London in the 1980s

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Michael Lewis introduces John Lanchester’s novel Capital with his own memories of London in the 1980s:

When I moved to London for graduate school back in the early 1980s, the city felt as if it existed for just about every purpose other than for people to make money in it. Everyone was either on the dole or on strike, or about to be — and not just working-class people. No one appeared, or wanted to appear, all that interested in what they did for a living, except for the taxi drivers, who were better than those in the US. In the middle of any work day an extraordinary number of grown-ups looked as if they had just gotten out of bed.

Nothing functioned properly; everything that wasn’t broken was about to fall apart. The food was almost deliberately inedible, an inside joke cooked up by the locals to see what human beings would willingly consume. (I had a friend from Manhattan who said that every time he passed a British sandwich shop “I want to go in and strangle the owner.”) And the most extraordinary anticommercial attitudes could be found, in places that existed for no purpose other than commerce. There was a small grocery store around the corner from my flat, which carried a rare enjoyable British foodstuff, McVities’ biscuits. One morning the biscuits were gone. “Oh, we used to sell those,” said the very sweet woman who ran the place, “but we kept running out, so we don’t bother anymore.”

If you had to pick a city on earth where the American investment banker did not belong, London would have been on any shortlist. In London, circa 1980, the American investment banker had going against him not just widespread commercial lassitude but the locals’ near-constant state of irony. Wherever it traveled, American high finance required an irony-free zone, in which otherwise intelligent people might take seriously inherently absurd events: young people with no experience in finance being paid fortunes to give financial advice, bankers who had never run a business orchestrating takeovers of entire industries, and so on. It was hard to see how the English, with their instinct to not take anything very seriously, could make possible such a space.

Yet they did. And a brand-new social type was born: the highly educated middle-class Brit who was more crassly American than any American. In the early years this new hybrid was so obviously not an indigenous species that he had a certain charm about him, like, say, kudzu in the American South at the end of the nineteenth century, or a pet Burmese python near the Florida Everglades at the end of the twentieth. But then he completely overran the place. Within a decade half the graduates of Oxford and Cambridge were trying to forget whatever they’d been taught about how to live their lives and were remaking themselves in the image of Wall Street. Monty Python was able to survive many things, but Goldman Sachs wasn’t one of them.

The introduction into British life of American ideas of finance, and success, may seem trivial alongside everything else that was happening in Great Britain at the time (Mrs. Thatcher, globalization, the growing weariness with things not working properly, an actually useful collapse of antimarket snobbery), but I don’t think it was. The new American way of financial life arrived in England and created a new set of assumptions and expectations for British elites — who, as it turned out, were dying to get their hands on a new set of assumptions and expectations. The British situation was more dramatic than the American one, because the difference between what you could make on Wall Street versus doing something useful in America, great though it was, was still a lot less than the difference between what you could make for yourself in the City of London versus doing something useful in Great Britain.

In neither place were the windfall gains to the people in finance widely understood for what they were: the upside to big risk-taking, the costs of which would be socialized, if they ever went wrong. For a long time they looked simply like fair compensation for being clever and working hard. But that’s not what they really were; and the net effect of Wall Street’s arrival in London, combined with the other things that were going on, was to get rid of the dole for the poor and replace it with a far more generous, and far more subtle, dole for the rich. The magic of the scheme was that various forms of financial manipulation appeared to the manipulators, and even to the wider public, as a form of achievement. All these kids from Oxford and Cambridge who flooded into Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs weren’t just handed huge piles of money. They were handed new identities: the winners of this new marketplace. They still lived in England but, because of the magnitude of their success, they were now detached from it.

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