'Brandy and circuses’ is what I told artist Adam Dant when I commissioned him to do the cover of this issue
'BRANDY AND CIRCUSES' is what I told artist Adam Dant when I commissioned him to do the cover of this issue, which depicts a gladiatorial charity auction for London’s financial elite in a Coliseum-style arena on the banks of the Thames. It’s set on a December night for the fictional charity the Alpha Rewards for Children Foundation (ARCF). There are no prizes — or free bottles of 1987 Wall Street Armagnac — for guessing the inspiration.
It’s also the opening chapter of my novel Drawdown, set in London’s financial, society and legal worlds. No prizes either for guessing that it features a mega-divorce starring London’s most feared family lawyer, Dan Molar, who represents Chelsea Wives and flays their wealthy husbands alive. In the waiting room of his office is a newspaper cartoon of Molar in court with a placard around his head which reads: ‘I eat the Rich.’
Opening at the height of London’s golden boom, just as the world’s financial firmament was cracking in December 2007, Drawdown chronicles the downfall of 40-year-old Mike Mowbray, the founding partner of a multi-family office. From being one of the most successful financiers of a brilliant generation — most of whom were lured into banking by the dream of making enough money to retire to their new 2,000-acre estate in Wiltshire by the time they were 45 — Mowbray loses everything after becoming embroiled in a scandal covered over eight pages in Vanity Fair, which lands him in prison.
In the prologue (see page 116) Mike is broke and burnt out, washed up on Firefly Island, off St Lucia, where he is selling beachland properties on a ‘commission only’ basis to the super-rich clients he used to happily charge two and twenty.
The novel chronicles Mike’s humiliating and brutal social fall as he candidly looks back on the last twenty years of his life and tries to understand not only how he threw it all away but also how he allowed himself to be corrupted by the cult of money fever that has destroyed his life.
As the editor-in-chief of Spear’s, this is a world I have got to know well over the past five years and have been surprised — and partly relieved, I should add — that nobody has yet written a social novel tackling the great money-fever years of London’s Wealth Revolution, when the capital took over from New York.
WHEN WE FIRST meet Mike in his dinner jacket at his £3.5 million Hyde Park apartment, he is reading Country Life and waiting for Anna before being driven to the ARC dinner where Elton John will be playing. It’s the hottest ticket of London’s winter season and a pair of Silver Patron tickets cost £50,000.
As he waits, Mike flicks through the property ads. He is currently renting a Victorian farmhouse for weekends on the Blenheim estate, which annoys him as he has to book an appointment with the estate manager just to get approval for the Farrow and Ball Mouse’s Back paint for their front door. He is on the point of selling 33 per cent of his MFO business to an Asian Sovereign Wealth Fund, which will make him a ‘meaningful’ amount of money and enable him to buy almost any estate he damn well pleases.
His eye catches an ad that looks… promising. Just fourteen miles from Oxford, a ‘handsome Grade II listed country house dating from the 18th century… reception hall, carved oak original staircase, six bedrooms, billiard room, tennis court, staff flat, parkland, six bathrooms (four en suite), ballroom annex… swimming pool, stables, paddocks, woodland and two cottages… in all 28.59 acres’.
You must be kidding. Mike almost snorts on his vodka and tonic and turns the page over in disgust. He and his wife were in agreement about two aspects of the property they were looking for: there had to be at least 450 acres for privacy and there had to be proper stabling as Anna wanted to start her own stud farm.
This is exactly the sort of scenario I have observed many times. And while it is — I hope — funny, it is also depressing that so many of the brightest members of an entire generation seemed to only consider going into finance, just as any ambitious 15th century graduate from Oxford would have gone into the Church for personal enrichment.
While there is a commendable new wave of philanthropy led by the much-maligned hedge-fund community, still too many within the financial classes today think that money or the number of acres they have are the only ways of keeping score, the only way to define whether their lives are a success.
Another trouble with the financial classes is that most careers — unless you own meaningful equity — are over before you are fifty. That is understood. The banks want hungry, handsome financial servants for the needs of their clients, not balding, over-mortgaged ex-army public school boys with three kids to educate. If you haven’t got your country house and peacocks on the lawn sorted by then — well, bad luck. So there is an odd social divide now between the winners and the losers of those who chose finance as their vocation.
I have seen this sort of thing happen again and again. Through the character of Mike Mowbray (an extreme case of reversal of fortune, admittedly), I wanted to look at how a generation who mostly blindly went into finance are looking back on what they have actually done with their lives. Drawdown examines how the moneyed, financial classes value themselves, and judge themselves, if they are honest.
THIS IS A subject that has been brilliantly examined by the Oscar-nominated playwright William Nicholson in his wonderful new play Crash (which recently ran at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and deserves a transfer to the West End). Crash is about a filthy-rich banker with a £9 million Elizabethan pile who invites his old best mate from Cambridge, a sculptor called Humphrey, to spend the weekend after commissioning him to make him a piece for his garden.
In this issue, I interview Nicholson (page 44) about the forces that drove him to write the play, which discusses how we’ve allowed the link between money and self-worth to poison our world. ‘I don’t ask that everyone be paid the same,’ he says. ‘But I do want to explore the basis of our respect for each other. What are we all worth?’
When I wrote the first Spear’s leader back in 2006 — setting out our manifesto, addressing those Global Citizens and their private-client advisory teams — the headline was ‘Because You’re Worth It’. Five years on, having sat ringside at London’s Circus Maximus, I am now not so sure, if only because the avalanches of cash that have been made — and lost — have rarely brought the self-esteem that you might expect.