31 October 2008

Unpremeditated Theology

The Seeking Truth: Science, Mystery and Human Identity discussion series at St Paul's Cathedral finished this week with the appearance of some unexpectedly novel theology, and the non-appearance of Robert Winston.

Winston was promised on the St Paul's website right up the last minute (I checked. In fact: he's still listed there) but he didn't pitch. One the one hand I was disappointed, as he was the star turn, but on the other - as someone with an anthropological interest in religion - I was also gratified to see that St Paul's management, holy as they are, aren't above a bit of sleight of hand in their pre-event marketing: Winston had evidently cancelled sufficiently early for them to find a replacement speaker, and to print the programmes without his name. It was only, oddly enough, the promotional website that they hadn't quite get round to updating. In my seat stupidly early and realising the situation, I picked out the most self-important looking of all the ushers and challenged him on the matter. He said he wasn't able make any comment about that, Sir, although 'sorry' might not have choked him.

Amusingly, this weeks panel ("Is there a place for the soul on the human genome?") were under instructions not to mention Richard Dawkins  [do they read Green Ideas? In fact, Keith Ward nearly mentioned him once, but I think he got away with it] and I was forced to abandon my parlour game, and instead actually listened - with increasing surprise - as the religious panel members developed a purely secular definition of the soul: Keith Ward, Dennis Noble and John Polkinhorne concurred that the soul is a process or a pattern. A pattern that could, conceivably, be re-embodied into another physical body (Keith Ward considered that a God would be required for that bit but really that's just a practicality)

I wandered if they had signed up for cryonics, but I think I know the answer, for a couple of well-chosen bulls-eye questions from the audience revealed a panel shying away from the logical implications of their own theory.  When asked 'What happens to the soul in dementia?' it was perhaps their religious or ethical sensibilities that prevented them from confronting the obvious: the pattern is decaying, the process is breaking down - the soul is leaving.

And then when asked if a machine could have a soul: Dennis Noble replied with linguistic dexterity that if it did, why we would no longer call it a machine. True enough, but the answer surely demanded by the 'pattern or process' model of the soul is 'Yes'.

I had detected some back-pedalling. I wondered if the discussion, and indeed the evening, was going entirely in the direction that the St Paul's Institute had intended. Perhaps the soul of the unmentioned Dawkins, the pattern of his thinking - was in fact still with us.

Then it finished and we all went to Ping Pong where I ate eleven coriander dumplings

29 October 2008

Ageing Calmly

Clearly a pub for grown ups (Teddington Arms) 
Last week at the Bank of England we were shown round by the Curator of the bank's museum. He told me he had joined the Bank in 1960 which is a long time ago by anyone's reckoning.  He didn't swear, but then he was quite comfortably Over 21.

I found the very existence of a Museum - and a curator - to be very reassuring: it's pleasing that the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street cares about history (new joiners are apparently even encouraged to read it):  a sense of history and a knowledge of the past crises must be eminently useful when a once-in-a-lifetime event happens along.

Happens along every week for two months.

Anyway, even despite the end of the world, I'm having a week's holiday. Yes, it's probably unwise: almost anything could happen while I am away: I wonder if there will be a department, let alone a job to come back to on Monday. I comfort myself only with the fact that I occupy a very small and very remote part of the Organogram .

Anyway it's half term, and it's good to get away from it all, so this week Mrs Botogol and I have had some old friends round for a dinner party and we have been to the theatre.

Our dinner party guests exhibited no rudeness,  and neither did they wear caps - even with the heating switched off in the new, cost-conscious-credit-crunched Botogol household.  However, over the cheese course, they did all gang up on me as the sole representative of the Global Investment Banking Industry present holding me personally responsible, by way of excessive greed, for the gloom that now threatens to engulf even totally blameless Brand Consultant Thingummies.   Perhaps I did start it, when I referred to Richard Fuld as a Master of the Universe. Whatever; it was Mrs Botogol who certainly put a stop to it when she leapt unexpectedly and somewhat frighteningly, to my defence.  "He's not a greedy Investment Banker, he's just a very naughty boy".

But again, she didn't swear, and neither was she rude - which is a good thing: when you get to our age too much swearing is, quite frankly, unsettling, especially if it's loud swearing and for that reason our theatre trip also wasn't quite the success we hoped for and I can't necessarily recommend How to disappear completely and never be found at the Southwark Playhouse where they swear a lot; and very loudly indeed.

The play is a modern day Reggie Perrin (who was forty-six in the first novel, cold, chilling thought, but also didn't swear). It's about a seemingly successful executive who finds himself suddenly overwhelmed, friendless and all at sea...

He decides to disappear.

In his last few days at work Charlie humiliates himself flunking a sales pitch and - in a direct nod to David Nobbs  - goes to see the company doctor, who hands out drugs very much stronger than the two aspirin that poor old Doc Morrissey doled out to Reggie, and accuses him of being depressed.

"But, that's the thing", says Charlie, "You see, I'm not at all sure the problem does lie with me: I'm afraid that things might genuinely be shit"

23 October 2008

Nerve Centre

picture by NinJA999
"If you're going to the Bank of England this evening", said Mrs Botogol from behind the newspaper, "to meet the Governor, then I think you should wear a tie."

I was halfway out of front door, but I paused.

I haven't worn a tie since investment banks dressed down in 2000 in response to the dizzy heights of the dot-com boom... but I had a horrible suspicion she was right.

"In fact", she continued, languidly, buttering her crumpet, "you could wear the tie I bought you in the Christmas of '05, you know: the one you've never worn yet"

"OK, but wh..."

"Second drawer: at back, on the left; still in it's box"; and when I fetched it, she put it on for me.

It was an alumni evening for graduates of my old alma mater: a tour of the Bank of England, and then drinks with Mervyn King himself. Just for a few minutes, he has economies to save. He shook hands and conversed enthusiastically with the assembled company.

"Do you feel sorry for all the investment bankers losing their jobs in the credit crunch", someone asked, "or don't you think some of them deserve it?". 

Nice to know where you stand, that's what I always think.

20 October 2008

Fox-hole friends

picture by over.expozed
The bear seems quiet, but cubicle wisdom says : it's not gone. It may be even be an armoured bear, built to last.

It's not a good time to work in a bank, people keep their heads down and think of other careers.

Back in the summer the FSA raised cheers in back offices  City-wide when it warned banks not to cut back on control staff, but August is a long time ago: why there were still investment banks around back in August.  Now in October with perfect irony just as our new joiners all arrive, snatched in the hiring frenzy that was the collapse of Lehman's, employee consultation starts for another reduction in force, and it doesn't feel unduly pessimistic to believe the rumours that a further round follows close behind.

At the bank where I worked in 2002 each successive wave were rumoured to receive a worse deal. I don't know if the people on the first list of 2008 will feel angry or relieved. Either way I suppose they will go to dinner parties and reflect that they are greedy irresponsible risk takers and deserve it (were there so many people actually welcoming the propsect of a recession last time around? But then, were so many people with Government jobs and up-yours final-salary pensions last time around? Still, at least they are not greedy.)

It's a time for networking. Alumni groups flourish and old colleagues pop up on LinkedIn with freshly minted profiles.  I have three friends, which is 145 fewer than my daughter has on Facebook. "That many??", I said, "Wow... On the other hand - you've been doing this for ages". "Yes", she said, "nearly a week".

16 October 2008

Time Out: The Bear consults with his maker

picture by J.Salmoral
Last Tuesday I snuck out early from work. Impending doom is supposed to focus the mind, but  for me: not: it clouds it, and I couldn't concentrate. Instead I holstered my Blackberry and hurried through the warm evening to St Paul's Cathedral, to hear the first of their series on science and religion. I had been invited by a religious friend, Mark, who has never quite given up hope that'll he convert me. I agreed to go with him for much the same reason.

The panel were not a cross-section: they believed, and so each of them were dominated by a great unseen presence of their imagining: invisible but constant, with an authoritative answer to every question,  a small assured voice in their ear, nagging at their better judgement. I refer of course to Richard Dawkins who dominated proceedings from afar.

I wrote in my notebook the words "DAWKINS" and "GOD", and underlined both and annoyed Mark intensely by making a tick every time either got a mention. "First to ten?" I whispered, as Dawkins took a commanding 6-2 lead.

The panel soon achieved a consensus: science and religion should work together. There was no need to see them as fundamentally separate, they can learn from each other: different domains, you see.

It was all terribly Church of England. I longed for a fundamentalist view to spark some controversy, some hissing even: a scientist with contempt for the supernatural? an evangelical bible-literalist to tell us we the earth was younger than the Great Pyramid? Either would have been good, but instead we had Nancy Cartwright, Nicholas Last, John Millbank and Roger Trigg.

In my notebook I recorded every thought from the speakers that seemed to me interesting or novel. Trigg had the most  - by a country mile -  so here's two of his:
  1. If you cannot conceive of anything that could shake your faith, in other words if your faith does not exclude anything... then you believe in everyhting and nothing at all. He was thinking 'religion' I was thinking 'climate change'
  2. Scientific study as we know it could only have arisen in Christian context. It was Christian teaching that allowed the possibility the God could have created the world anyway he wanted...so it was in order to investigate exactly how he did do it. I was thinking 'Arabic Maths? Egyptians measuring the circumference of the Earth?'
Nicholas Last asked the unbelievers present (I sat up straight) what they would consider to be evidence for the existence of God.

It was a good question.

Last had a poor answer - that the whole world was evidence for God [see (1)].  I thought of Carl Sagan's answer. That would do it for me.

At the end there were self-important questions from the audience "Don't you agree that science itself requires more faith than belief in  God?" (No), and then were released into the humid night.

I took my friend to one my favourite pubs, which was a mistake because that was evening it had no beer. God saw us coming...or did he? We settled into a corner table and considered the evening.
"It ended Dawkins 15, God 11", I told Mark. "I call that a clear win"
"You can say that if you like, he mumured, "but Dawkins wasn't even here . ..and we have to assume that God was"

We are going again on the 28th.

12 October 2008

Life in the time of the Bear

picture by chefranden
"It's like mowing the lawn while the house is on fire", announced a gloomy colleague, half-way through a long meeting on our Corporate Archiving Policy during which the financial world as we know it collapsed in sea of red. "I mean - what are we doing here? Look at the screens! Look at the share price! Who cares anyway? Archive? Shmarchive! "

It was a Code Blue. Following established protocol (and a brief comparison of rank) the most senior Managing Director present took control: "George! Step. Away. From. The. Whiteboard. And. Put. Down. The. Marker-Pen"

Poor George collapsed into his 7-way-adjustable swivel chair and we smartly tipped it back, rendering him helpless. Thus imprisoned in the nylon mesh fabric, we followed our MD's lead wheeling him to the 47th floor, the lair of the bear, all the way to the very gates of  HR department where she dumped him in front of the bored Security Guards. "One for the RIF" she said, grimly.

"What will happen to him?" asked a wide-eyed AVP from Corporate Centre.

"Let's just say he's At Risk"

09 October 2008

The Business School of Hard Knocks

Boardroom by Paul Watson
It's the end of the financial WAWKI but, with the delightful optimism that comes with youth, and lots of government money the Young Enterpise  2008 is going strong

My daughter Boto-Teen is entered, and her company have been instructed by their Non-Executive Chairman (Mrs Adams, the biology teacher, for it is she) to develop an innovative product or service, relevant to 2008

"Bankruptcy consultants, manufacturers of snooping tools for local governments, wind farm demolition experts, asset fire-salesmen, redundancy counsellors, providers of specialist spin doctoring and Facebook friend-finders",  I rattled off, "Chewing gum street scrapers, house repossessors, IVA arrangers, soup kitchen organisers, pan-handlers, managers of Troubled Assets, and shoe leather repairers". I paused. "Benefits Claims Officers, burger flippers..."

"Oh do be quiet, Alibert, dear" said Mrs Botogol, "didn't Mrs Adams have any suggestions, dear?"

"The Non-Exec Chairman, you mean", chided Boto-Teen, "not really, but she wondered if perhaps we could create a product or service for deaf people"

I suggested taking them to Harlequins games for the price our tickets, and in return describing the action to them as it unfolded; and she looked at me blankly. "But they are deaf" she said.

Young Enterprise starts with the students selecting the management team: CEO, CFO, CIO, COO, CMO, CRO and Head of HR.  The team negotiated for two hours until they had shared out the jobs on a democratic and equitable basis. Then the Non-Exec Chairman injected a note of genuine true-to-life corporate reality by announcing that while they were planning she had head-hunted a sixth former from Tiffin Girls to be the new CEO in return for a guaranteed bonus and 20% of the revenues (talent like her's doesn't cheap, she explained, and anyway Tiffin had attempted a buy-back)

It was a bit of a shock in C-suite, but you have to applaud the way the Non-Exec Chairman thinks: not just a Biology teacher after all.

"But didn't you mind?" Mrs Botogol asked Boto-Teen when she heard the news.
"Not at alI: I, for one, welcome our new Tiffin overlords", the crest-fallen Boto-Teen told us sincerely: she will go a long way.
"OverlordS?" asked Mrs Botogol, "plural? are there more than one?"

It turns out that, although the management team has supposedly survived intact, the new Chief Executiff has installed three 5th form heavies acolytes in her own private office in the roles of Chief of Staff, Head of Expense Management and Communications Director . Between the four of them they therefore control the purse strings, the compensation, and the company facebook group. "Oh, she's good", I said, "she's very good"

"Yes", sighed Boto-teen, "and they spend all their time behind a closed door, planning and making product decisions. A sort of inner circle. It's not righ: these things should be decided at board meetings.  A real company wouldn't be like that, would it?"

I shifted a little uncomfortably in my armchair, "And what have they set you doing?"

"Not much. What do deaf people like, anyway?"

05 October 2008

Crisis Management

picture by ton3vita
Well that was an exciting month to take a break from blogging: while greenideas was away banks collapsed in the worst financial crisis that even old timers like me can remember.

It's an astonishing 23 years this month since I started work in the City.

(I can still remember my first day: it was an appropriately high tension, sweaty one as I found myself hopelessly lost walking in small circles around Holborn viaduct looking for an office I had never been to before, without the aid of an A to Z or even, in fact, the address)

In the first twenty-two years, eleven months of my career I witnessed just three financial events of the where-you-when? variety. They were:
Each one of those I experienced closely but vicariously for I wasn't actually an Equities trader in '87, and nor was I an FX dealer in'92. Nor, if truth must painfully be told was I even a high-rate tax payer in '88. (I pretended I was though).

And, if there was pattern to my witness it was that on each of those events I didn't actually have a clue to the full extent of the crisis before me, and each time I mainly got on with my work, glancing occasionally at the screen, before going home to have my tea.

Actually it's a good job I wasn't a trader because I don't think I would have been a successful one: a key skill in the markets is realising, seeing, understanding the situation you are actually in, the crisis that is unfolding, the options and opportunities available; and then choosing one. Indeed perhaps that's the key to facing any crisis whether financial, military or indeed of the soul: it's not choosing the fork in the road that's hard: it's noticing that you were, in point of fact, at a fork.

So third time around, facing the collapse of the financial markets and quite possibly TEOTWAWKI, I was determined to do better and to pay more attention and so, instead of merely working, I have spent the last three weeks chuckling at the sardonic wit on alphaville, standing outside Lehman brothers watchnig laptops walking out the building in what amounted to a mass looting and, in the evenings, mainly panicking.

I was a believer in omens, or superstition I would have noted how the extraordinary events in the markets were once again accompanied by extraordinary weather: while Black Monday was preceded by a hurricane, the fall of Lehmans and Merrill took place with Canary Wharf bathed in unseasonal sunshine, and on the Friday evening, ten days ago, several thousand people gathered in Jubilee Place to drink and talk in the eerie, late autumn sunshine.

Twenty-three years previously, in October 1985, as it become later and later, and I became sweatier and sweatier, it eventually dawned on me that I was actually going to have to ask for help and, at my wit's end I went inside an open church door, and asked the vicar. For an unbeliever I seem to have spent a lot of my life in churches.

The priest was kind but clueless, but right outside I met a grimy street cleaner who had no trouble at all pointing out the Coopers & Lybrand building. I hurried away, and when I remembered to look back to thank him he had disappeared. I got to work at 8:59; perhaps he was an angel.