By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
TO THE HORROR of all right-thinking people the British class system has been found thriving in the investment banking sector and going about its traditional habit of being nasty to “non-privileged” mortals. Not only do you have no chance of joining the ranks of the wealthy if you haven’t been to a posh public school and one of the elite universities from which the banks select their clones, but you’ll also be spurned if you wear brown shoes and lack “polish”.
Investment banking is a niche employment area and oversubscribed in terms of applicants so it is no surprise employers apply rigorous sifting criteria. You’re expected to be highly confident, ideally have some experience in sports or financial matters or both, and be acquainted with what the commission calls “opaque codes of conduct”.
That’s where a knowledge of the old adage, “never wear brown in town” would come in useful for coping with those opaques codes. For, as any well-bred fule kno, brown shoes are not to be worn except on one’s country estate. And certainly never with a dark suit.
Thanks to the Commission for Social Mobility this appalling class-based elitism has been revealed, at some public expense, in its report, Socio-Economic Diversity in Life Sciences and Investment Banking.
As its very title suggests, the commission’s main duty is to seek out heretics who do not follow the equality and diversity orthodoxy, and suggest remedies to correct them. Last year it issued a report that had a go at parents for helping their children do well at school through a process it described as “opportunity hoarding”. In this new offering it has managed to scrape together a few obvious things about investment banking that would surprise no one, such as the fact that banks tend to look for people who are like themselves in background and outlook, and want those people to look smart — ie, to fit the image expected of the job. I cannot think of any institution that does not want to recruit people who will fit in. Who on earth wants people who don’t? Well, members of the commission, clearly, who seem to know better than the banks themselves, whom they criticise for employing “limited critical introspection” in selecting employees. This reproduction of the current workforce, they say, limits “the pace of progressive change.” And we must not resist progressive change, must we?
TO MAKE MATTERS worse, they also talk about Bourdieu, one of those popular post-war European intellectuals so beloved of the left, and his ideas about different types of capital. Totally irrelevant but a useful way to pad out the report. I’d give them ten out of ten for pretentiousness.
All of this is academic anyway. Firms will make appropriate noises, introduce various schemes and monitoring procedures and carry on running themselves according to their own principles, changing organically as time goes on. The no brown in town adage no longer holds good (although no brown shoes with dark suits is cast iron, despite the current atrocious fashion for light tan shoes) and, as the commission acknowledges, these “rules” are not inflexible. Foreigners, for instance, are allowed brown shoes, and higher ups may occasionally sport some brown. But at the moment, for serious jobs, it is safest to say that only black will do.
There is something to be said for people dressing appropriately for their profession. I may be old-fashioned but if I’m dealing with someone dealing with serious matters I rather have them dressed as if they take their job seriously. I think many people who say they don’t care how someone is dressed are being somewhat dishonest. We react instinctively to visual symbols, even if they don’t always fulfil their promise in terms of honesty or competence. I think that’s one reason (apart from incompetence) Jeremy Corbyn fails as a public figure. He doesn’t look the part. He obviously doesn’t think it matters. It does. And when he does make the effort, it’s perfunctory and unsuccessful. Whether you fail or succeed It’s always worth putting in the effort. Just never wear brown shoes with a dark suit.
Currente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.