Real or Beachcomber?

25 Feb

If you edit business copy, here’s a bit of a challenge. Which one of these quotes is not like the others?

(1) “The decision to exit the US is not unexpected and the main focus of these results will therefore be upon the shift in strategy to focus on generating positive free cash flow. We think that this will be taken well by the market, especially as it signals the end of the space race in the UK. We believe that there are three prime drivers of shareholder value: UK recovery; lower capital expenditure and higher returns; and the online opportunity.”

(2) “We expect this appointment to trigger sell-side speculation that this will herald a material shift in business from investment banking towards retail and business operations, mathematically leading to greater stability and quality of earnings, a stronger balance sheet, larger shareholder distributions and higher ROEs and P/E multiples.”

(3) “The early trustee issue, already over-subscribed in some quarters, is to be released for repayment of the special redeemable stock, in short-term loans on ordinary holdings. Securities released on corresponding profits could very easily be used at exchange rates, by covering shortfalls. But this is not being done. Why? Simply because those who might balance the offering of dollars have not the guts to support at lower levels the demand for cumulative preference releases.”

(4) “… to restore the optics, credibility and trust of shareholders and its customers, I thought it was essential that an external candidate was appointed. I am sure that staff will be delighted and they will feel that they can all get behind him. This will be essential as the cumulo-nimbus clouds of concern gather over the entire banking sector. What will be important is the next tranche of management to be appointed. That may help to narrow the optics and credibility gap.”

The answer? It’s number three. All the others come from genuine City analysts providing quotes in response to news events over the last two years. The third one was written by the humourist J B Morton, aka Beachcomber, as a joke, about 50 years ago.

When I first read that little piece as a teenager – part of an occasional “In The City” strand that would appear now and then in Beachcomber’s column in the Express – I found it baffling and funny. Now, as a desensitised veteran who has spent eight years subbing financial news, I find it alarmingly convincing. Of course, Morton has some form when it comes to prescience: he was, as Richard Ingrams points out, the man who “invented the electric toothbrush, as a joke, only to see it become a fact of life”. But this is uncanny.

By all accounts an explosive and metrophobic character, Morton could be truly scathing in print about the things he disliked, such as socialism or public schools (“Pray take my place in the lifeboat,/’Tis a gesture I willingly make,/Since I fagged for your nephew at Repton,/It’s the least I might do for his sake”). But his gift for parody could be so accurate and deadpan that you sometimes half-believe – for example, when the column threw up an unexpected  sonnet or a supposed memoir on the Belle Epoque*  – that he might be meaning it seriously.

He is the only writer I know who satirises City journalism; at any rate, the only one who goes beyond mere expostulation at corporate-speak and jargon. But more than that: of all the comic writers I’ve read, he is the one who understands best that parody and satire are separate disciplines; that a distinctive style or register can be a strange thing of beauty in its own right; and that, absent satire, the best parody is written with something much closer to enthusiasm than scorn.

* “The sun sinks. The cafe teems with life.

Ah, Paris!

A clock in the rue Manet strikes six-thirty,  and I think of those words of de Gourmont.”

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