RUM AND SLAVES

The colour of the money passing through the accounts of DeGris and Languedoc may be as green as in any other bank, but the colour of its customer’s blood is invariably blue. The company began life as a goldsmith’s and issued its first cheque in 1668. Today it serves a liberal scattering of the world’s royal families and literally dozens of dukes, archdukes, counts and earls. A fortune alone is not enough to persuade DeGris and Languedoc to open its doors to a customer. Breeding, here at least, still counts.

From the street the bank’s London headquarters appear a model of understatement as it nestles, almost unnoticed, a stone’s throw from Threadneedle Street’s Old Lady. Three granite steps, worn smooth, lead to a pair of slim, unassuming doors that open onto a richly-carpeted and oak-panelled foyer that speaks of deep, deep wealth. When the doors close, modern London disappears and what remains is the sense of permanence, power and, of course, discretion. A few moments in one of the deep, comfortably worn, leather armchairs that are scattered across the foyer and the cares of the outside world fade. This, you are left in no doubt, is an institution on which you can rely.

William Betancourt DeGris, the eleventh generation of DeGris to lead the bank since the founder James, strides through this space with an unmistakable air of command. He is a remarkable character for a number of reasons. His straight back and firm manner leave no one in any doubt that this former Coldstream Guard, who signed on as an ordinary trooper and rose to the rank of major, remains a forceful character. It is revealing, his friends and opponents tell me, that he prefers to be referred to by his relatively modest military rank rather than the long line of titles earned or bought by his predecessors. It signifies that despite the inherited dukedom, earldoms and baronies, this is a self made man. It also points to the fact that, though he has forsaken the battlefield (he saw action in Northern Ireland, Tehran and the first Texan War) he remains, at heart, a warrior.

I am struck, at once, by his candour.

“Rum and slaves,” he says when I ask about the bank’s longevity. When I suggest that, in this politically correct era, many organisations would be circumspect about admitting to such a past he shrugs it off, confident that his clientele are immune to such modishness.

“Can’t change more than three hundred years of history,” he says. “And wouldn’t want to.”

DeGris and Languedoc, no one here refers to the bank by the City vulgarism DG&L, reeks of the confidence of wealth and age. It permeates every corner of the surprisingly spacious building. The walls are lined with a collection of gilt-framed oil paintings that would shame many galleries. Major DeGris pauses briefly before “his favourite of the Rembrandts,” stiffening slightly as though this energetic man might salute the old master’s work.

But any sense that DeGris and Languedoc might somehow be caught in a timewarp is quickly dispelled by a glance into offices where bright young men sit behind arrays of computers that look as though they might be overseeing operations on some far-fetched NASA mission. It’s no surprise, then, that the first group I am introduced to all appear to have PhDs in mathematics or physics from places like MIT and Cambridge. They’re a polite, almost deferential, bunch who look instinctively to the Major for a lead when I ask questions. Once started, however, seem quite happy to chat openly about what they do, though I confess I’m quickly left in the dark by their jargon and their enthusiasm.

We move on and Major DeGris laughs affectionately about “his boys”. When I ask, though about how an institution like DeGris and Languedoc comes to terms with working with in the twenty-first century, his smile fades.

“It certainly wasn’t easy,” he says softy. He pauses in front of a door, opens it and ushers me inside. After the plush opulence of the rest of the bank, DeGris’s own office is almost Spartan. There is a large, plain desk in dark wood, lit by an incongruously modern angle-poise lamp and a slim portable PC humming on his desk. The dark wooden panelling is interrupted only by a portrait of the bank’s founder, James DeGris, that one might almost assume was intended as an insult, so aggressively, stereotypical is the portrayal of Jewishness beneath the crackled varnish. The modern Major settled himself into a stylishly modern office chair behind his desk and caught me looking at his forefather.

“Not actually a blood relation, you know,” he says with a bright grin. “The third earl was a bastard, apparently.”

“Which explains your blond hair?”

“Exactly,” the Major laughs. “Illegitimate, but reassuringly Aryan.”

“So why keep him here?”

“Oh, he was the best of all of them,” the Major’s smile is disarming and his admiration for the not-quite ancestor on the wall is obvious. “A fierce little bastard who made himself so indispensable to the ruling class that they had to choke on their racism. He practically bankrolled the whole country after Charles the second bankrupted the place with the third Dutch war. Without his support, who knows what would have happened to the Stuarts. The Dutch pretender might have won. It was a close run thing.”

I nod politely, but it’s the present I’m really interested in.

“You took over the bank at a difficult time,” I say.

The Major pauses, then he nods, conceding that a history lesson is not what I’m here for.
“We’d lost our way in the eighties,” he says. “We’d got too brash, too fierce. Too many people had watched Wall Street and thought it was something to aspire to. We had to get back to basics.”

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