My lost afternoon as the world (and I) teetered on the brink
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His job at an investment bank gave Neil Fredrik Jensen a ringside seat when the 2008 crash. But the extraordinary turmoil also led to a chilling, life-changing experience.
As various commentators and business folk muse on the ten year-anniversary of the banking crash, which laid low so many financial giants and left the world teetering on the brink of the abyss, the coverage has left me reliving my own memories of that fateful autumn. And, in particular, one of the most traumatic experiences of my own life, one that ended with me sitting by London Bridge, staring into the River Thames, unaware of how I had arrived at that spot and why I had walked out of the investment bank where I worked. The beginning of the crisis felt, even then, like a watershed moment.
At the time, I was working for a major financial institution as an in-house journalist, rather than a banker, yet it was a role that gave me a ring-side seat as events escalated. I wrote a lot about what was going on in the industry, the bank and the broader economy. I spoke to bankers and was immersed in general communications issues that gave me access to the insights of very senior folk. In some ways, I had too much information in my head about what might happen and it scared me.
Every Monday I would attend a business briefing meeting which involved bankers, senior management and members of the research team. These meetings became more and more grim as the crisis unfolded. Although the bare facts were facing us all, there was also an element of denial, a vain hope that things would work themselves out. Rumours abounded that certain banks were in deep trouble, but we were told our employer would emerge as one of the stronger institutions in the post-crisis world.
I am sure that similar briefings were being given to staff at Lehman Brothers, and it was their collapse, in the middle of September 2008, which moved things to another level. It made clear that this was not like crises which had gone before. That it was on another scale altogether. Some of us knew people at Lehman. All of us knew what it meant, though.
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Amid the fevered atmosphere in the City and skittish markets, there were rumblings, repeatedly, that my employer was also in trouble. After one particularly troubling day, which saw the share price tumble, I became very anxious about my own welfare. I was, after all, now looking towards the end of my career and my pension. Savings, investments, as well as my income, were all dependent on my employer. This anxiety steam-rollered to a point where I could no longer be rational about the crisis that was now gripping the world.
In October, this neurosis consumed me and I had a couple of episodes of hyper-ventilation. I was not sleeping and would watch Bloomberg TV and CNN way into the night, trying to gain some comfort from the commentary. So exhausted did I become I was convinced I was going to become very ill. But the fear that was growing in me was the prospect of a complete breakdown of society, troops on the street and a very dystopian future.
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I called it my 'mud huts theory' and pretty soon, I was telling everyone around me that Britain, indeed the world, was doomed. I even toyed with the idea of stocking-up with tinned food and storing it in my garden. One friend, unable to take me seriously, given he had listened to me worry about the fear of returning to poverty for years, joked: 'Don't forget a tin opener!'
Just before the UK government took control of its troubled banks – and ultimately calmed things down – I attended a banking conference in London to report on the event.
There were white-faced bankers all around and the water-cooler dialogue was hushed and full of rumours. 'It's going to blow if we're not careful,' was the comment made by one banker. 'Jesus Christ,' I said to myself. 'I've worked for 33 years and I could lose everything.'
I couldn't deal with it anymore and the next day, I walked out of the office, dishevelled and disorientated. I don't know what my game plan was, but I went into the church by Liverpool Street station. I sat, wondering what to do next, but I could not think straight. I even thought that perhaps my family might be better off if I committed suicide.
What happened next remains a complete mystery to me. All I know for certain is that at one point I must have spoken to a charity collector, because several months later I was contacted by the charity after 'a recent discussion in the street'.
Eventually, some 90 minutes after leaving the church, I was sitting on some steps by London Bridge, where a police officer asked me what was I doing.
Dazed and confused, I was taken back to my office in New Broad Street by the officer and then sent home. I went to see my GP that afternoon and was signed off for a month due to depression. He also referred me to a psychiatrist. My blood pressure was soaring and I was in a state of panic. For the first time in my life, I was given tablets, some sedatives, and I slept for the first time in a week.
I was far from healed, though. A few days later, I apprehensively visited a psychiatrist, an amiable and foppish South African, was marvellous. He identified that I had been through what was called 'amnesiatic fugue', which admittedly sounds like a prog-rock track by Yes or King Crimson, but was a temporary condition brought on by trauma. He helped me get my mind straight and better equipped to tackle uncertainties. I really owe him a great deal.
My employer was terrific and the chief operating officer of my division even called to see how I was progressing. I was back at work within a fortnight, still very fragile but able to formulate a plan for the future.
That plan was simple – self preservation. I vowed to retire as soon as possible, pay-off my mortgage and ensure I remained debt-free. Within two years of my 'moment', I was able to look it in the eye and realise the crisis wasn't just mine. One huge positive about my own experience is that I am more understanding of mental illness (I had never had any issues previously – or, indeed, since) and people going through employment and poverty issues. Additional counselling has also helped deal with morbidity related to my 'doom and gloom' outlook.
But while I feel that I have been able to move on from the crisis, to learn from it and use it to protect myself from the possibility of future repeats, can the world honestly say the same thing?
Neil Fredrik Jensen is a freelance business and football writer. In his City career he worked for a number of major banks. He currently writes for a broad range of corporates and consultancy companies and is a columnist for two football publications and editor of the website www.gameofthepeople.com
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