D.During my first few weeks in an investment banking graduate program, I spent most of my days unattended at my desk, praying the phone wouldn’t ring. After yet another day of avoiding doing anything in particular, I began to fear that sitting quietly might not be the best way to impress in the jungle of the trading floor. After stewing and pondering for a while, I walked past my boss’s empty desk to Amin’s, the next one, and sent my best mundane chatter at 5pm. The answer? A slow ride and a “Fuck you”.
In light of these friendly beginnings, much of the new BBC Industry drama about a group of young bankers with a graduate program rang true. The joy of spending all your £ 30 dinner allowance and sneaking home some food. The “joke” (“Did you bring the Evening Standard?” It would ring out if I arrived at the office at 7.01 instead of 7.00). Interviews where you have to say that you like meritocracy not money. The trading desk thinks the sales team is answering the phone. Sales-thinking merchants are animals that can’t talk to customers. Researchers think they both know nothing at all. Dinners at £ 150 per person spent without a blink of an eye. Customers who don’t want to talk business over lunch for fear of ruining a good time. And, just like one of the characters in the show, someone actually ripped off my shirt pocket – two days in a row – saying it looked like I was there to fix the lights. I quickly beat the well-worn route for TM Lewin for the city uniform.
It was the early 2000s. Despite what you might think, the industry isn’t real life. Bankers make a twenty-year career by trading the minutiae of Belgian government bonds with a maturity of seven to eleven years. Worrying about tensions in the South China Sea is something you only need to worry about after years of such a Belgian graft, not after two weeks of working to introduce a client to Nobu. It’s hard work and longer hours than most comparable professional services jobs. Going to the disco until 4 in the morning and then going straight to the office would be almost a masochism. Few people do it more than once per career, let alone once a week. If there’s cocaine everywhere, I must have missed the reminder. And as for clients who have exclusivity agreements with banks, in most cases it would be a dismissable offense, as you hope from the people who are largely the permanent custodians of your pensions and life insurance. Maybe these things happen, but they are the exceptions, like a graduate doctor in Holby City picking out one disease in a million from a 10-foot glance.
However, there are flashes of hyperrealism in the show. Despite the nonsense that exists and is accurately portrayed, sometimes the trading floor changes gears and business is handled collaboratively and efficiently, like when Harper gets his first contract. It’s clearly a well-researched and funded show that captures the zeitgeist of that era, sheds technical terms without babysitting the viewer, and exposes some of the excesses (albeit a bit over the top).
Even so, a lot has changed since the crash of 2008. I’m more than a little tired of the banal “bankers are cowboys” message. And that’s not the only cliché to indulge here. Public schoolchildren and homosexual activities, check. State school kids who can’t cut mustard in a restaurant or with workload, check it out.
Given the monstrous effect finance has on our lives, the UK economy and our pockets – and how much financial services have changed over the past 10 years – I wanted the industry to do more. Why not delve deeper into the system that controls so much of our lives, rather than come up with the tired idea that it’s a boys’ club worthy of only contempt or jealousy. As Harper would say, isn’t that a bit of an understatement? Additionally, there are many fresh vices and problematic cultures to look into.
This year I met Amin again in the office lobby. Dressed and in boots, he was looking for a job, another victim of tight budgets and cruel banking habits. He thought it would be great to catch up and have a coffee. My response, albeit in a low voice, was a slow turn and a “Fuck you”. Perhaps the industry is more precise than I want to admit.
Industry is Tuesdays at 9.15pm on BBC Two