Sunday, January 08, 2006


I must have been about 11 or 12 when I asked my mother how you could live in the country but still earn a lot of money.  Become a vet I was told; and that was it.  From that moment it was just assumed I was going to become a vet.  But there were a couple of problems.

First there was the incident with the front door.  My sister, Mary, and I were playing alone one day (why were we alone? – they’d be done for neglect nowadays, but nobody cared then) and a certain game involved Mary trying to get into the house, and me keeping her out.  So she was pushing on one side of the door and I was pushing on the other.  Unfortunately it was an old door, with many fragile panes of thin glass, and Mary was pushing on one of those.  It broke, and made a deep gash in Mary’s arm.

So there I was, aged about 12 or 13, responsible for Mary, aged about 8 or 9, and she was gushing with blood.  I held Mary’s arm under a cold tap to clean it and realised how big the wound was.  So I tied a martingale strap around her arm in a feeble attempt at a tourniquet, and ran to one of the cottages along the drive in search of help.  Meanwhile my parents returned home, and Mary was taken to hospital, where she was given 36 stitches to patch her up.  Luckily, apart from the scar, which is still visible today, no permanent damage was done.

The following day we were all at pony club camp.  And guess what the lunchtime lecture was about?  First aid: How to treat among other things serious wounds.  And surprise-surprise, I turn white and had to be removed from the lecture.  The explanation given was that I was afraid of the sight of blood (poor child), and was alas probably most unsuited to any sort of career in medicine, veterinary or otherwise.  

With hindsight, I suggest I was in shock from the previous day.  Today, under similar circumstances, Mary and I would be given counselling for weeks, even months after the event.  But in those days, if you couldn’t watch your sister near bleed to death and be cool about it the next day, you were labelled a sissy, and mocked for evermore.

Then there was the popularity of vet school, which at the time was relatively higher than medical school.  The leading vet schools required straight A grades at A level, or 2 A’s and a B, while you could get into medical school with 3 C’s or less.  Was I up to the task?  Probably not, was the feeling conveyed to me by the family.  Too squeamish, and too thick was their verdict.

But nothing else was ever suggested.  I was left to face a bleak outlook.  I’d try for vet school and fail, and either become a second rate doctor, or perhaps because I didn’t really like people, I’d go into medical research, and spend the rest of my life in a smelly old lab in a shabby white coat, and from time to time I might get my face blown off, because someone traps a Bunsen burner pipe in a drawer and then strikes a match (according to the safety films they showed in science at school).  It was a bleak prospect.

Then there was a series on telly about a merchant banker.  He seemed to lead a pretty good life.  No shabby white coat for him; no explosions in a lab.  He drove a sports car, and always seemed to have a pretty girlfriend.  His work life looked pretty exciting too.  He was involved in mergers, and acquisitions, contested takeovers, boardroom battles, scandals, and rooting out fraud in the dealing room.

And on the strength of this TV series, I quietly switched tracks.  I dropped chemistry from my O level list, and added German.  I added Economics to my A levels.  After leaving school I read Economics at Cambridge and headed boldly to the bank recruiting seminars, in the confident belief that sports cars, pretty girlfriends and boardroom battles lay just around the corner.

Sadly the seasoned bank recruiters did not share my enthusiasm.  They looked at the interests listed on my CV, they looked at my clothes, and they looked at me; and they did not like what they saw.  My interests and achievements at the time included equestrian sports, beagling and the Cambridge wine societies.  I had been captain of blind tasting, and we beat Oxford for the first time in eight years.  I thought this represented excellent preparation for luncheon on the top floor of a merchant bank, but the more serious recruiter didn’t think so.  I had also engaged the negative strategy of not buying a city suit, in case I didn’t get a job.  So I turned up in tweed and brown shoes, not realising that whatever merchant bankers may get up to at weekends, during the week they leave their country clothes at home.  Wearing brown shoes would be considered shocking, but a brown suit.  I could have created no worse an impression had I turned up in denim jeans.  And as for me, when they asked why I wanted to work for a bank, I was stumped.  I couldn’t tell them I’d watched a TV series as a teenager.  Nor could I admit I was fleeing from life in a white coat in explosive chemistry laboratories.  So I spewed a lot of bullshit about interesting careers and international travel, and they knew I was full of shit, and they politely suggested that I go back to the country, and ride horses.

If you’ve read my profile, you might now be wondering how I ended up at the Bank of New York.  The answer is by accident.  The recruiter there happened to be even more shambolic than I was, his recruitment strategy one degree worse than my job application strategy.  A Cambridge man, not much older than me, he didn’t even approach Oxford.  And he didn’t approach Cambridge until the recruiting season was over, and there was nobody left in the race, but little old me.

With hindsight of course, the hardened recruiters, from banks who had their act together, were right.  There was nothing in my CV, which indicated to them that I’d enjoy a career in banking, and as turned out there was nothing that enjoyed about banking.  Thirty years later I am living in the country.  And on formal occasions, I dust off my tweed suit and polish my brown shoes, and give them an airing, in an environment where they belong.    


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