Essex and the City: my life as a ‘posh bird’ broker

Venetia Thompson on how she learnt to fit in with the hard-drinking barrow boys on the trading floor, who live on fish and chips, pickled onions and the most expensive vintage wines

6 February 2008

He is sending back a bottle of 1965 Croft because it ‘doesn’t taste right’. I know that the odds of it tasting identical to the bottle we just drank in Pétrus are slim to none even if we were sober. He is miffed at the lack of label and they bring back the cork. I exchange an exasperated look with the sommelier, who woefully nods at yet another example of an Essex wide-boy embarrassing himself, and quietly brings another bottle. Our clients, traders visiting from Germany, continue to puff on their cigars.

The Essex boy is not a breed that most public-school girls from Devon often encounter. Historically, however, and still today, they make up the gritty backbone and furry underbelly of the City’s inter-dealer brokers, acting as intermediaries in the trading of numerous financial instruments, making money whether the market goes up or down. It is therefore understandable that one of the Germans asks if I too am from Essex like my port-rebuking colleague. I stop short of attempting to explain the nuances of the Essex accent compared to my own when my colleague chips in with ‘Nah mate, she’s a posh bird, ain’t she? But she’s all right.’ My tag of ‘posh, but all right’ has stayed with me over the last year, and is a label I fought hard for. During my first week on the trading floor bets were taken as to whether I’d outlive the last girl, who managed a mere four days; balls were hurled at me from the other side of the room and I was asked countless times what on earth someone with a degree in Russian from a top university was doing rejecting the world of investment banking and grad schemes in favour of broking at the most aggressive, archaic and male-dominated firm in the City.

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However, after the initial shock of working with hundreds of marauding barrow boys who shouted and swore from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., only breaking for football discussions, the odd read of the tabloids and lunch (pie and mash, fish and chips and pickled onions became my staple diet — always eaten at my desk), I ended up fitting in better than I ever did at boarding school or university. My first trade was greeted with the obligatory chants of ‘RUN!’, meaning a lap of the entire floor while other brokers hurled water and hammered their phones on their desks, creating a deafening blast of sound. I soon developed an entirely different language: cockney rhyming slang mixed with trading terms, sprinkled with a hefty dose of obscenities, all said with perfect RP, much to everyone’s amusement. But this wasn’t without various misunderstandings, the most memorable being hearing a colleague referred to as The Ferg and assuming this was simply a nickname. ‘Ferg’ was in fact short for Feargal Sharkey — rhyming slang for ‘Darkie’ — not a nickname you really want to be throwing around indiscriminately.

My boss was a 50-year-old American ex-trader and one of the most disliked and thickest-skinned people in the City. His greed was notorious, which, in an industry where greed is largely taken as read, is really saying something. I had heard various stories of the many times he had been attacked in his career, and the countless phones he had broken by smashing them in a fit of frustration and rage. Every time a fight broke out people would spread rumours in the market that he had been hospitalised or was dead. The news would only ever be greeted with merriment or disbelief that someone had finally got rid of him. Over the past year I have witnessed him being throttled and pulled off his chair in a headlock, and most recently he hurled his Bloomberg keyboard at someone sitting opposite, causing all the keys to fly across the room. Having stormed off the floor he then called and abruptly asked if I could make sure his faulty keyboard was reported, as he would not be returning that afternoon and would be needing his spacebar on Monday.

Physically the job had begun to affect me. Getting up at 5.45 a.m. having often been out until past midnight with clients began to take its toll. I discovered that getting up so early invariably meant not having enough time to sleep off the alcohol and thus meant turning up at my desk at 7 a.m. still drunk. Tube journeys often consisted of half an hour of deep yogic breathing where I attempted to put myself into an anti-nausea trance. On the rare occasions I got to go straight home after work I would be fast asleep, dribbling on the sofa by 7 p.m. My friends barely saw me for months, dismissing my job as consisting of eating, drinking and partying with a lot of shouting and the odd bit of bond trading in between. The girls balked when I recounted the traders’ venomous tirades that I frequently endured.

‘I would never consider a female broker girlfriend material,’ announced one of my clients, a trader at a European bank. ‘All that testosterone is bound to eventually rub off on a girl. My girlfriend works in fashion PR, I know that she’s safe there, she’s not out three nights a week with different traders having lavish meals ordering ridiculous wine — she’s in bed with me.’ I had never previously considered that my femininity might be somehow at risk. I’d apparently rendered myself ‘unmarriageable’ and destined to roam the planet alone in a testosterone-fuelled rage, armed only with an empty bottle of Krug. After this revelation I had frantically checked with my other male clients what their views were on the subject. Most agreed that it was simply not a job for a girl to be doing and that maybe I should consider something less male-dominated and less ‘ball-busting’. These were successful men, largely in their twenties and early thirties, from similar backgrounds to myself; men that in my pre-broking days I may have dated but who now viewed me as nothing short of the Incredible Hulk, but a good broker nonetheless.

At a time of such uncertainty within the financial markets the inter-dealer broker is, however Hulk-like, sitting pretty while the vast majority of traders at investment and merchant banks scramble around in search of their long-lost bonuses to guarantee that their PR and fashion assistant girlfriends don’t leave them. Meanwhile I’ll be helping myself to another glass of Château d’Yquem over dessert with my much-loved Essex boys, safe in the knowledge that they’ll never feel the urge to ask what school I went to, always treat me impeccably and, if I happen to make more money than they do, they’ll simply shake my hand and pass me a cigar, their balls still very much intact.

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Show comments
  • Philippe P

    What a refreshing glimpse into the netherworld of those who neither inherited, nor stole their money.
    As we’re staring down the abyss, people like those described will be our saviours in averting economic melt-down (and enslavement to the Chinese).
    More of the same please!

  • Joe Bloggs

    You poor girl having to deal with heathens who order Croft in the first place!

  • Terence Foo

    Finally, a candid take on the characters driving our economy. Please write something about Gordon Brown.

  • Karen

    Brilliant article, told like it really is. Been there many years ago, loved it & would not change the experience for the world. I have never been embarrassed by anything that I have had to encounter since!!

  • james Sleatdog

    As a city worker myself, reading your article was refreshing and well written. Lets us have more

  • Yvonne

    Hah! This made me laugh out loud – I’ve just retired after 13 years in the Front Office… it’s all just too true!

  • gerard

    A brilliant little piece in both senses. I suppose she’ll never be heard of again, but the girl done well

  • Jeremy Stubbs

    Brilliant. I hadn’t heard of this article until i saw the front page of the Torygraph this morning. Being of a similar age and in a similar line of work, i thoroughly enjoyed the read. Sure it’s not the last we’ve heard of Venetia!

  • Ram Barkai


    I dont know how to get hold of Venetia, but I respect her courage, intelegnce and her article and I want to offer her a job in Cadiz financial services in Cape Town.

  • Binsey

    Top Bird!

  • David H

    Reflecting on my ‘Behaviour in Work Place’ and ‘Diversity’ training courses, it is refreshing to know that some parts of the City remain, reassuringly unchanged.

  • J

    Being from The City, the other one, across the ocean, the one with the really big buildings, and working in the same field…just so you all know, it’s just the same here

  • Kevin

    What would be more interesting than this anecdotal article would be an explanation of how it is that a collection of inebriated, sleep-deprived individuals manage to accomplish anything profitable to the wider economy. Surely anything that is genuinely productive, such as designing microchips or building (reliable) cars, requires an alert, educated workforce? On a much smaller scale than City trading, some mortgage lenders siphon off money from the productive economy by scaring customers into taking out more insurance than they could possibly benefit from. Some mobile phone salesmen are similarly merely interested in getting you to pay over the odds for a multi-featured “Swiss army” model with all the trimmings, instead of a regular handset that will allow you to make calls. When we talk about the kind of City traders portrayed in this article, are we talking about the same phenomenon, but just involving far larger sums of money procured from corporate suckers by effectively plying their authorised representatives with drink and sex-related activities? If so, is that any more genuinely beneficial to the economy than bribery or money laundering? Surely this takes away money that could be put to more profitable use by corporations in producing products that improve our quality of life, allowing us more time and disposable income to invest in similarly productive work, such as architecture or interior design. Just a thought.

  • Actual Broker

    So basically, a silly little girl from a minor public school in Devon with a very sheltered background, couldn’t get a job with a bank, so ended up working for a city chop-shop as a glamourized telesales person. Decent Banks and brokerage’s don’t employ ‘Essex boys’ (were they all from Essex?), sounds like you’ve got a chip on your shoulder and as a result are insecure about your position in the world…..

  • Kay Vasey

    Venetia, you have a great talent for writing… I think you should join MeshMinds.com – We’ve got a wealth of like-minded people with excellent creative talents. It would be brilliant to hear from you.

  • a.n other

    Amusing little expose. However in comparison to the ‘real scams’ which are being conducted, the treatment handed down to this junior for her misdemeanor is a bit like giving a life sentense to a ‘jay walker’. Countless people are doing the ‘items scan’ with sales credits and earning huge amounts all virtually without detection.

  • Lando

    Kevin, with your talk of ‘plying corporate suckers out of large sums of money’ I doubt that you fully understand what trading/inter dealer broking involves but that’s fair enough. IDB’s (Inter-Dealer Brokers, almost always incorrectly referred to as ‘traders’) are middlemen between two different real traders, the latter usually working for investment banks. A trader would deal through an IDB to trade size that he or she would be unable to execute on screen. The broker’s job is to find a counterpart who wants to do the opposite to the first trader. The brokers takes no actual market risk themselves – hence they really arent ‘traders’ per se. To a lot of people this may seem pointless (‘why not just get traders bypassing the brokers and talking to each other directly?) but to a big trader trying to move a large position the anonymity provided by IDB’s is crucial, hence the commission charged. As for the ‘entertainment’, brokers know that all else being equal traders will choose to trade with their mates and commission being their sole source of income means they need as many mates as possible!
    In any case Kevin, an easy mistake to make, perhaps a follow up from Ms Thompson on how trading actually works would clear up some misconceptions?

  • GrossMisconduct

    WTF! This article is peanuts, it doesn’t even cover the top of the top of the iceberg of the unacceptable, obnoxious and at times also outright hilarious behavior still rampant at every Inter Dealer Broker in the street. Poor girl just had to be made an example of, to deter others from printing their own exploits in similar fashion. Venetia’s book “Gross Misconduct” goes further into the iceberg and is not a bad read. Worth looking into it if you want to have some of your fears confirmed by an insider.

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