London in the late 80s
London in the late 80s was fun. I mean the kind of fun that accompanies fast-rising pay and an attitude to responsibility at all levels that kept stress very much in check. I was a young techie, skilled in the new arts of 4GL, adept at analysis, modelling and building databases. These were skills much in demand as the era of CICS Cobol, IBM MVS and RPG grew staid. A calendar measured change for those legacy skills, but us new folks could analyse and prototype in hours then get an initial system live in weeks.
The era of financial competition had indeed arrived with a bang.
Smaller companies could now afford useful and adaptable software. At the same time, the merchant banks were racing to complete back office systems. With only three years from agreement to implementation, Big Bang left precious little time to prepare. In those projects, money really was no object if everyone was delivering. After the deadline came fixing and enhancing. Plus of course integration to other systems and building back office settlement systems. There was no time to develop these before the deadline.
Top late-80s Movies
So you can start to see how London was booming. Full-on technicolour; work hard and party hard. Red was in. Grey was out.
Government had already quelled militant coal and shipbuilding trade union, their long lived restrictive practises and power were ending. Big Bang removed age-old stock trading restrictions and introduced electronic trading. The boost to the City of London has lasted ever since.
There’s more though. The UK had a property boom in the mid-80s too. As portrayed in the movie Wall Street, greed was good. Thatcher was the saviour, with long term problems yet to materialise.
It’s better to spend money like there’s no tomorrow than to spend tonight like there’s no money.
The sun shone and optimism was high as everyone talked of how much their house was worth. I bought a house in 1987 and, being stuck in a chain for two months, the value rose 26% before move-in day. Checking the property ads became the national pastime and a flurry of figures flew at dinner parties.
Back to London. My first job there was as a programmer in a small software house. We had an offshore blue-chip client, a basement office with super-high-power aircon and the latest 386 PC’s. To put that in perspective, if a modern PC was a 100mph car then those 386 PC’s would take 2 minutes to go a yard. Slower than a tortoise. Our small team, skilled and talented, raced ahead with product development.
But that’s work and, fun though it was, it could just as well be today if we changed the technology. But some things were very different indeed. Take food. Here in the 21st century the buzzwords are coffee: cold drip, long spout, slow poured coffee, but coffee all the same. There’s quinoa and micronutrients, bio this and trace element that. Food is healthy or it’s junk.
But not in 1989. In those days there were only four kinds of sustenance: A Meal, A Curry, A Sandwich, and A Drink.
Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.
Unspoken rules applied. For example, it was bad form to have A Drink whilst eating a sandwich. It was of course perfectly acceptable to eat A Sandwich whilst out for A Drink. A Meal or A Curry would seldom directly mention A Drink though. Ignoring such etiquette could lead to being considered A Plonker, and no one wanted that.
The social life was something else, and not simply for the young. Hard work and easy living turned all ages youthful. Sometimes several mini-events would combine into something called ‘A Night Out’, an event that towers over its modern-day tame equivalent. These were at the same time immense fun, a test of stamina and raised questions about the metaphysical nature of existence.
Success in the Jungle — 1989 style (source)
An after-work celebration, an anniversary. Everyone is going, of course, even the new guy who had started that morning. He arrives keen, sober with shiny attaché case in hand to a party invitation as the first order of business. The evening starts early as we split into two groups. Early was important if you wanted to choose which bar to go to, not just the latest bar, but the latest latest bar.
Our chosen bar hosts two parties, with two gold cards behind the counter: have what you like. These parties were popular too. Particularly with anyone passing by who twigged they could get a free drink. Nobody cared, life was good and we were in heaven.
A civilised start to the evening: talk is of holidays, business ideas, gossip and industry news. Bottled beer by the neck. After a while someone has the bright idea of champagne. That time of day when your senses remain and, accepting a glass, you privately wonder “Should I ask the audience or phone a friend?”. From this point on you’re committed, in for the duration till you’re out for the count.
The main thing about money, Bud, is that it makes you do things you don’t want to do.
Conversation is loud, cheerful and good natured, with no real boundaries between work groups. Egalitarian besuited socialising in an era when suits were cool. A long time after we are due to leave someone notices the time — and we all agree there’s no point being early, and carry on. My last party memory is meandering towards a night club playing Star Wars light-sabre fights with discarded fluorescent tubes.
A few months later, we knew that the cutting edge had moved on when a group of us arrived, in suits, on a Friday, to a trendy pub in Camden. Near the famous music TV studios. Models in silver lame jackets knocked us dead. The disdain stays with me still.
Looking at the way we were, I don’t know why alcohol played such a big part. Possibly due to the pressure of work and no need to drive. We’re all older and wiser now though, aren’t we?
And what of the new starter with the shiny attaché case?
He had a good party too then knocked himself out falling down the station steps. After waking up in hospital, without his glasses, we didn’t meet him again. He didn’t dare chance a second day working with us.
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