Brain Drain to the City of London, circa 1988

by Andrew Sprung

Mulling over Martin Wolf's portrayal of the U.K. as a monocrop economy, overly dependent on its financial industry, it occurred to me that I'd witnessed the transition, years ago, -- in a novel. That would be David Lodge's devilishly clever Nice Work -- published in 1988, and so probably written in the wake of the U.K.'s "Big Bang" banking deregulation of 1986.

A send-up of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1855), which chronicles the rise of Britain's industrial north, Nice Work tracks industrial decline in a fictional Manchester. It splits scenes between a rundown red-brick university in financial crisis and a beleaguered auto parts factory. The protagonists' brief escape to a machine tool trade show in Frankfurt makes West Germany seem like a kind of of industrial Candyland by contrast.

But the City of London also makes a cameo. The heroine's boyfriend, like the heroine, is a young left-wing literary theorist teaching romantic poetry, who boasts that he's snagged "the last new job in romanticism in this century."  The heroine's brother works in the City, which her academic family regards as a disreputable shame. To make matters worse, his girlfriend is a tough working class girl who's proved to be a gifted trader.

In novelistic fashion, the effete professor of romantic poetry starts disappearing nights into the home of the gritty trader.  Our heroine then receives this news by letter:

But I've finished with thesis topics. What I have to tell you is that I have determined upon a change of career. I'm going to become a merchant banker.

"Have you done laughing?" as Alton Locke says to his readers. I am of course rather old to be making such a change, but I feel quite confident that I can make a success of it and I'm very excited by the challenge. I think it's the first risky thing I've ever done in my life [2009 footnote: not the last], and I feel a new man in consequence. I've got to undergo a period of training, of course, but even so I shall start at a higher salary than my present one, and after that, well, the sky's the limit.

He goes on to assert that as leftist academics, he and the heroine have been "stranded on the mudflats of an obsolete ideology," a played-out statism. Then:

Its' no use blaming Thatcher, as if she was some kind of witch who has enchanted the nation. She is riding the Zeitgeist. When trade unions offer their members discount subscriptions to BUPA, the writing is on the wall for old-style socialism. What the new style will be, I don't know, but I believe there is more chance of identifying it from the vantage-point of the City than from the University of Suffolk. The first thing that struck me about the City when I started observing Debbie at work was the sheer energy of the place, and the second was its democracy.  A working-class girl like Debbie pulling down thirty-thousand-odd a year is by no means an anomalous figure. Contrary to the stereotype of the ex-public-school stockbroker, it doesn't matter what your social background is in the City these days, as long as you're good at your job. Money is a great leveller, upwards.

The novel repudiates and (lightly) punishes this move. But then, part of the extended joke of the novel is that it replays the "ideological bad faith" that its heroine likes to expose in nineteenth century industrial novels like North and South.  So, in the end, a bequest settles all; a benevolent capitalist and a revitalized scholar get new leases on professional life.  But Lodge might take some satisfaction today that beneath the narrative contraption, the novel leaves behind a clean snapshot of the lure of brains to the City.