The temp

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The Independent Culture
If you're sitting in a City office, you'll be painfully aware that the clothes on everyone's backs could have kept a small banana republic afloat for a year.

This is the first time I've worked in the City for ages. Last year I spent months being ignored by bankers, brokers, insurance scamsters and other people most likely to be found weeping contritely on the beach at a Balinese resort after their respective institutions went belly-up, but most of my time recently has been spent up west, being ignored by people whose lives are dedicated to selling goods that won't last to people who don't need them. Generally, Up West is better: you occasionally find a shop that isn't excruciatingly expensive, and the same goes for places to eat. In the City the charms of shivering alone on a bench in Finsbury Square with your sandwich and a book, watching people feed bits of Birley's Hot Specials at a fiver a time to the pigeons and tumble out of a wine bar where the drink starts a pounds 4 a glass, wear thin quite quickly.

The advantage, of course, is that you tend to get 50p an hour extra - sometimes even more than that - if you work here. As long as you don't think about how Nicola Horlick would laugh at anybody getting out of bed for an extra 50p an hour, this is nice: after all, three weeks of this and I'll have made enough to almost buy a Christmas present. I might even treat myself to a glass of wine in that bar, just to get in out of the cold.

I'm always amazed by the City, though. It's not so much the evidence of conspicuous consumption, or even the fact that I always have to remember that Life has two Fs here. I was struck when I first took dictation on Cheapside by how obsessed with self-improvement my boss seemed to be, with all his chat of futures and Life potential and Life's growth over the past year, only to be treated with withering scorn when I produced the documents for signing. Call me literate, but surely an organisation called "Liffe" should have two consonants? Then again, I don't suppose literacy counts for much in a society where people discuss utilising Windows of Opportunity without laughing. What really bothers me here, though, is how dull everyone looks. I mean, all that money washing around, and they can't muster a touch of individuality between them. Everyone here looks as though they have shopped at the same place, and that is probably because they have. How can you choose a stockbroker when they all look the same?

If you're sitting in a City office of, say, 20 people, you'll be painfully aware that the clothes on everyone's backs could have kept a small banana republic afloat for a year. You won't, though, be able to tell if any of the people around you has changed their clothes since yesterday. I don't know how anyone manages to relax in the bars around here: I mean, I love Magritte, but I don't actually want to live in one of his paintings.

The women, meanwhile, look like airline stewardesses. This year's uniform consists of houndstooth-check skirt with a pillar-box red jacket, opaque black tights and patent shoes: what PR girls were wearing four years ago. The only difference is in skirt length: they vary wildly from just above the knee to a couple of inches higher. In the stations, in the queues at Marks & Spencer's food hall, talking seriously on the phone, everyone looks the same: pounds 150 highlights, chunky but low-profile gold earrings, early ski-ing tan.

Why is it like this? I understand the need to look respectable when you're persuading people to entrust their livelihoods to the extraordinary body of knowledge you've accumulated in the three years since you graduated, but there is more to it than that. Analysts, after all, get to pretend to be hippies, or at least wear silly braces, but for everyone else, nonconformity is death. And maybe, if you haven't got a burning desire to change the world, if you haven't a talent to waste, if you would rather have cash than play with ideas, it's worth it. After all, you make sacrifices to be an artist, compromises to have a vocation; why shouldn't you also make trade-offs to be a trader?

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