A Clerk’s Tale

“You have of us, for now, the governance,
And therefore do I make you obeisance,
As far as reason asks it, readily.”

 Chaucer; The Canterbury Tales
Prologue to The Clerk’s Tale

Where did all the clerks go? Once upon a time the City of London was full of them – Shipping Clerks, Ledger Clerks, Articled Clerks, Head Clerks, Senior Clerks, Junior Clerks – they were a unique species, a race genetically designed to ensure the continued functioning of the world’s greatest financial centre. And suddenly, like the dinosaurs 200 million years before, they disappeared. As in the case of the Tyrannosaurus Rex the disappearance of the clerk was gradual and the result of not one but several events. But we can safely point to October 27th 1986 as a key date in the clerk’s demise, the day of the “Big Bang”, the day London’s financial markets became deregulated, spelling the end of the quaint old boy network, a feudal system of privilege and administrative serfdom that had managed to survive since the Middle Ages. After the Big Bang came the technology revolution, replacing thousands of clerks with PCs, reducing handwriting to an arcane craft and turning the fountain pen into a luxury item. Of course, even after these events there were still plenty of clerks in the City but the Shipping Clerk was now a Forwarding Agent, the Solicitor’s Clerk a Para-legal, the Ledger Clerk an Assistant Accountant. Only the Clerk of the Course and the Clerk of the Closet remain, the latter an ecclesiastical appointment with the responsibility of covering up the indiscretions of homosexual priests.

Mine was an accidental clerkship, entered into when I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. In the early 60s I was staying on and off with Clive (who I had met at University in Grenoble) at his Belgravia flat, a present from his father who sought privacy with his new and much younger bride. Clive’s father gave me occasional work recording music for his Mayfair supper club, the “41 Room” in Dover Street, and kindly offered me a traineeship with Dow Chemical. In between entertaining his costume designer wife’s showbiz friends at his house in Hyde Park Gardens and dining at Les Ambassadeurs, he managed Dow’s European operations. At that time the company was on a roll with its new product “Lurex” and had not yet become notorious for trying to incinerate the whole of Indochina. I had also been accepted at the St Martins School of Art but while I was still considering these options Clive informed me that he was going to become a Chartered Accountant and had signed Articles with Deloitte, Plender and Griffiths (or “Do Little, Plunder and Great Fees” as it was more commonly known). Accountancy was a mystery to me at the time but listening to Clive I could see that here was life insurance with the whole premium paid up-front and a ticket to anywhere. My mistake was thinking that it was something to fall back on if the paintings didn’t sell. Once a clerk, always a clerk. A few weeks later I was articled to David D’Eath, partner of Dunn, Wylie and Co, a medium sized firm of Chartered Accountants located in Ropemaker Street, a few yards from Moorgate tube station. David D’Eath was the one of the younger audit partners, tall, patrician and good-looking with an eye for the ladies. Allan Davis, another audit partner that I would work for, had come up the hard way. I liked to think of David D’Eath as the James Mason character and Allen Davis as the John Mills character in “Tiara Tahiti” (1). Davis did the work, ending up as Sir Allan, Lord Mayor of London(2), while his ex-colleague loafed around with Jilly Cooper at house parties in Gloucestershire, toasting his partner’s success. There were a couple of tax partners, gruff but kindly Scotsmen and like many City offices, our receptionist was a uniformed veteran of the Great War, lungs scarred with mustard gas. This was the City when professional fees were still denominated in guineas, when coal fires warmed pokey offices in Cheapside, a half of mild and bitter at Dr Butler’s Head(3) was 11 (old) pence, the bowler hat was still worn and British Rail had not yet phased out the “Ladies Only” compartment (4). To alleviate what little stress existed in business at the time men still ignited, sucked, cleaned and handled pipes. The pleasures of caressing a polished cherry-wood bowl, of watching a rising whisper of smoke, of inhaling smouldering Virginia Flake enriched with molasses and latakia have all long been outlawed, replaced by the embarrassing spectacle of Tai Chi or the dubious benefits of Aromatherapy.

My starting salary was five pounds per week, increasing by a pound per week for each year of Articleship. There was no time for clerks to supplement their earnings with a part-time job as there were exams to be studied for after a full day of work. Studying alone by correspondence course was difficult as I was easily distracted, particularly by our next door neighbour’s daughter, Laura, who was intellectually backward and sexually forward, an exciting combination for those of us interested by her pouting lips and overdeveloped bosom. It also took me a long time to understand just what accountancy was all about, that it was nothing to do with maths but about the subtle wording of reports that satisfied the shareholders to whom it was addressed (and who were paying the bill) that the company was financially sound and at the same time alerted the creditors and regulatory agencies to impending collapse. It also took me a time to appreciate the genius of Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan Friar who in 1494 had codified the principles of double entry bookkeeping in his “Summa de Arithmetica, Geometrica, Proportioni et Proportionita”. Once Pacioli’s formula, as beautiful in its way as E=MC2, is understood, even the complexities of a conglomerate merger can be solved in a twinkling. But these were not issues that I and my fellow clerks encountered in our day to day work, which largely consisted of examining documentary support for book entries and checking the additions of columns of numbers without the benefit of an adding machine. There were no computers and no mobile phones. There were also no lady clerks in those days; the only women in the office were in a heavily policed pool of typists, secretaries and comptometer operators.

While Clive seemed to spend his whole working life checking the payroll records of British Leyland, the clerks of Dunn Wylie roamed city and countryside, working with a clutch of smaller but more interesting clients. In his house in St George’s Hill, Weybridge, the kindly Russian émigré proprietor of the Blen Chi Tea Company interrupted work each afternoon to give us lessons in tea tasting. At the Helga Greene Literary Agency(5) I was surrounded by the works and correspondence of Raymond Chandler and in the company of the writer’s last mistress. At Painters Hall in Little Trinity Lane, home to the Worshipful Company of Painters Stainers,(6) there was a collection of medieval gold, silver and pewter plate to marvel over and check to the records. In Clements Inn we shared the boardroom of “The Municipal Journal” with the proprietor’s son, John Hemming(7)lately back from the Amazon jungle and writing “The Conquest of the Incas”, a first step to his becoming Director of the Royal Geographical Society. But the best client of all was United Newspapers and the passport it provided to the thrill of Fleet Street. In the client’s cramped quarters in Mitre Square we worked on the boardroom table of Punch magazine(8), adding our initials to the more famous names carved by James Thurber, AA Milne, Ronald Searle, Princess Margaret and William Makepeace Thackeray. At lunch time we slipped into the dark labyrinth of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Wine Office Court or shouldered our way into the eternally crowded El Vino, where, at that time, women were only admitted with a male escort and were not allowed to stand at the bar or to buy drinks. This was Fleet Street before the death of the linotype machine and the removal to the bleak outpost of Canary Wharf. Nothing was more exciting for a life-struck ingénue, than to stand among the hard drinking reporters from the Daily Express, Daily Telegraph and News of The World in The Tip or The Harrow, listening in to tales of the Berlin Wall, Hemingway’s suicide, Kennedy’s Camelot, nuclear disarmament and the debut of a new folk talent called Bob Dylan. It was at lunch one day in Fleet Street that we watched Reg Foster and Brendan Mulholland of the Daily Mail frog-marched out of the pub by the police to begin a six month prison sentence for refusing to disclose the source of their articles on the spy case involving Christopher Vassall(9), a government official convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.

Still wanting to be an artist in Montmartre and at the same time afford to shop at Harrods I compromised by spending some of my evenings at the Brush and Palette in Queensway, where for the price of an espresso, you could sketch a tastefully draped nude, using the free stick of charcoal and paper provided. Waiting occasionally on table was Noel Howard-Jones who I had known at Cranleigh. He was a year or two older than me and from a different house so we had little more than a nodding acquaintance. Before my first visit to the Brush and Palette Noel had struck up a friendship with another customer, a Harley Street osteopath called Stephen Ward who had been kind to Noel, lending him money to help him out as he struggled to support himself at University and inviting him for weekends at his rented cottage on Viscount Astor’s estate overlooking the Thames at Cliveden. He had also introduced him to Christine Keeler, then a topless showgirl at Murrays Cabaret Club in Beak Street.

While Noel was enjoying a brief affair with Christine Keeler, I was seeing a dark haired divorcee of twice my age. Mary, a consultant with Mervyn Hughes & Co, a recruitment company for professional accountants run by the eccentric Colonel Muggeridge(10), had “placed” me with Dunn Wylie after which she decided to help me with other aspects of my education. Our relationship was not entirely confined to the bedroom of her apartment in Dolphin Square, (by chance, also home to both Christine Keeler and spy Christopher Vassall) and we continued to be friends long after we had both found other partners.I was also in love with the city itself, where Thames-side warehouses, yet to be converted into luxury apartments, still gave off an aroma of the spices they had stored for hundreds of years, where Billingsgate and Covent Garden were still markets for fish and vegetables and where the male staff of Fortnum & Mason wore morning dress as they sold you a packet of McVite’s Digestive biscuits. Affordable rents meant that Charing Cross road was still full of second hand bookshops and you didn’t need to make an appointment or queue for three hours to wander into Sir John Soane’s museum at lunchtime. At the Café des Artistes in Redcliffe Gardens I could dream of Montmartre, inhaling the sweet smell of hemp among the Chianti bottle candle holders and scallop shell ashtrays. But best of all was to slip up Great Windmill Street into that square mile of sinister excitement bounded by Oxford Street, Regent Street, Shaftsbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road. An oasis of Bohemia, a square mile of seedy elegance and sexual promise. It was, as Daniel Farson wrote, “a land of anticipation, if seldom realized.” Into Moronis’ newsagency on Old Compton Street for a copy of Private Eye or Continental Film Review and then a seat on a coffin for an espresso at Le Macabre. A stroll through the stalls at Berwick Street market and a rifle through Doug Dobell’s jazz records at his shop in Charing Cross Road, then back through a gauntlet of pea-shooting ‘leisure workers’ at their first floor windows in Green’s Court. Somewhere Francis Bacon was working in his bordello of a studio by the light of single bulb, the sunlight shut out by blankets over the windows, until later, like a badger, he would emerge into the night and slope down Archer Street and into Charlie Chester’s Casino. At the Coach & Horses Jeffrey Bernard would be drinking in the company of Daniel Farson and Dylan Thomas, gathering material for his future Low Life column in The Spectator. Soho and the freedom it seemed to promise were addictive. I wanted to be part of it and had pinpointed my future digs in St Anne’s Court. The wheels of my dream fell off nightly, like Cinderella’s coach, as I ran to catch the last train back to suburbia and the suffocating presence of my mother. I was a sponge, easily impressed by anything that smacked of the unusual, the unforseeable, the untried. My role models were hard-drinking losers, romantics, artists, failed intellectuals, social misfits; Simon Raven springs to mind. So do “Dandy Kim” Caborn-Waterfield(11), Jeffrey Bernard, DH Lawrence, Ernest Hemmingway and Toulouse-Lautrec.

We were an odd bunch of clerks, Rodney, earnest and bepimpled, portly Old Etonian, Sir Andrew C, lamenting the loss of the family estates by a gambling mad grandfather. Brothers Donald (ex-Charterhouse) and Ian (ex-Cranleigh) argued incessantly. Ian S was bookish, Rod belligerently Scottish. Gerald had a weakness for a tarty slip of a girl from the classifieds department of the Yorkshire Evening Post. John Y left before qualifying to take up a job in a Greek shipping company the offices of which were packed with a zoo-load of stuffed animals slaughtered by the proprietor in a determined bid to rid the world of animal life. I remember John’s desk lamp, the skin and horn of an antelope and his in-tray, an elephant’s foot complete with toe nails. I had one friend from the typing pool, Mabel, a sad but kind, single lady in her late 40s who was committing suicide in daily instalments at the Green Man. One evening, legless after one gin too many, we took her home where she showed us a whole wardrobe of rubberware, once worn for the delectation of the lover who had abandoned her, and now, like its owner, perishing quietly in a damp, basement flat in Pimlico. Ian W, who might have still been a friend today, died on a squash court before he was forty. Simon, once the naughtiest of the naughty, is still my friend.

In 1962, talk in the pubs and wine bars of Fleet Street of manned orbits of the earth, the execution of Adolf Eichmann and Sophia Loren’s bigamy was increasingly displaced by rumours of an indiscretion concerning a leading government minister and his connection to a Russian spy. The small chinks of sunlight, as the curtain of post-war depression and deprivation was pulled aside to let in rock and roll, Carnaby Street and the Way In at Harrods, were still shrouded by the Iron Curtain. Alarmed by the Cuban Missile crisis, the capture by the Russians of British spy Greville Wynne(12) and the arrest of Christopher Vassel, rumours of another Cold War incident spiced with a government official’s adultery was the stuff of journalistic Nirvana. The gossip focused on a party at Cliveden in July of the previous year, when Stephen Ward had introduced a girl to John Profumo, then Secretary of State for War; the girl was the same Christine Keeler he had introduced to Noel Howard-Jones and, fatally for Ward, to Yevgeny Ivanov, naval attache at the Soviet Embassy. The circle was joined. Eventually the rumours became so rife, so pointed, that George Wigg, a Labour MP raised the question in the House of Commons. It was only a matter of time before John Profumo was forced to address the indirect accusations. At first he chose, as many do, denial, but in the end he was forced, as many are, into an abject admission. Bloody retribution for all involved, guilty or not, was swift.

Hounded by the press, selected for punishment by the hypocritical constabulary and judiciary as an example to others, Ward committed suicide during his prosecution for living off immoral earnings. He took his life in the flat of Noel Howard-Jones one of the few friends to remain loyal, leaving a short note in which he left Noel his white, XK 150 convertible. John Profumo resigned from the Commons, dedicating his life to Toynbee Hall, a charitable institution in the East End, until his death in 2006, his whole life ruined by one small indiscretion with a brainless fan dancer and the lie he told to cover it up. Harold Macmillan resigned on the grounds of ill health and was replaced by a chinless, Scottish sheep farmer, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who was gusted aside with the rest of the Tory party in the General Election of 1964. Christine Keeler was jailed for nine months on unrelated perjury charges. As her looks faded she returned to her caravan camp origins, the brief flame of her youthful beauty kept alive by Lewis Morley’s nude portrait of her astride an Arne Jacobsen chair. Noel left England and was never seen again at the Brush and Palette.

It was, as Dickens wrote of another age, “the best of times, it was the worst of times”.

  1. “Tiara Tahiti” 1962 film, a satire on the class system pitting the effortlessly suave, upper class layabout (James Mason) against the successful but lower class businessman (John Mills).
  2. Sir Allan Davis GBE, Lord Mayor of London, 1985. He was also Trustee of the unique and wonderful Sir John Soane’s Museum. In April 1986, along with my ex-colleagues at Dunn Wylie, I received an invitation to a reception for Sir Allan at the Mansion House.
  3. “Dr Butler’s Head” – pub dating from 1616 in Manson Alley off Coleman Street.
  4. Eventually disappeared in 1977, but actually available (for couchettes) on some French and Scandinavian rail.
  5. Helga Greene was the last mistress and UK literary executor of American writer Raymond Chandler, author of the Philip Marlowe novels (“The Big Sleep”, “Farewell My Lovely” etc.). Chandler, who was at Dulwich College from 1900 to 1905, proposed to Ms Greene from his Los Angeles hospital bed one month before he died in March1959.
  6. First reference to the Painters Guild, whose members decorated, gilded and coloured solid objects (wood, metal, stone) was in 1283. The first reference to the Stainers, who applied colour to woven fabrics was in 1263. The two city liveries came together in 1502 as The Worshipful Company of Painters Stainers.
  7. In 1961 John Hemming, Richard Mason and Kit Lambert (later Manager of The Who) were part of the Iriri River Expedition in Central Brazil. Mason was killed by poisoned arrows, the last Englishman ever to be killed by an uncontacted tribe. ‘The Conquest of the Incas’ was published in 1970.
  8. Punch magazine folded in 2002 and the boardroom table was sold to Mr Al Fayed around which he doubtless briefed his lawyers on his pursuit of the Duke of Edinburgh for the death of his son in the Pont de L’Alma tunnel.
  9. William John Christopher Vassal, British civil servant who, under the threat of blackmail (Vassal was a homosexual) spied for the Soviet Union. He was convicted and imprisoned in 1962.
  10. Elder brother of journalist (and one time editor of “Punch”) Malcolm Muggeridge.
  11. Michael “Dandy Kim” Caborn Waterfield. Old Cranleighan, con-man, lover of Diana Dors and man about Chelsea. At Cranleigh School in the late 50s I read that he had been arrested for stealing jewels from film maker Jack Warner’s villa in the South of France and wrote to him at Fresnes prison offering him the House petty cash funds. He never replied.
  12. My sister and brother-in-law once found themselves sitting next to Greville Wynne at the cocktail bar of their hotel in Majorca. Wynne, a member of MI6, was captured by the Russians in Budapest in 1963. He was released in exchange for the Russian spy, Gordon Lonsdale, the following year.

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