No Tears: Tales from the Square Mile; By David Charters; Elliott & Thompson pounds 7.99.
As a chronicle of the bust-and-boom '90s, this short story collection captures the drama and excess of the City after Big Bang , says Alastair Ross Goobey.
The great books about the workings of the City have been fact, not fiction. Trollope's The Way We Live Now is probably the most successful novel with a City theme, although the mechanics of finance are not the focus. Thackeray's Vanity Fair too has a passing interest in broking.
But it is puzzling that so few have tried to communicate the drama and passion of the financial world. Is it that the people who know about it cannot write about it, or that, from the outside, the characters seem two-dimensional?
David Charters spent enough time in the City to be able to write with authority about it in this collection of two dozen short stories.
The style of No Tears is that of the 'story with a twist', unfortunately often sussed halfway through. More 'Tales of the Expected' than the Roald Dahl formula that was intended.
This does not prevent the book being enjoyable, though. In general, it is written in taut sentences and Charters does not hold up the narrative.
Only occasionally does the writing jar. And what does the expression 'way over my depth' mean?
More interesting is looking at the whole and trying to decide whether there is anything of the author's own sentiments in it. Many of the stories are a contrast between the traditional London merchant-bank style and that of our new owners, the American investment banks. The British bank 'Bartons' is contrasted with the American banks 'Hardman Stoney' and 'Schleppenheimer'.
Even the names suggest that Charters does not really relish the change he saw between 1988, when he joined the City from the Foreign Office, and 2000, when he left Deutsche Bank (nee Morgan Grenfell) to go into boutique corporate advice. The stories towards the end of the book, particularly Playing the Game and Merger, are written with more passion than most of the others, where the author seems merely to be putting the story on the page.
In Playing the Game, traditional Brit merchant bankers resist attempts by their new American boss to engage in bonding and team exercises; at the end of this show of defiance the boss succumbs to their style. In Merger, the newly associated British and American banks are awarding the top jobs, and the American believes he can lord it over his British counterpart; his comeuppance is not long in arriving.
It is this same American who says: 'On Wall Street it's a matter of principle to have no principles.' Elsewhere, another character says: 'Most people want money, it's the Brits that want gold braid.' It is clear where Charters' sympathies lie. Parenthetically, he seems obsessed with Hermes ties, which naturally caught my attention. When choosing that name for the erstwhile PosTel, we agreed that, if Hermes did not start an investment management business, we wouldn't make ties.
My own career started at a merchant bank in 1968. Today, as a retired executive, I advise an American investment bank. I too have seen the dramatic change in ownership and style in the great City institutions. However, I take a less condemnatory view of the American invasion. Many of the innovations that have driven the City forward came from the fertile minds of our US colleagues.
It is still uncertain whether all the new instruments and vehicles have been wholly beneficial, and Charters clearly laments the transition from 'relationship' to 'transaction' banking. The pendulum is swinging back towards investment bankers needing to rebuild the trust of their clients, rather than simply keeping the deal-flow pipeline full. I doubt whether that will mean the resurgence of the mid-morning 'stiffener' and three-hour lunch, followed by the early train home to Godalming.
I hope Charters will not be disappointed if I do not rank his work as highly as that of the great Victorian novelists. He does, however, succeed in what I suspect he attempted - to chronicle some of the drama and excess we observed in the last decade of the last century in a lively way. An undemanding read.