Thirty-nine years plus a few weeks ago I started my first job. Incredible though it now seems, it was in the City.
I had graduated with a law degree from Aberdeen University but wanted neither to practice law nor to stay in Scotland. What I really wanted to do was write stories and make records, but my father was an advocate, my stepfather a banker, and in those days one toed the line. So I signed up with one of the big London Scottish firms of accountants. ‘My boy,’ I seem to remember someone saying, ‘with a law degree and a CA under your belt, the world’s your oyster.’
I certainly remember my first day. The offices were on King William St, on the north side of London Bridge. As I walked anxiously down from Monument tube station, a great grey tide surged towards me across the bridge, shoes shined, brollies furled and bowlers bobbing up and down amid the throng. It was an unnerving sight.
I lasted six months. Despite, on an audit in Watford, writing the report I was asked to produce in the style of a Mickey Spillane thriller, I’m proud to say that I left voluntarily. By the following spring I was working in a West End bookshop and six months after that, en route to South America for a year on the road. My first attempt at grown-up life had failed magnificently.
Yesterday I found myself back among the temples of Mammon, a couple of bridges upstream from where I’d begun, running a day’s training for one of the country’s larger accountancy firms. There was an odd and brief moment of déjà vu as I approached their offices, but it didn’t last long. It seems almost superfluous to note that so much had changed. The art in the lobby. The pink shirts and short skirts and no ties. The information screens and bottled water and bowls of fruit.
It would be easy to say that the one thing that hadn’t changed was the language, but it wouldn’t be true. The world of taxation, accountancy and financial advice, let alone City regulation, is an infinitely more complex one than it was nearly four decades ago – and the language reflects it. Whereas many things have changed for the better, it’s probably fair to say that the language has changed for the worse. But attitudes also are changing and there’s now an awareness that it doesn’t have to be that way, which of course is why I was there.
That seems to me like a straw worth clinging to. Even down in the oily, throbbing maintenance area of the economic engine room there are people keen to make space for a few kind words.