Matthew Norman: 'Tis the season to resent success of others

The contrast between City bonuses and the grim affairs in Ipswich is hard to avoid
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The Independent Online

I am seeking an investor for an exciting dotcom start-up. FriendsRedivided.com will be the hottest new website of 2007, catering for people who were recently delighted to catch up with schoolmates they hadn't seen for ages, but are now keen to rant poisonously about them on the internet.

There is only one flaw in what is, with all modesty, an otherwise flawless business plan, but sadly it's a killer. The only person I know who could provide the measly few millions needed to get it going also happens to be the person about whom, for reasons that reflect badly only on myself, I wish so poisonously to rant.

His name is Michael Sherwood, and as joint chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs he is one of those rumoured to be the City of London's first recipient of a £50m Christmas bonus. He isn't the favourite (that honour falls to a trader called Driss Ben-Brahim), but he is in the frame. And even if he isn't the mysterious figure who has turned every inhabitant of the square mile into a currency speculator, he must have picked up tens of millions from a Goldman Sachs bonus pot of £8.3bn.

The Michael I remember from childhood went to the same north London prep school, a wilfully eccentric educational establishment in Hampstead (where else?) run by a fierce Irish semi-hippy who forced us to perform excruciating bad mime wearing only a jock strap, incessantly read us the poetry of Khalil Gibran in English lessons, and once angrily asserted: "I never, ever smoke dope ... in class."

Now very often, it seems to me, there is something in the old Jesuitical saw that goes "show me the boy of seven and I will show you the man". With another contemporary, the adage unquestionably held true. To pay the seven-year-old Matthew Freud 5p for a two-minute bash on the drum kit he kept at the top of the school was to know that his chutzpah and financial acuity would one day make him a rich and powerful man.

With Michael, there were no such clues. Even on his parents' tennis court, on which he took the part of Jimmy Connors to my Arthur Ashe, there was little hint of the Connors-esque focus and ruthlessness I assume a person requires to make the upper echelons of The Sunday Times Rich List before middle age. He was a cheeky, feisty little fellow, obviously bright without being a genius, and until a couple of years ago I did no more than occasionally wonder what had become of him in the almost 25 years since we last traded top-spin forehands.

Then he rang out of the blue, and we met for lunch in a gastropub near his head office in Fleet Street - the ideal symbolic venue to reflect the relative affluence of our respective trades, in fact, the merchant banks flush with swollen post-Big Bang profits having moved in when the newspapers moved out to pastures cheaper.

This is where things become tricky. Every instinct in my body, and very possibly in those of any reader who hasn't just trousered a brace of crimson Ferraris for sitting at a computer screen enjoying some form of no-lose gambling, screams "obscenity" on reading about the Fifty Million Pound Man of Goldman Sachs. It would be all too easy to make a seasonal theme out of this, raising the spectre of the Baby Jesus surmounting that difficult start in life to chuck the money lenders out of the temple and compare a City bonus hound's ease of heavenly access with that of a dromedary passing through a famously narrow Jerusalem gateway. But while God may be for life, He is certainly not for Christmas. This calendrical point is replete with phoney expressions of Jesusy sentiment already, without dragging His proto-Marxist leanings out of their 11-month hibernation for makeshift use as a mallet with which to beat a City banker around the head.

Admittedly, the timing of the bonus revelations isn't great on a couple of other grounds. The fact that the cleaners at Goldman Sachs - probably African immigrants like the Moroccan-born Mr Ben-Brahim - are poised to vote on whether to strike over an increased workload for no extra money will seem an unhelpful coincidence to the bank's PR department. It's hardly a ringing tribute to "trickledown" economics. And with events in Suffolk dominating everyone's thoughts, the contrast between gargantuan bonuses for what some Old Testament lefties still regard as nothing more than a branch of whoring, and those poor young mothers in Ipswich risking death by selling themselves for a £15 bag of heroin, isn't easy to avoid.

And yet it is almost as difficult, for all the recent debate about "relative poverty", to conceive how stopping, capping or supertaxing these bonuses would improve the lot of Nigerian cleaners, who would continue to be overworked on the minimum wage; and harder still to believe the Treasury would hypothecate any additional tax into the sort of drug rehabilitation schemes and intensive policing that might just prevent future gruesome tragedies in Ipswich.

I cannot deny succumbing, every time these bloody bonuses hit the news, to a nostalgic fantasy about the late-1960s Britain of Harold Wilson in which unearned income (and what else are these bonuses?) was taxed at 19 shillings and sixpence in the pound. But what would the return of punitive taxation achieve other than to send Goldman Sachs and the other banks fleeing to New York, Hamburg or wherever? And the consequences of that for a national economy built on little more than servicing the City of London and its myriad plutocrats would be catastrophic.

We voted for Margaret Thatcher and her successors to make this economic bed for us, and in the absence of an electable party with any intention of changing the sheets we have no choice but to lie in it. A barely fettered free-market economy, with a little redistributive tinkering at the margins, is the system of consensus now and for the foreseeable future, and those of us who find aspects of it fairly loathsome might as well stop whistling in the wind and move to Denmark.

As for the Michael Sherwood of our lunch, I cannot put into words how much I wanted to dislike and even feel superior to him, but the opposite was the case. In fact he seemed just as I remembered him, chunkier like myself, but a clever, likable chap who talked quietly and without grandeur or any detectable craving for an ermine robe about his involvement in charities set up to help children born into areas of urban deprivation. Jealousy is a splendid human emotion, and in my trade more than most, you wouldn't want to be without it for a moment. But this is absolutely the last time of year disingenuously to confuse raw envy with real concern for those less fortunate than ourselves.

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