It is a Sunday afternoon in late winter: a grey, miserable afternoon in the tradition of countless English Sundays before it. North of the village, the fields have been sodden since October. Rainwater tends to accumulate in Chobham before finding its way to the river Bourne, and most people build the edges of their swimming-pools several feet off the ground to prevent the wrong kind of water from flooding in. They care about their swimming-pools in Chobham.
They also care about Chobham itself. Even in winter, the cricket field behind the church (where they have just been celebrating 100 years of parish council history) is immaculate; nearby, outside Blubecker's restaurant, there are two Best Kept Village plaques displayed on the wall. Yet some of the villagers are finding it hard to care as much as they used to.
It is comforting, plodding down the High Street in the rain, to muse on Chobham's idyllic tidiness. It recalls innocent summers when such things really mattered - when Chobham was just an ordinary Home Counties village, with ordinary Home Counties aspirations. But then, all too quickly, the cares of the present return, like a cloud over the sun. Those cares can be summed up in one word: Lloyd's.
NO VILLAGE in Britain has suffered heavier losses on the Lloyd's insurance market than Chobham. There are 19 Lloyd's "Names" who live there. It is estimated that, between them, they will have lost more than £17m by the time all the claims for the years between 1988 and 1993 have been made (which could take several more years). This is equivalent to nearly £5,500 per head of the population of 3,120 - and just under £1m per Name.
Hutton, near Brentwood in Essex, has 26 Names who have made losses, but the combined loss there is only £11m, and more than half of the Names there work in the market (that is, they are employees of Lloyd's who also happen to have volunteered as guarantors of underwriting syndicates). In Chobham, on the other hand, only five of the 19 Names are Lloyd's professionals. The rest are outsiders who, once they had signed up, needed no more knowledge of the way the market works than the address of their bank manager and the name of their managing agent. The second worst-hit village is Shamley Green, near Guildford in Surrey, with 14 Names suffering losses of more than £12m; this is closely followed by East Bergholt, near Colchester, Essex, with nine Names also suffering losses of £12m. A full list of Britain's 10 worst-affected villages and 10 worst-affected towns and cities appears on page 8. Such "rankings" are, inevitably, both approximate and provisional (many Names hope to recover some of their losses through litigation; and, in any case, not all the losses have yet been claimed for). But they do represent the most thorough published attempt to date to estimate the distribution of the recent tidal wave of Lloyd's losses - collectively worth some £8bn - among 38,365 Names around Britain.
Villages like Chobham and Shamley Green are only the most spectacular victims of a catastrophe that has swept over Britain's prosperous counties in the Nineties - on a scale that makes the recent Barings collapse look like a little local difficulty. This financial crash threatens the fabric of life in some parts of Britain. None of the Home Counties has been spared. Surrey, Essex, Hampshire, Berkshire and Kent have suffered worst, but there have also been swathes of losses in Sussex and Buckinghamshire, as well as further afield in Cheshire, Devon, Dorset, and Wiltshire. Where there is wealth, there is loss.
BY THE standards of the crocodile of afternoon church-goers now dispersing in various directions from Chobham High Street, Howard James (not his real name) is not particularly wealthy. His house is spacious but unpretentious, in one of the plainer, less gentrified parts of the village. But his losses are substantial enough. From 1983 to 1991 (after which he decided that he could no longer keep track) the balance sheet read as follows. 1983: +£2,529; 1984: +£5,872; 1985: +£9,907; 1986: +£19,189; 1987: +£22,695; 1988 -£1,066; 1989: -£37,140; 1990: -£50,477; 1991: -£59,500. It would make grimmer reading if the figures since 1988 recorded the true losses, rather than just the money Lloyd's demanded at the time. So far, he has paid out £196,000, but he agrees that his total losses could eventually be as much as the figure that I have estimated for him: £583,120.
"I still get a griping in the stomach when my wife goes to the front door in the morning, and says the postman has been. You get these white envelopes, and you know it will be another demand. You also know you can't pay them and the next time it will be the writs.
"The monies they dangled before you," he adds, "the percentages you would make... Nothing like that transpired."
His wife didn't understand Lloyd's back in 1983, but she now mugs up on it obsessively, fascinated by the intricacies of the market that brought her husband down. She doesn't know what her husband really feels, she says, because he puts on a good front. But she does know that Lloyd's will never give up hounding them for the money. "Even if my husband died, and the proceeds of the house were broken up, they would follow all sorts of channels to see if there was anything else. I have got to face the fact that there's going to be a lot of unpleasantness."
The last time Mr James received a white envelope, the demand was very politely put, with many apologies before getting to the point. Lloyd's wanted a cheque for £66,000. "I phoned them up and said I haven't got a cheque for £66,000, you will have to take it out of my deposit." Until then he had paid every demand. All he has left now is a £27,000 bank guarantee letter from Lloyds Bank. "They haven't called that yet, but they probably will do before July. That will be the last money that Lloyd's have got in my deposit. I have nothing further to give them. I have lost all my life savings."
The story is the same all over Chobham, although no one is keen to talk about it. Millions of pounds of savings have been wiped out; and, on the whole, they are savings that people could ill-afford to lose. Stewart Monk, who runs the local gift shop, says that the widow of a local Lloyd's Name came into his shop before Christmas and told him that she was going to have to sell the house. "She was left to pick up the pieces when her husband died last summer," he says. "She didn't seem bitter about it at all, just resigned. I felt incredibly sorry for her. She has not done anything wrong, and her husband was trying to do the best he could. I think when things go wrong to this extent the Government should step in and rescue them. I don't know how many of these people understood what they were getting into, but I don't think there's any difference between them and the Maxwell pensioners."
The Maxwell pensioners might disagree, and with good reason. Yet it would be wrong to yield to the temptation to dismiss Chobham's Names as the greedy super-rich, undeserving of sympathy. It is a prosperous village, but in a modest way. There are more obviously wealthy towns in the area - Windlesham, Wentworth and Virginia Water in Surrey, and Sunningdale and Ascot across the border in Berkshire - but these seem to have escaped relatively unscathed by Lloyd's. That seems to be part of the nature of the phenomenon: few of the victims were ever spectacularly rich; most of the money that has been lost is middle-class money.
The villagers of Chobham, for example, tend to be accountants, architects and solicitors rather than the more ostentatiously rich sheikhs and City men in neighbouring towns. If you walk or drive around the village, or go to Holy Communion, or sit around in the pub, the people you meet are ordinary, middle-class people, with ordinary Home Counties aspirations. Overheard talk in the 300-year-old Sun Inn is more likely to be about families and football than about spirals, Piper Alpha and Hurricane Hugo. Villagers support their church, and their local branch of the NSPCC. In fact, it is easy to imagine it as a middle-class equivalent of the traditional close-knit mining village: a community that would rally round in the face of disaster.
Such imaginings are beginning to be put to the test. All over the village - none far from the others but all largely isolated within comfortable, secluded homes - once-prosperous pillars of the community are contemplating shattered lives. At least three of the village's 19 Names have put their houses on the market. One couple admit that they are selling to help pay the wife's losses, although few people know that they are selling for that reason. Several other Names could soon be following suit. Many have sold jewellery and furniture to pay Lloyd's bills. Nearly all have had to part with at least some of their life savings. Hardly any will ever again enjoy the security that a few years ago seemed certain to last for the rest of their lives.
Villagers who are not directly involved have felt the effects too. Angel Marques, for example, manager of the Four Seasons restaurant, says that two regular customers have sold their houses and moved away from the area, while two others who are Lloyd's Names have stopped coming. "People used to get drunk on Chteau Lafitte and Krug champagne. But then came Lloyd's. Two of the Names came in and said they were sorry they hadn't been in for a while, but they had been having a hard time with Lloyd's." Others have been involved in the Names' predicament in a more positive way. Alan Wackett, for example, the local jeweller, has helped a number of them to turn their jewellery into urgently needed cash. One Chobhamite told me that Wackett recently sold a diamond bracelet for a Name for £60,000, after a West End dealer had valued it at only £20,000.
Another Name jokes that, should he reach the stage of needing food parcels, he expects his fellow Chobhamites to rally round, but such cheerful optimism is both rare and deceptive. Guilt and remorse - and fear that adverse publicity may affect their chances of reducing their losses through legal action against Lloyd's - have driven many Names into their shells. Most are keeping themselves to themselves, their houses resembling prisons for as long as they can call them their own, refusing to talk to journalists, or taking refuge, like Howard James, behind false names. The rest are hiding behind stiff upper lips.
IT'S LUNCHTIME at Stanners Hill Farm, a romantically half-timbered building of 16th-century origins set in 100 acres of green rolling farmland, a few days after the service for the parish council's centenary. Michael Savage, a rather bulky man with a booming voice who has lived here for 35 years, has been making the most of his wife's absence by tucking into a large plate of gravadlax, followed by a chunky steak-and-kidney pie. He is anxious to get the washing-up done before we continue our discussion about Lloyd's in case his wife, who is supervising his diet, comes back early. At the age of 47, she has gone back to work as an architect - not out of any great desire to do so, but because she feels that she has to. They both know that, one day soon, he may have to sell the house because of his huge losses on Lloyd's.
Savage, a generally cautious man who was chairman of a firm of rice and oil brokers before his retirement (the farm is just a hobby), started investing with Lloyd's in 1983 to protect his capital from inflation. Like all Names, he liked the prospect of making money work twice over, while his unproductive agricultural land was at least useful in backing his assets. For the first five years, he had modest gains, but then came four years (from 1988 to 1991) of huge losses which cleared out more or less all of his investment capital. His only consolation is that it could have been worse. Careful with his money, he took out stop-loss insurance which reduces the losses a little. Even so, he may not receive money covered by at least 20 per cent of that insurance because the company underwriting the risk is now in trouble.
He should, perhaps, have known better, because his first wife was a casualty of a Lloyd's fraud scandal in the Seventies. But he says that he thought Lloyd's had "cleaned out the stables and become the honourable organisation I always thought it was."
Since 1991, he has refused to pay any more losses while he awaits the results of litigation; and, being a sensitive man, he is aware that not everyone approves of such behaviour. He wishes people would understand. "There has been this stupid, superficial propaganda that members of Lloyd's are greedy people who make huge profits, and then squeal when they have to pay their losses. The true picture is very different. All I was trying to do was protect my capital against inflation."
It is hard not to sympathise. Food apart, he does not seem greedy; indeed, he seems placid and anxious to be liked. He is president of the village fishing club, and enjoys playing his part in community life. He shakes my hand as I leave, his outsized voice subsiding for a moment as he confides, almost in a whisper: "The whole thing has been an absolute nightmare."
Just down the road, two other Chobhamites are experiencing an even worse nightmare. A husband and wife - let us call them the Bunhills - broke the golden rule and both invested in Lloyd's at the same time. As a result, the Bunhills are now in deep trouble - the deepest in the village. Lloyd's have called in Mr Bunhill's bank guarantees, and between them their theoretical losses are in the millions. Their house is up for sale. Mr Bunhill says that it has been for sale since he started restoring it 10 years ago, but neighbours say that they have always been under the impression that the couple were there for life. Mr Bunhill doesn't think much of these neighbours, nor of the impression some people had given me that Chobham was a friendly place. "Chobham is a strange place, a bucket-shop for London," he says. "I don't know any of the people here. I opened the house a couple of years ago, but apart from then, I haven't seen anyone here all the time I've been here."
When Mike Savage gave me directions to the Bunhills' house, he referred to Mr Bunhill in a sympathetic tone that suggested some bond between them, some sense of their being companions in suffering. But Mr Bunhill claims hardly to know Savage - merely snorting something about his having borrowed a door-knob and failed to return it. Such things matter for people of means.
I had arrived to see Mr Bunhill without an appointment and found him sitting behind his desk in a natty blue blazer, his hair slicked back, smoking a cigarette. I had been expecting an ebullient character, but that didn't come across. He seemed more like a caged animal, a man who had spent far too much time cooped up with accountants. Also, of course, my presence in his office was irksome. He didn't, he said, want certain people to know that he was a Lloyd's Name. Along with some of the other Lloyd's Names, who declined to see me for legal reasons, he is desperately trying to reduce his losses. Negotiations were delicate, he said, but if they came off, it would be a significant settlement - suggesting perhaps that other Names might benefit from his trailblazing efforts. But he could not pretend to feel for them. "The other Lloyd's members are like lemmings, always looking to see what others are going to do." As for the market itself, he added, warming to his theme: "All Lloyd's Names are crap as far as Lloyd's is concerned. We're all going down the funnel at the same time."
He had calmed down by the time he ushered me out with a "Bless you lad, good-bye." But he would still like his door-knob back.
MULTIPLY such scenes 24,000 times, and you begin to get a picture of what the Lloyd's disaster has done to Britain. Over the last three years for which claims have been made (1989, 1990 and 1991), Lloyd's Names have built up a liability estimated at around £8bn. Roughly 4,000 of them were "working" Names, insurance professionals who decided to back their judgement with money of their own. The remaining 20,000 losers were outsiders. A few of these were famous - Sir Freddie Laker, former tennis player Buster Mottram, Tory MP Paul Marland - and some of the "non-working" investors could certainly afford to lose the odd million. But most of those who have lost do not seem to have seen becoming a Name as being a particularly large or reckless gamble. They might just as well have been putting their money in bonds or unit trusts. Many were only putting their relatively modest wealth with Lloyd's because of an effective recruitment drive in the Eighties which saw 22,000 new Names between 1982 and 1990 (and the minimum wealth requirement for Names reduced from assets of £250,000 to assets of £37,500).
How it all went wrong is still a matter of controversy - and litigation - but the bare bones are relatively clear. A succession of unexpected "super-claims" - Piper Alpha, Hurricane Hugo, Exxon Valdez, asbestosis - found a number of key underwriting syndicates disastrously exposed. In most cases, it was the non-working Names who bore the brunt. Big or small, well-known or unknown, they all became victims of a market that in some cases appears to have been hijacked by a small number of occasionally negligent and often not very bright individuals whose interests were divorced from those of the Names they represented.
To the outsider, it is all relatively clear, but to the Names themselves it has been bewildering, and in Chobham, at least, no one seems to have a clear idea of how they should now react.
Francis Higgins, a retired finance director, is keeping faith with Lloyd's and remaining a Name, despite having lost £50,000 every year since he joined in 1988. So is one of his neighbours, a retired solicitor, who vividly recalled for me the sinking feeling he experienced in 1990 when, looking out of a bedroom window in his Georgian house and counting the trees in the garden, he began to calculate his losses for the first time. But most of the other Chobham Names have now left Lloyd's, wary of agents handing them a glass of sherry at the back of an AGM and talking about more prosperous times. Michael Brooke, an entrepreneur specialising in computers who holds annual bridge parties in aid of the NSPCC, left in 1989 after 17 years. He would have left earlier if his syndicate managers hadn't tried to talk him out of it, making him miss the deadline, and trapping him for the first of the bad years. None the less, with claimed losses of only £25,000, Mr Brooke is the least affected non-working Name in Chobham. (There is one Chobhamite who was a working Name, but he pulled out in 1988 and thus avoided all the losses. Needless to say, his good fortune does not seem to have endeared him to Chobham's other Names.)
Elsewhere in the village, there is a sense of helpless despair. There have not been any suicides as yet, although Michael Brooke blames Lloyd's for the early death of a friend outside the village. However, such future tragedies cannot be discounted for as long as so many villagers continue to dread the arrival of the postman bearing the next white Lloyd's envelope.
Some think the only escape is to spend any money they have left as quickly as possible, so that there is nothing more for Lloyd's to take. Others are hoping that pending legal actions against Lloyd's may yet get them off the hook. That is one reason, of course, for their general reluctance to discuss their predicament. But there is also a more deep-seated reason: a kind of shame. Rightly or wrongly, to be a Name is to be stigmatised, as well as finan- cially clobbered.
QUITE WHY today's lottery-obsessed society should be unsympathetic to people whose only sins were that they wanted to make money and that their luck ran out is not clear. But it is. There is a substantial body of opinion in Britain - and in Chobham - that holds that Lloyd's Names deserve all the suffering they have got. In a sense, it is this factor that has turned their calamity into a tragedy. Now that the chips are down, communities aren't rallying round.
Instead, there are whisperings to the effect that the Names who have lost are, at best, simpletons who have allowed themselves to be badly advised; or, at worst, unprincipled "haves" who have gone on for years about how the "have-nots" should be stoical about their poverty but who suddenly cry foul when faced with poverty themselves. No doubt such whisperings are largely attributable to envy of the Names' original wealth, but lack of sympathy for the Names is not confined to the poor. One Chobhamite, a retired oil executive with a reputation as a stalwart of the church, told me brusquely: "No one with average intelligence would invest sums of money without ensuring that they were off-setting the possibilities of losses against the possibilities of gain."
Joy Mason, the local historian, a daughter of a city man of farming stock and the author of two books about the village, has a reputation for plain speaking, as well as an interest in community issues, having moved to Chobham 50 years ago. She blames rich people like Lloyd's Names for causing an exodus of young people from the village, by buying and gentrifying houses that used to be cottages and so pushing them out of ordinary people's price range.
"We do tend to get a lot of Lloyd's Names, and we certainly didn't used to," she says, sounding rather like a PG Wodehouse aunt. "I do not hobnob with them. I just think they got their fingers burnt, and that's it. If you can't afford for that to happen, you don't do it, do you? I feel much more sorry for a young family who get dispossessed because the husband loses his job. It's not their fault, whereas these other people, they go into it with their eyes open, or they should do, and if they don't, well, hard luck. I don't have any sympathy with them at all."
Such views are echoed, with varying degrees of sympathy, throughout the village. Seventy-three-year-old Dorothy Coleman, another Chobhamite of the old school, went into service at the age of 14, spent the war making panels for Wellington bombers for £5 a week, and spent much of her subsequent working life as a cleaner. "I would never dabble on the stock market because I have worked too hard for my money," she says. "You've got to save with the Post Office or building society, something really safe, because shares go up and down. I do feel sorry for the Lloyd's people because they thought they were set up for life. But they tell you when you speculate that it can go up and down, so you've got to bear that in mind."
Sally Pedlow, a barmaid at the Sun Inn, has heard that one of her regulars may lose his house because of Lloyd's. "Although I do feel sorry for him, and others like him, they have had lots of good times. I feel sorry if they lose their homes, but it's only a qualified sympathy, because I think there is an element of greed. You should never put all your eggs in one basket, and you shouldn't moan too much if you come a cropper."
Even the vicar, the Rev Salmon, is far from effusive with his sympathy. "When you have made a mistake, and know it, you don't need to have it pointed out to you. If you do, your other half will tell you." There is compassion in his voice, though. He knows that the last thing Lloyd's Names need is a lecture from the pulpit.
AT A LADBROKES betting-shop a few minutes' drive from Chobham, a stewards' inquiry has just failed to disqualify King's Cross, the 14-1 winner in the 4.35pm at Wincanton, and an elderly man in glasses is standing blinking at the screen, fulminating at the unfairness of the decision which has robbed him of potential winnings of £100. His total losses for the day are £40, to compound his loss of £100 the previous day. He can ill afford these losses - his wife has to work to pay the mortgage on the cottage they bought when he left the Army - and realises that they are more or less inevitable. "The day you see a bookie going round on a bicycle is the day you know the punter is winning," he says. Even so, he will probably be back tomorrow.
He asks me not to identify him - just as most of the Names I have spoken to have already done. Is his predicament comparable to theirs? He shrugs his shoulders: to him, the Lloyd's losers are shadowy figures from an undreamt-of world. Then he rushes off to catch his bus home to Chobham before his working wife discovers where he has been. "She abhors any form of gambling, and she'll make merry hell if I'm not back before she is."
Back in the village, Norman Hill, an unemployed council tenant, is in slightly higher spirits. He too has paid a visit to the bookie this afternoon - and has come away with winnings of £50 after Home From The Hill came home at 10-1 in the 1.50pm at Huntingdon. It is handy money: his weekly income is £50.48, made up of social security and (until he died earlier in the week) a care allowance for looking after an elderly lodger. His council house on the outskirts of Chobham is primitive, with the cooker and fridge competing for space in one room with two chairs and a table. He has lived in this box for 16 years, the last three with no job, and with little prospect at the age of 50 of any future work, partly because he cannot read or write (although he did manage to pick out Wincanton and Huntingdon from the previous day's Mirror). His financial speculations are not usually as successful as they have been today.
Ten days ago, a High Court ruling cleared the way for 1,594 Names involved in the Feltrim syndicate to recover "a substantial proportion" of the £525m they lost through the syndicate between 1987 and 1989, by suing the agencies who managed the syndicates on the grounds of negligence. A ruling last October offered similar hope to more than 3,000 Gooda Walker Names. For Chobham's 18 loss-making Names - and thousands of others around the country - such rulings raise a possibility that has been in many of their thoughts all along: that one day they may wake up and find that it really has, in effect, been nothing but a bad dream. For the Chobhamites who patronise Ladbrokes such fantasies of last-minute reprieves will always remain fantasies.
Mr Hill doesn't begrudge the Names their money, but he does begrudge the class system which gives the impression that middle- class money - Lloyd's money - will always be considered preferable to his own. He recalls Barclays Bank refusing to give him an account once when he was out of work but had won £500 on the horses. He opened one instead with the Trustee Savings Bank, but they closed it shortly afterwards when he went £1.69 overdrawn. "The difference between me and the Lloyd's people is that I don't get the same respect," he said. "If I lose out on a treble, that's life. In the same way, if they lose their house, that's their fault. But they still get treated differently. I sometimes used to go to restaurants in a friend's smart car, and it was amazing the difference it made to the service. Just because these people talk posh, why should they be treated any differently? They don't care about us, so why should we care about them when they're in trouble?" !Reuse content