The Clerk, the Finger and the Soviet Union
Updated: Jan 17
This article was written by David Gaddes. All views and opinions are strictly his own.
I just typed that title and immediately wondered: what happened to the word “clerk” in the English Language? To me it is a word that perfectly describes a working position in any clerical or supporting role. It has almost disappeared. Shame. These days it’s all Assistant Vice Presidents and any other such title which bears no relationship to that person’s position or what they practically do. Anyway, my story relates to my time as a clerk supporting the head of physical lead and zinc trading in my first job. We were one of the larger merchants of refined lead and zinc and our business with the former Soviet Union was substantial.
During the 1970’s the Soviet Union was a net buyer of lead and a net seller of zinc. During my service as a clerk, before I was promoted to trader, my duties included the preparation and checking of physical contracts and shipping documents. At the time of this story I had about four years experience in that position. Various young people who worked for the group around the world would come to London and be seconded to our department. The management would call me in and tell me that this person or that person is in London for six months to be trained and would I like to take them under my wing for a couple of weeks for them to learn the basics.
To be honest I hated this, although I did forge relationships with some of those people which proved very helpful as the years went by. The reason I hated training them is easily understood. I had enough to do each day and much of it on a deadline for work that could not be put to one side whilst I explained to the person how we did this, why and what was the importance of it. I complained to my boss about this and he said to me “ Delegate, David. Give him things to do”. Frankly, the very thought of this gave me nightmares but on the basis that we all have to start somewhere I would give that person selected contracts to look after so they could experience the practicalities as opposed to the text book.
At that time we had some large sales contracts of lead to the Soviet Union. An individual would come from Moscow to buy 5000 ton clips of refined lead often at a fixed price. The lead we sold would be on the basis FOB Rotterdam with payment by a Letter of Credit issued by Moscow Narodny Bank, King William Street, in London. In my wisdom and based upon the advice of my boss I delegated one of these contracts to a likeable young man who had just come from Paris. His English was not the best but it was streets ahead of my French. He spoke English with a heavy French accent as I did French with an awful English accent.
The Russian business was thin in terms of profitability and that profitability could easily be eroded if the Russian buyer was late nominating a vessel to be loaded in Rotterdam. The financing costs saw to that. They were always late nominating and this was a regular thorn in the side of the trader and management. One day I was standing near my desk with the gentleman from Paris sitting down opposite me. My boss came in and said to me “David, have the Russians nominated their vessel this month?” I turned to the young man from Paris and repeated the question. He responded “Not yet”, to which my boss said: “This is getting ridiculous. Tell them to pull their bloody finger out.” To the best of my recollection the language used was a bit more colourful than that but the implication was clear.
My boss then went on to ask me a series of questions about other contract files I was handling. There were several. The gentleman from Paris was on the telephone. To be honest, we were not paying too much attention to what he was doing until we heard a voice with a strong accent saying:
“Where is the vessel? This is getting ridiculous. You pull your bloody finger out!”
My boss and I stood there staring at the young man from Paris with our mouths open. He was using the same colourful language verbatim that my boss had used earlier. After what seemed like an eternity, my boss walked over to the desk and disconnected the phone call. It turned out that after hearing the boss’s statement about the late nomination of the vessel, the young man had decided to be proactive. So he had taken the book from my desk that held all of the telephone numbers for the organisation in Moscow that dealt with the imports and exports of the Soviet Union. He had dialled the first number listed and given that person both barrels over the late nomination of vessel. The telephone number he had used was the direct line of the President of the organisation.
The following day we received the nomination of the vessel. I am not sure if the telephone call had any impact on the nomination the following day, but I like to think it did. Twenty years later I was in Paris and heard that young man telling somebody in London to pull their finger out. As he said it in perfect English, we made eye contact. We both smiled.