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It was the biggest scandal of the Eighties.
Inside information learned on the golf course is commonplace. In 1973, two leading executives in the insurance market and both of whom were Lloyd's men, were talking. Roger Bradley warns Rokeby-Johnson:
(*) "Asbestosis is going to change the wealth of nations. It will bankrupt Lloyd's of London and there is nothing we can do to stop it."
This knowledge didn't deter unscrupulous syndicates from roping in more people to become 'Names' - people who could ill-afford to underwrite the huge losses which were to come.
(*) By the late Nineties, the wealth of nations may not have changed dramatically, but Lloyd's fundamental character has changed, and thousands of Lloyd's investors - the so-called Names who pledge all their personal wealth to underwrite insurance policies issued by Lloyd's syndicates - have been ruined.
The Book - An Absolute Scandal:
Set in the Eighties, victims of the Lloyd's debacle find themselves brought together to fight what they consider has been a massive swindle. They believe Lloyd's - or more correctly, some of their dubious syndicates - duped them into becoming Names by fraudulently misrepresenting its profitability and concealing the ruinous asbestosis losses that were in the pipeline.
Do they have a case? It would appear they had.
Vincenzi's characters are fabulous. From the obviously upper middle-classes to the genteel, widowed little old ladies of slender financial resources, we are quickly drawn into their plight as they battle to save themselves and their families from penury.
The carefully worded letters from Lloyd's syndicates drop with an ominous thud onto the mats of Simon Beaumont, Flora Fielding and Nigel Cowper. Their losses start quietly enough but will esculate yearly until, even with nothing left to sell, and worse, even if they are dead, Lloyds will require that the victims and/or their families continue to underwrite their losses.
If you know anything at all about the Lloyd's Names and their ruin, what was your reaction?
No sympathy with the plummy-toned bleats of greedy investors? They have to take the rough with the smooth? Lived like fat cats for long enough and now have to fall back into the real world like the rest of us?
Maybe. But after reading An Absolute Scandal I have to say that not only did I learn something of the human tragedy behind the Lloyd's fiasco, I actually felt sympathy for them.
Of course, the characters are not real. Vincenzi has ensured that her characters are deserving of our sympathy. They are, to a man, 'good eggs'. In real-life, I'm sure that some of those fallen 'Names' might have appeared to have deserved all they got but personalities aside, some of those drawn into the Lloyds debacle should never have been approached and invited at all. Little old ladies with a bit of a nest egg are not in the same league at all as those with vast amounts of wealth which might just save them a long drop.
Imagine, for a moment, if you won the Lotto. You are able to buy a lovely big house, perhaps another one abroad. Maybe you'd buy a flashy car and send your kids to a nice fee-paying school where they learn to talk nicely and mix with the 'best' of people.
Your life is transformed. The essential 'you' has not changed but you are now comfortable, have no financial worries and life is good.
Does that make you greedy?
Then along comes someone who pulls the rug out from under you and says your's wasn't the winning ticket after all. You try to hold steady for the sake of your family. But within a year you have had to sell everything, taken the kids out of their nice schools and your mum out of her nice, warm grannie-flat and put in her council house on a sink-estate.
Should we feel sorry for you? Who's fault is it? Did you deserve it?
Penny Vincenzi's novel has a staggering 756 pages and it took me a little over 3 days almost non-stop reading to finish it. That in itself must tell you that it's a page-turner. Unlike similar huge books, I can't think where she might have pruned the story down to a more manageable size. Indeed, if I have a criticism at all, it is that she uses the tactic of the Epilogue to round up her character's stories nicely. But, obviously, she had to bring the story to a close sometime. It was well done, but so engrossed had I become in the character's lives I would quite happily have read four more books the size of this one if it meant I could continue to read about the characters.
It was fun to see the 'posh' characters mix with ex-barrow-boys and rich Eastenders. In fact, anyone who had a 'flutter' with Lloyds from banking executives to fast-talking wide-boys with shrewd financial brains who went on to become City Slickers (remember those?) finds a place in this marvellous story.
Vincenzi sets a cracking pace with high drama and, at times, moving scenes. The twists and turns as our Lloyd's victims prepare to fight their case is powerfully gripping.
© Louise Saunders
It was one of the biggest scandals of the 80s. Lloyds. It started with just a few requests for money from various Names. And then the demands got bigger. And bigger. Until thousands of people, some rich, most of them just comfortably off, found their lives ruined, homes gone, relationships wrecked. All because of money. When you do have it, its value isn't that important. When you don't - it's everything. Set against the glittering, adrenaline-fuelled last days of the 80s, AN ABSOLUTE SCANDAL is the ultimate story of the rise and fall in the fortunes of a group of people- and the scandal whose effects were felt across the board. With devastating results ..