Knock, knock! A toast to the City’s peerless chronicler and jokesmith
Christopher Fildes’s City and Suburban column first appeared in June 1984 and notched up over a thousand appearances; before that, he served as business editor under Nigel Lawson in the late 1960s. As a chronicle of modern City life, the Fildes oeuvre has only one equal and that comes in the weighty form of A Club No More, the last volume of David Kynaston’s magisterial history of the Square Mile. In the lighter field of daily and weekly journalism, Christopher has been peerless in his combination of wit, learning, firmness of judgment, appetite for gossip and enthusiasm for lunch — preferably at the Savoy Grill before its tragic refurbishment.
As the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, wrote in his introduction to A City Spectator, the selection from City and Suburban which I assembled in 2004, Christopher has combined ‘a real affection for the City — both old and new — with a readiness to be trenchantly critical when the occasion demands, criticism which is all the more effective when it comes from a knowledgeable friend’. He has also been very kind to me personally, so I hope he won’t mind me telling some old stories about him in lieu of the speech I might have given if Spectator largesse had stretched to hiring a sufficiently capacious venue (Epsom racecourse would have been ideal) to invite all his loyal readers to a farewell party.
One afternoon, back in my banking days in 1989, I was staring idly across Hong Kong harbour from my office window when a colleague rang from London to ask whether I knew who Christopher was. Of course, I said. Not only was I a long-time Spectator fan, but his bowler hat, buttonhole flower and general bonhomie had made a big impression on me when he lectured to my graduate training course in 1976, and had made me wonder even then why on earth I was trying to be a banker when being a journalist was clearly so much more fun.
His name had been familiar at home before that, I recalled. My father, as general manager of Barclays Bank during the City crisis of 1974, had been introduced by Christopher, then at the Daily Mail, to the idea that when the going gets tough in the markets, lunch at the Ritz is the best possible investment. Despite or because of this evident joie de vivre, my father’s chairman, the redoubtable Wykehamist Sir Anthony Tuke, had declared Christopher the only City journalist who was to be allowed to set foot in his office.
Well, said my colleague — who had probably not expected such a comprehensive answer — he needs someone sensible in Hong Kong to advise his goddaughter, and you’re the man for the job. I feared this might concern tangled affairs of the heart, but Christopher himself rang to explain: Charlotte Ashby was a student film-maker who had been living in Beijing, where she had become involved with a radical cinema co-operative — a high-risk venture in more ways than one in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre. She was proposing to invest a slice of her inheritance in it, and Christopher thought this might not be a terrific idea. Could I talk her round?
Charlotte duly came to see me. Before her money reached the cinema, she told me, her Chinese friends proposed to multiply it by investing it in a sure-fire import-export deal, possibly involving the same consignment of metals being exported and then reimported, or vice versa. My view of emergent Chinese capitalism has always been cautious; for a guide to the investor safeguards likely to apply in a proposition of this kind today, I recommend China Shakes the World, a new book by the former FT Beijing bureau chief James Kynge. Back in 1989 such fast-buck dealings were even more dangerous. ‘I really wouldn’t do that if I were you,’ I told Charlotte, as kindly as I could. Luckily she didn’t, but she did go on to make a fine career in the film industry, starting with an award-winning documentary series, China: Beyond the Clouds.
A couple of years later, when I was back in London and out of work, Christopher repaid the Hong Kong favour by sending me a picture postcard of ‘London County Council Tramways No. 1763 Class E/1 Built 1920/11’. On it he wrote that a mutual friend ‘tells me you’re thinking of leaving the fat cattle country of banking for the badlands of journalism. If that’s so, I’ve come across something which may be of interest. Ring me and let’s meet with glasses in our hands.’ What was remarkable about this gesture was that it came very soon after the terrible car accident in Morocco in which his second wife Frederica was killed and Christopher was badly injured: his scalp still bore a livid scar when I went to see him at the Telegraph’s City office.
The something he had in mind for me turned out to be the role of business obituarist at the Daily Telegraph — a niche I have occupied with great enjoyment from that day to this. I think Christopher must have put in a good word for me in Doughty Street as well. He was certainly an encouraging tutor. ‘An absolute corker!’ he declared when one of my early efforts passed muster, but when I took to interviewing silver-tongued City dealmakers he warned me sternly against ‘letting old villains off too lightly’. Later another lapse into naivety on my part — I remarked to him that Gordon Brown’s 1997 Spectator lecture expressing his eagerness to help British enterprise flourish ‘sounded rather reasonable’. ‘But not to old-fashioned libertarians like you and me,’ Christopher retorted, even more sternly. That exchange came back to me as I listened to last month’s dismal Budget.
But what I will treasure most from Christopher’s work, and enjoy in the rereading, is the quality of his jokes, the best of which have long outlived their victims. Few of us, for example, recall anything about the tenure as first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London of the ludicrous Jacques Attali (the Mitterrand crony who recently popped up in the Guardian expressing admiration for Karl Marx) except for the fact that he clad it in three quarters of a million pounds worth of marble. But I bet many of you remember City and Suburban’s headline from April 1991, and you may want to take this opportunity to recite it in unison: ‘Knock, knock! Who’s there? Attali. Attali who? Attali and completely over the top.’ And having done that, reader, please join me in a rousing toast to Christopher Fildes.