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Friday, 10 March 2017

Demons at work

Back in the 1960s, the City of London was an exciting place to earn your living. The jobs on offer were not themselves very exciting or well-paid, being largely centred on the insurance industry. But this was London, and these were the hedonistic days of the Beatles, the Kennedys, Cassius Clay, package holidays to Spain, pub lunches and football on Saturday afternoons.

If you worked in the offices of an insurance broker, as opposed to plying your trade as an employee of the same broker in the Underwriting Room at Lloyd’s, you could go out mid-morning with chums for a coffee and cheese bun at Valente’s (other cafes were available), and get back to your desk in time to scrub up well before repairing to Leadenhall Market for a cooked lunch and custard pudding which left you with change enough from a three-shilling Luncheon Voucher for a Blue Riband chocolate bar.

Then it was off to the pub for a quick livener before strolling back to the office for a game of darts in the cloakroom, all accomplished comfortably in a two-hour lunch-break - two-and-a-half hours, tops. On such humble precepts were built the reputations of Sid ‘Two-Dinners’ Kay (“Risotto and chips, twice, please Betty”), and others of his ilk.

No wonder we were happy.

At this time, Lloyd’s of London had yet to achieve its real notoriety as an architectural blot on the City landscape. Here, the other half of the broking fraternity - properly accredited chaps with entitlement to enter Lloyd’s in order to place the risks handwritten onto slips prepared by their colleagues in the office - could wander around in the morning getting a scratch or two, for the sake of appearances.

Then it was off to the Captain’s Room for elevenses - most likely coffee and chocolate digestives and The Times crossword - before more aimless meandering around Lloyd’s until it was time for lunch downstairs, where you were served your meal by men-ahead-of-their-time who would pile up your plate with extra chips accompanied by cries of, “I’d rather keep you for a week than a fortnight” or, more controversially, “I like a man with a moustache.” Then to The Grapes for orders, and a well-earned drink. From there it was only a short wait until four o’clock, when everybody was allowed to fire up their cigarettes and pipes in full accordance with Room rules.

No wonder we were happy.

Of course it couldn’t last. First, Lloyd’s allowed women into the Room – as if THAT was going to work. Then it banned smoking altogether. Then it moved into the Richard Rogers building. Then it introduced rules to make it harder for people to fiddle the books. Now, lo and behold, it has banned employees from drinking during office hours. An internal memo to staff reportedly notes, “The London market historically had a reputation for daytime drinking …”


The memo goes on to emphasise, “Lloyd’s has a duty to be a responsible employer, and provide a healthy working environment. A zero limit (on alcohol consumption) is in line with the modern, global and high-performance culture that we want to embrace.”

Lloyd’s also has a duty to treat people as responsible adults. Rather than championing abstinence, Lloyd’s used to be red-hot on stopping people trying to smuggle teapots into the building, or on throwing out office-based urchins illegally posing as Room-accredited brokers with assumed names trying to get a message to more privileged colleagues in an attempt to place cover on shipments of cocoa beans from Puerto Bolivar to Liverpool. Now, it seems to be saying that it does not trust its employees to drink sensibly at lunchtime, instead taking the typical bully’s approach of banning everything, everywhere, at any time because, in its own words, “It is simpler and more consistent.”

Of course the ban only applies to employees of Lloyd’s, and not to those who bring in work from outside – the brokers – without whom Lloyd’s wouldn’t exist. But one wonders what the fortunes and the mood - not to mention the very history - of the London insurance market might have looked like over the last hundred years if Lloyd’s employees had been banned from having a drink with their lunch.

Apart from anything else, asking people who have had a drink, even a modest one, to do business with people who haven’t, is not a good idea.

Heaven knows we’re miserable now.


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