These were heady days. It was a hot London summer evening. The plane trees along the busy road opposite Victoria Station wilted and their tree trunks pushed through broken paving stones and around were littered with old beer tins and kebab wrappings. There was a dank stink of pee against some of the mottled trunks where staggering drinkers from the Victoria pub relieved themselves, unwilling to pay the twenty pence in the station toilets.
A steady hum of conversation from the pub that was in the building of American Express Bank exploded at times as mutual congratulations on bonuses paid were slapped onto sweaty backs. Older working men who were trying to avoid the last train scowled and wished they had such luck. It was into this thick atmosphere I was propelled and admitted into that club of privilege for such a short time.
My manager William was a pale and tubby man with a magnificent toupee. On warm days in the dealing room, small streaks of black hair dye dribbled slowly, escaping from his tight head-dome. He was from Wales and amused us with tales of steam banking and behind the scenes disasters in the Tenby branch. His favourite story was when the Chairman of the Bank called in for an inspection. He noticed that William looked tanned and on enquiring on where he had been on holiday then asked, ‘Did you cruise?’ I suspect that on a salary of under a thousand a year it would have been unlikely. William had a curious way of describing the down-trodden of South Wales as ‘half-chips, half-rice’ which referred to all they could afford at the chippie after a night out.
However, William had worked his way into Gulf marketing where many bankers of dubious talent resided. The main role was attending conferences, jetting to the Middle East earning air-miles and sending back over the years hundreds of call reports. These really were upbeat and totally fabricated descriptions of meeting Sheiks and beer-sozzled expatriates who could ask for lunch and dinner but in return little by way of business was ever achieved. It was a strange way to get an income flow to the bank. The routine was to fly to Bahrain, a day in Riyadh and escape as soon as possible down to the UAE and finishing back in Bahrain. In between day trips to Muscat and Kuwait were also possible. But one must always finish on a Thursday night in Bahrain ready for the Friday flight home at two in the morning. That meant maximum exposure to bars and restaurants all the while freely dipping into the American Express expenses system.
The prize call was to the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority or ADIA which was the sovereign fund of that Emirate. They rarely refused requests sent in those days by telex or fax and on arrival in the marble-clad sky-scrapper one was ushered into the waiting room where all the other bankers were waiting their turn. Shiney black suits and pencil thin girls swaggered and whispered, deals too good to lose! Like shifty slinky cats eye contact was avoided. We all knew each other and few had any chance of getting business. The visitors were allocated numbers and on the call, you were whisked up to your fate.
Looking back we were all selling the same thing, foreign exchange execution services, deposit rates and scams in the equity markets. ADIA were too smart, already had brilliant advisers and really did not need William or me to help, but it made for a nice trip.
On one such expedition that we undertook and on arrival at Bahrain Airport I went to the immigration and to my amusement saw that William was heading away towards the connecting flights’ desk. He was sweaty and looked very suspicious. I ambled back to him and asked what was going on?
He told me that I was to do the week alone, he would sign as many expenses claims as I wanted and I could just do the calls alone.
‘Are you well?’ I enquired.
‘I have to tell you something,’ he said and then described how many years ago he had fallen for a roller-skating waitress in Manila with whom he had another secret family, a few children it seemed. He shuffled out grubby pictures, it was all too sad. The plan was that could I please meet him back in Bahrain on his return from Manila in a week. Incredible as it might seem, and before text messages and mobile phones, this behaviour and activity not only was possible but happened with so many.
So the cat was out of the bag and I enjoyed a week in the sun, saw him in Bahrain and we never spoke about this ever again. He left American Express Bank shortly after that but this story started with bonuses and how I received mine is itself extraordinary.
I had been in the American Express Bank barely two days when the Director told me to go to Delhi for a conference. First Class flights on Air Canada, a week or so in an utmost luxury fog that culminated in me eating a prawn cocktail prepared in India on the flight back and yes, a week in bed ensued.
On getting back to the office, the Director asked me in and told me that I had been awarded a bonus of twenty-one thousand pounds and this after less than a month. I was no doubt seen as a wonder boy.
But it transpired that the real beneficiary of the money was a fellow named Fred who was half-Iranian and had left before the bonus date. It was just too complicated to send the money back to San Francisco so I was selected to pretend to be Fred.
American Express, Manila and the bonus, now that’s what I call half-chips half-rice!