A squarer mile

For better or worse, that City has undergone a revolution. Its old guard has been seen off, or paid off

Counterpoints
“Lord Mayor’s Show, London Wall 2012”, by Polly Braden (©POLLY BRADEN)

A windowless wall surrounds the Bank of England. It was built by John Soane, two centuries ago, to keep the rioters out and the gold bullion safe within. We have the Bank’s assurance that the gold is still there, but, like other components of the workaday City, it is not on general view.

So when Polly Braden brought her camera to the City, she took pictures of the wall and of the rioters — they recur from time to time — but not of the bars of gold. She prowled the place’s streets, but never ventured within its walls. A pity: she might have shown us Simpson’s Tavern, or the Room at Lloyd’s, or even the historic convenience inaugurated, in Victorian days, by Alderman Josiah Gunton. Her picture book The Square Mile (Hoxton Mini Press, £17.95) carries a sub-title: The Secret City.

Fortunately, then, it runs to a commentary by David Kynaston, the City’s peerless historian. He traces its character back beyond Soane — it was Addison who called it an emporium for the whole Earth — and forward to its latest reincarnation. Along the way, he seems to have fallen out of love with it.

He looks back to the City that I first knew, a place of clubs and cartels — but, he says, a place where trust mattered and “My word is my bond is my bond” meant what it said. It may have been a more pleasant place. It wasn’t a more industrious place, or more sober. As for its customers, if they worked from nine to five and from Monday to Friday, they would never have seen a bank open.

For better or worse, that City has undergone a revolution. Its old guard has been seen off, or paid off. A new guard has come from all over the world, to give the host country an international marketplace and an improbably successful export earner. If in this process the City has turned into Hong Kong West — well, Hong Kong was a success story.

David Kynaston shrinks from the price of success, too often paid in greed and hubris. Oddly, he points an accusing finger at Brian Pitman, who took Lloyds Bank to the top by steering clear of the new “investment banking” and sticking to what it did best. At that time, two botched attempts at investment banking cost National Westminster its independence.

And if there had been no revolution? If the foreigners had been kept out, if the Stock Exchange was still a club with a private monopoly, if exchange control — that durable wartime expedient — was still with us? Would the old guard have become a latter-day version of the City’s ancient guilds: the Worshipful Company of Stockjobbers, of Billbrokers, of Merchant Bankers, now focusing on good works and good dinners? That might have been a pleasant City, but not an emporium for the whole Earth.