. Minute by minute, tens of millions of pounds are vanishing. Silently. The market has become an alien entity with its own destiny and momentum. We are watching a titanic process which none of us understand; the numbers seem to have a life of their own. I am thinking of a line from a song by Bob Dylan: ‘This is what infinity must be like after a while.’ Matthew is silent. I must snap out of it.
I see Tom empty his ashtray into a bin. He likes to keep his ashtray clean. He’s been trading equities for twenty years, makes jokes about the young men in their shirts like deckchairs, and he’s seen it all before. Almost. He says, ‘What can I do for you, sir?’ Tom calls me ‘sir’, although he’s twice my age. He’s one of the old school: joined the firm as a messenger after the war. Now he’s one of the top traders on the London market. He leans forward and speaks into his desk intercom. ‘John,’ he says. ‘Check if we’ve cleared our positions on Glaxo. The stock’s heading south in a big way.’
I think of Aunt Ennie as Tom turns to me again. He says he’s getting too old for this kind of caper. He’s thinking of retirement. ‘Excuse me a moment,’ he says, pressing down the button on the intercom. ‘John, what the hell’s happening with those fucking Glaxo?’
Tom tells me he wishes he could take up painting again. Or spend more time with his fish. He collects koi carp.
Wednesday 21 October: The situation has lost its novelty. My eyes ache from staring into the red screens. Someone in the office is calling up a graph of the performance of the London market. The display takes some thirty seconds, and then the graph is complete. There are the ominous twin peaks of the ‘double-top’, the classic harbinger of disaster, and there, like the first shock of a massive earthquake recorded on a seismograph, is the jagged downstroke: the crash.
The prices of Aunt Ennie’s shares are still falling and I try once again to ring the Probate Office. There is no reply.