BUNHILL: 'Acrid ink toad' - who am I talking about?
Sunday 23 February 1997
I have discovered an anagram generator on that modern convenience, the Internet. I hear anguished spluttering over the crossword. Quite right too: crossword-solvers should keep well away from modern conveniences, but they should let me have fun with the names of tycoons. It would, after all, have taken quite a while to find out that "idiot crank ad" and "addiction ark" are also anagrams of the great Roddick.
What else does our generator produce? Some names work well - some are quite hopeless. John Harvey-Jones produces just one anagram: Oh shove jar, Jenny. Richard Branson can be turned into the tasty-sounding "radish brain corn" or, if you bung an "I" in front of him, "horrid brainscan".
Bill Gates metamorphoses into the suitably lush "sable gilt", as well as the mundane but relevant "legal bits". Mohamed Al Fayed turns into "dead loaf mayhem".
None of these, however, match up to Donald Trump, who is a seam of anagrammatic gold. Most appropriate, given the extravagance of Trump Tower, is "Mr Untold Pad". But I think I prefer the Dickensian "Mr Dauntplod" or perhaps that aristocratic trio: Lord Dampnut, Lord Antdump and even Lord Mudpant.
My colleagues and I were sitting in the wig-powdering room trying to generate tycoons' names to go in the anagram generator. Strangely, given that our job is to write about business, we found this quite difficult. Richard Branson popped up immediately, followed some way behind by the other names I have used, along with Ernest Saunders and Tiny Rowland. None of them are famous because they are business people - they are famous because they are something else as well (campaigners, hot air balloonists etc). In the States you can be famous simply by being a big cheese in a big firm. Here you can't. Is that good or bad?
The Midas touch
Wig-powdering always makes me think about the good old days of Lloyd's, when it was a caff doling out Nescafe and a bit of insurance on the side. I have been reading a new volume, For Whom the Bell Tolls (Patrick Proctor, The Matching Press), which is a semi-fictional account of the traumas on the market.
Most of it is set in the present day, but there is some good stuff on the past and the colourful characters that inhabited it. After the Napoleonic Wars Lloyd's fell on hard times and, the book says: "One commentator described how distressed underwriters could be seen begging on the stairs of the House." More that changes, as we French say.
John Julius Angerstein was one of the underwriters who left the caff and set up their own building in Pope's Head Alley in 1769. He was an exotic type if you like: he was born in St Petersburg, reputedly the illegitimate son of Empress Anna of Russia and the merchant Andrew Poulett Thompson (What would today's tabloids make of that?). At 13 he was working in the City, and quickly built a huge fortune as a marine underwriter. His art collection formed the basis of the National Gallery and he sponsored the invention of the lifeboat. "His only lapse of judgment occurred at the age of 86 when he became infatuated with the Dowager Countess of Rothes, then in her fifties," the book reports. "They became engaged, he broke it off, and resolved a Breach of Promise threat by settling pounds 2,000 a year on her." He died five years later, at 91.
Character number two is William Mitchell (in our illustration). He specialised in insuring vessels with cargoes of gold bullion, running a risk of up to pounds 100,000 a voyage; single-handed, he rivalled the largest insurance companies.
But it was the way he made his original fortune that is so intriguing. First, he broke through a Danish blockade during the Napoleonic Wars to get to St Petersburg. There he bought great quantities of hemp and transported it back to be used as rigging by the Royal Navy. Then in 1812 he learned from his brother in Estonia that Napoleon had turned back from Moscow. No one else discovered this until three days later, during which time Mitchell sold forward vast quantities of Russian tallow - he made pounds 100,000 when the price tumbled. Clever or crooked? That's the eternal question in the City, isn't it?
When John Maynard Keynes said (if he did) that the government should pay people to dig holes in roads and fill them up again, he was diverting attention from the real masters of such activity - academics. That is not surprising, because he was an academic himself, but I'm sure he would have approved of a magnificent example of metaphorical hole-filling that was published this week.
"Financial Graphs in Corporate Annual Reports" is an analysis of 300 company reports by academics from the University of Stirling and Cardiff Business School. It is exhaustive: "column graphs represented 63 per cent of all graphs; 59 per cent of all time series graphs were for five years..." and so on. Best of all is the bit where they got the protractors out and measured the slope of every graph. The steepest are in American annual reports; the shallowest are in German ones. Bet you wanted to know that.
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