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June 2010

Lane Ashfeldt
Sterling closes lower on domestic concerns

The car slips across the silvering river, slowing as it enters the City.
londontime-ashfeldt 2-336

Six months on, the job is less new but Ryan still hasn’t got over the thrill of this daily voyage in a chauffeur-driven car. Folks back home are easily impressed by his job title, but there’s a vast gap between where he is now and where he wants to be, and Ryan likes to make believe he’s being transported to some far grander role at the South Bank or at White City.

He twists uneasily in half sleep, crumpling his suit jacket. Today he is dreaming not of the future but of the past: these glass and steel towers traded for the squat yellow granites of his home town, the smooth purr of the engine for the contented murmur of the sea.

His body tilts as the car takes a left off Moorgate, and he opens one eye. A ship-like building with aquamarine windows hoves into view. The car slips under the protruding jib sail of its foyer, and the door locks pop open. The sound of the sea is gone.

Ryan flicks his ID at the doorman, takes the lift to the fourteenth, and sinks into his swivel chair. While his machine starts up he drifts back to sleep mode, glazed eyes on the bank of clocks facing him. One for each of the wire’s offices around the planet: London, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York.

The minute hands of the five clocks jerk upward in synchronous stop-motion. When they right themselves, the day will get going.

London shares opening

Sudden clatter of the dot matrix as the wire cranks into gear with new stories arriving from the Stock Exchange. No one speaks this time of day except Agneta.

‘Andy, take UBS Warburg, flash and fill. Oswald, can you flash the ICI results?’

She tears the stories off the printer and reaches over to hand each sub a ribbon of paper bearing their story’s header and first line. When Agneta’s off and Ryan is covering for her, he balls up the scraps of paper and bats them across the computers. It’s quicker, and it wakes people up, keeps them on the ball.

‘Ryan, Lastminute.com, flash and fill please.’


Ryan attacks the haiku like task of chopping back a fifteen page statement to a one-line header and two pars. His keyboard rattles. He likes the challenge of being first to hurl out a flash and kick his story into shape. Do it in my sleep, this stuff, and I’d still be the fastest on the desk. That’s what realtime news is about. You got to be smart, you got to be right, but most of all you got to be first.

Soon as he’s done he yells ‘free’.

Agneta gives him another story, and another, and another, until eventually the flood of words subsides.

London shares: early features

Ryan likes early features. There’s not much cleaning up to do, just check the names for typos. Most are familiar — their place on the list alters from buyout to buyout, but a new entrant is a rarity.

The finished copy forms part of the two-minute summary he presents to camera — a measured round-up of today’s action so far.

There’s rhythm to it that puts him in mind of the football results.

FTSE 100 risers
GUS 527 up 17 — Dresdner Kleinwort ‘buy’
Prudential 407 up 15 — insurers rally
Sage Group 128 up 4.5 — Nasdaq opens higher
Vodafone 114 up 3 — mulls stance on Libertel offer

FTSE 100 fallers
ICI 184 down 6 — HSBC negative post-results
BG Group 235 down 6.5 — profit-taking
BOC 754-1/2 down 8 — with ICI
Pearson 535-1/2 down 4 — advertising concerns

At ten o’clock he pulls on a jacket and walks tall.

His moment of stardom won’t even air on satellite TV, the video files will simply be uploaded to a section of the site that hardly anyone clicks through on. But no matter: at least it scores him a break from the tidal routines of the subs desk.

Euro rises sharply against Sterling
Mornings are best. The zombie hours from six to nine vanish in the rush of early trading. By nine the flow of copy has eased, and Ryan calls ‘free’ again, feeling almost human now in spite of the sleep deprivation.

Agneta has nothing more, so he gets up, ready to grab the newspapers and do his sports round-up.

His mobile goes. Joshua, the caller display reads. A flurry ripples through the office as the sandwich man arrives. Ryan strides past the queue and scoops up the papers, pressing the green button when he thinks he’s out of Agneta’s range.

‘Josh, how ya doin?’

‘I’m good. How’s things back at the wire?’

‘Everything’s cool,’ Ryan tries. ‘Well, you know, same as ever. How’re things at the FT?’

The response is spliced with noise, something about how he should watch today’s international.

‘The England friendly? Why’d I want to watch that?’

‘Ryan, you free?’ Agneta snaps at him. She doesn’t like her shift looking sloppy. They both know Frank, the editor, monitors every word.

‘Got to go, a story’s come in. I’ll call you back.’

‘Take the Forex, please,’ Agneta says.

‘No problem.’

He bangs in the codes that tell the machine where to send the piece. The Forex goes to all the wires: UK, Europe, US and Asia.

‘Sorry, Agneta,’ he calls, loud enough for Frank to hear. ‘Jetlagged from the change of shifts. Forgot to shut the mobile off.’

Agneta gives a Nordic half-smile but her eyes are saying, We’ve sixteen year-end results due today, so behave or you’ll get the worst of them, video round-up or no video round-up.

Sterling recovers on strong economic data
Ryan emerges from the cramped ‘studio’ with the buzz he always has after his piece to camera. That feeling of being achingly alive with nowhere to burn the energy, because everything around him is frozen in place. He wants to cartwheel down the aisle and somersault over the desks, he wants the glass wall that mysteriously lets in no sunlight to shatter, letting loose a cyclone that will sweep every last paper from the neat rows of desks.

He smiles to himself at the idea. Like some cheesy building society advert where the suits jump on the desks and start to sing about interest rates.

He spots Pav and a few of the guys clustered beneath the satellite screens, watching a game. The England-South Korea friendly has kicked off, and Frank’s letting them watch it on low volume.

Euro regains early lead; CBE buoyant longterm
Agneta glowers across at the deserted desks. To the men gathered under the large TV she calls pleasantly, ‘Anyone free for the trading summary? Diane is due a break.’

‘I’ll get it,’ Ryan says.

He doesn’t mind. It’s just a duff friendly, full of teenage next big things posing for the camera in their first international. He’s no idea why Josh said to watch it. Has he lost touch since defecting to the FT. What is it, two months ago? No, more like four. Ryan feels a sudden tension in his stomach. That makes it eight months, not six, since he joined the wire himself. If it goes past the year mark, that’s it, he’ll be a lifer.

With renewed purpose he spews out a sentence scarred with house style commas: ‘Fears of an advertising downturn dragged Daily Mail, off 7.5 to 525, and WPP, lower by 7 to 423.’

He calls ‘free’, then pulls down a bookmark for the FT and runs a search for Joshua’s byline, relieved and annoyed not to find one.

He reaches for the next strip of paper from Agneta. An in-depth piece, this: Pav’s telephone interview with the CEO of a once bankable dotcom now living frugally off its capital reserves. As usual Pav has gone to town on his imagery. When will that boy learn to keep his verbs short — slips, firms, gains, tumbles — and his adjectives simple? Adrift, high, low, buoyed. The normal stuff. Any deviance marks the crime of an opinion. Subscribers can have opinions, big-shot FT journalists can have opinions, but here on the wire the focus is numbers, facts and speed.

Ryan chisels out Pav’s artfully phrased hook and plugs the gap with data from Lastminute’s statement. Soggy, number-filled words sink into the crack like so much badly applied Polyfilla.

‘Anyone free?’

Agneta glares in his direction. What’s got into her, he wonders briefly, putting it down to some woman thing.

Easyjet tops expectations; healthy order book
Oswald notices first. ‘Ryan, come here, this you have to see,’ he says. The two rarely speak, so his words carry some weight. Reluctantly, Ryan wanders over.

‘Thought the commentator sounded familiar.’

Oswald jerks his head screenwards at the men engaged in post-match banter, and ignoring the sudden sharp pain in his gut Ryan smiles like an idiot. Diane follows to see what the fuss is about.

‘He looks gorgeous,’ she says, and hurries back to the subs’ desk to tell Agneta.

Even Frank comes over.

‘Now there’s a familiar face, wouldn’t you say, Ry?’

Ryan gives him an are-you-serious look. They burst out laughing, going silent as the camera cuts back to Josh. He comes over well, relaxed but in control, and Di’s right: he looks great on TV. He beams happily while praising the Korean defence, as if he can sense the way they are clustered beneath the screen, gazing up in awe at him.

‘Cool, isn’t it?’ Ryan finds his voice. ‘He phoned earlier. Made me promise to keep shtum. Wanted to surprise you lot.’

Oswald looks doubtful he’d have kept the news to himself. The thing is, the whole office knows Ryan’s lifelong ambition is to present a sports show, so how can he not feel just a little fed up? But he does his best not to show it.

‘Don’t know what they see in him myself, bar a pretty face,’ Oswald says. ‘But I’m no sports man. What do you reckon, Ryan, does he have what it takes?’

‘The boy will do good. He’s only at the sidekick phase yet, but he handles himself well, there’s a real spirit and dedication to his game...’

Laughter ripples around, and Ryan trails off. Not so long ago, Josh used to be his sidekick. It had been Ryan’s idea to start a sports round-up on the wire.

Frank said he could post results in his free time, but he’d not be paid extra; finance was the core offering. Josh offered to help out and discovered a talent for presenting. That gorgeous mug helped. Probably guaranteed you a try-out for the Beeb, if you went up for it. Another twinge in his guts as Ryan remembers how, when the wire’s sports section started to build traffic and Frank still vetoed a pay rise, he got fed up. But Josh kept plodding on.

Ryan is aware of Frank next to him.

‘So, d’you ever see him these days, Ry? You were good mates one time, weren’t you?’

As if Josh has emigrated to a distant planet.

‘Yeah, we keep in touch. He’s still a mate.’

Well, they’ve spoken on the phone a few times. Even been to the pub once. They really should meet up again. Maybe some of that magic glow will rub off. Ryan resolves to get in touch soon. Very soon.

Autonomy plc edges lower; remains in profit
It helps to only semi-concentrate coming up to midday, Ryan finds. It helps especially at moments like this, when the entire open plan newsroom has to endure the pre-noon stink of Oswald’s microwaved chicken tikka masala. Oswald is scary: a hulking warning of what might happen if you stayed here too long, he grows visibly larger week by week. His claim to fame is that, while a student at Cambridge, he memorized a page a day of the Oxford English Dictionary and then ate it. Literally devoured the volume.

An early indication of his true talents, Ryan thinks harshly, not meaning his legendary vocabulary or orthographical skill.

He has to get out of this place. He can picture himself in two years, doing overtime at the pub with Frank just to make sure he gets a big enough raise to cover his mortgage.

Unlike Oswald, Ryan has never thought typing up year-end results as a good career move. But after hearing Josh’s upbeat tones earlier, he wonders: is not caring part of his problem? He thinks of the pleasure Josh took in doing his job. Is this what singled him out for better things?

Focus: London shares recover in late trade
Lunchtimes most people take half an hour at their desk, passing round a tattered copy of Hello. Ryan goes to The Bricklayers for an hour. Most days he’s with Frank, which is dull but at least means Agneta can’t moan if they’re late back. Frank has a directors’ meeting today, so he’s on his own.

He orders a pint and pulls out his phone. A daytime call to Korea will cost a fortune, but he has to do this. All day he’s had this feeling of running on the spot past the same recycled background like a Wacky Races character, while Josh forges ahead into a glorious future. He must take action.

It rings for an age before he hears Joshua’s voice.

‘Oh look, I must take this one, if you’ll excuse me a moment... Ryan!’

‘Congratulations, Josh. You were amazing.’


Instead of casually working his way up to it like he intended, Ryan asks: ‘So, tell us, how’d you swing the gig at the BBC?’

‘Sheer luck. Being in the right place at the right time. By the way, that’s why I rang this morning. I really wanted to say cheers for giving me a shove in this direction. It’s not what I thought I was cut out for, but I’m really enjoying it.’

The fact that he’s only back-pedalling until he gets a better offer makes it worse.

‘Listen, do me a favour,’ Ryan says. ‘Keep your ear to the ground for any openings, won’t you, mate?’

‘Sure thing.’

A pause.

‘Actually, I’m at a bit of an after-match do right now, so it’s a good moment for that sort of thing.’

‘Of course, of course. Let’s talk when you get back.’

‘Sure. I’ll be out here three weeks, then I’m in New York for a week, but yeah definitely, let’s hook up after. And I’ll ask around for you, OK, mate?’

‘Cheers, Josh, that’s great. See you.’

Ryan hangs up feeling energized. He’ll have all his old sports round-ups copied to a DVD showreel. And tonight he’ll rough out that TV show idea of his. Sports quiz with a difference. Funny, fast, stand-up kind of thing. Celebrity participants: all the ex-superstars, plus a few that are still in the game. When his shift’s done he’ll go straight home and get down to it. And when Josh is back in town they’ll suss out some takers. With the right contacts and maybe Josh as presenter, finding a taker will be a breeze.

He downs his pint and sets off in bright spirits, cutting through the graveyard on a York stone path slippery with lichen, walking briskly past the melting gravestone of a cult poet buried as a pauper. By the time someone shelled out for a cheap stone, no one knew which bones were his, so it was inscribed ‘Somewhere nearby lies...’ The simple grave dwarfed by Defoe’s whitewashed beacon, a monument to the benefits of journalism and reality fiction, of living well and dying famous.

London shares drop after earnings warnings
Ryan gets back to work fifteen minutes late. Agneta was due to leave at one thirty but has pointedly waited to hand over to him. This time of day the markets rarely show much movement, yet all the same she growls out orders. He makes attentive noises until at last she pulls on her coat and leaves.

There’ll be a lull now until America’s morning stories come in. Ryan pulls out his phone. Maybe he should fix a date to chat with Josh about the show. He presses redial. A long tone. Redial again. A voice in his ear recites: ‘Joshua. Browne. Is not available. Please. Leave your message. Now.’

He glances at the bank of clocks. Korea’s the same time zone as Tokyo, so it’s ten in the evening. Josh is probably buying pints for the players, doing whatever it is that sports presenters do off-screen to stay one step ahead. He hangs up.

For the twenty-fifth time that day he checks the London clock. Two hours and ten minutes till he can go. In the background someone calls ‘free’.

London shares close flat, job worries counter upbeat data

Ryan sticks to his plan and hurries past the pub clutching his travelcard. No free car on the way home: they’re only laid on to make sure no one misses a second of the early shift.

Most days he takes the tube, but today he jumps on a bus and sits up top. He needs to see the river stretching into the distance either side of him, to catch a fleeting view of its swirling waters at this place where north and south, east and west Londons surge together and drift apart once more. His least favourite thing about this city is going months at a time without hearing the ocean, without sight of a horizon. That is what drives so many Londoners over the edge, he thinks: the absence of horizons. The bus is crawling down Moorgate’s dark canyon when he gets a text from Melissa about the private view.

He calls to explain he can’t make it.

‘Oh do come, sweetie, we haven’t seen you in ages. We miss you, don’t we Fran?’

‘But there’s this thing...’

Melissa shushes him softly and issues directions to a railway arch in Southwark. ‘You could pick up a painting for two hundred quid that’ll make your fortune in five years,’ she says. ‘Oh, here’s my cab, I have to go buy ice.’

And she’s gone.

The fortune in five years bit he wants to believe, but if the gallery is minutes from London Bridge why does she need a cab? In the end, Ryan decides not to decide. If the tide’s in when he crosses the river, he’ll go. If it’s out, he’ll go home and work.

© Lane Ashfeldt 2003