Protestors against big money now organise guided tours of hedge funds and private equity firms.

One of the nice things about living in London is that, should the inconceivable happen and you start to feel a bit blasé about the city, a timely and well-chosen tour can shake you out of that state, whether it's by exploring the best street art of the East End, Charles Dickens' London, or even a tour of London regeneration projects. So when Occupy London, the city's arm of the global protest movement against economic inequality, announced free organised tours of the wealthy Mayfair district, home to many of its hedge funds and private equity firms, I was certainly curious. The campaign is under a bit of a shadow, with its main camp by St Paul's Cathedral at risk following an eviction order granted to the City of London Corporation (at the time of writing they were still at the camp, with several appeals in place). Occupy has responded to this legal challenge by branching out into new activities: its latest initiative has been to take over a disused school in the borough of Islington for an outreach programme it is dubbing the “School of Ideas”.

Likewise, the free tours — in Mayfair and banking centre Canary Wharf — are part of that effort, says one of the guides of the Mayfair tour, Liam, who teaches history at a school in the East London borough of Tower Hamlets. The protestors plan to take on The City, London's major financial centre, as well in the near future. “Modern finance is intangible to so many people. We wanted to show people where the deals get done… that they aren't mysterious happenings… something different,” he says.

Watchful cops

Different it certainly was. For one thing, how often on a city tour does one have a heavy police escort? Rather to the amusement of our two guides and the 20 or so smartly dressed Londoners who'd joined the tour, we were accompanied throughout by a police van and several officers. Our escorts were friendly — one quietly admitted that he was curious about what would be said and that it was funner than most alternatives such as policing a football game, at any rate — and the tour party took it in its stride. “Eleven police officers and a medic,” one young woman said triumphantly as we strode through the crowded streets, our guides carrying a megaphone and a tattered umbrella held high, while bemused tourists looked on.

We began the tour outside Aura, a high-end nightclub in the heart of Mayfair, known to be favoured by the hedge fund crowd, where our guides recount tales of decadence — the mention of a cocktail priced several thousand pounds at a nearby club provokes gasps from some in the group — and elitism. “However, the story is not just about the greed and extravagance but the wider forces at work,” says Liam, as we move on to the Burlington Arcade, a fine 19th century shopping centre just off Piccadilly, guarded by a uniformed man in a top hat. The “Beadles” were one of the earliest private police forces, says our guide, enforcing strict rules (no open umbrellas, no whistling, no prams in its hallowed hallway) and a precursor to the large private security forces policing areas such as Canary Wharf, he says. (We are let through, though our guides are not.) From this point, the tour grew more interesting — providing a snapshot of London's role in the global financial crisis.

Know your financial crisis

We stopped outside the London office of Paulson & Co, as our guides launched into a remarkably clear, yet nuanced explanation of short selling through role-play and the bet against British banks that had made the fund of John Paulson billions at the height of the crisis (in 2008, Paulson & Co emerged the biggest shorter of British banks, betting £292 million against the Royal Bank of Scotland alone, according to the Financial Times). “It's so good to know about these things,” exclaimed a woman in a black jacket and Palestinian scarf. She and several of those on the tour I spoke to were eager to learn more about a financial system they had strong reservations against but knew little of.

Outside the London office of Bain Capital, the private equity firm founded by US Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, we were treated to a rundown of the politician's recent gaffs (such as when he professed to liking “firing people”), and something I'd entirely missed: Rupert Murdoch's Twitter rant against Romney's tax position.

Moving on to various private equity headquarters, and thence to those of Glencore, our guides meticulously detailed the tax rates paid by the firm and its top executives, and other controversies.

We strode down Curzon Street, whose concentration of investors has earned it the nickname “hedge fund alley”, for what our guides described as the “scariest” part of the tour. We stopped by the headquarters of AIG Financial Products — a division of the American insurance giant that was unknown till a few years ago, but whose “financial ineptitude”, in the words of hedge fund manager and acclaimed author Michael Lewis, “is widely suspected of costing the US taxpayer $182.5 billion and counting”. A detailed explanation of credit default swaps followed, which was again received with great enthusiasm by the group.

Loss and wrath

Our stopover included Windrush Ventures — a firm I'd never heard of, but which turned out to be former Prime Minister Tony Blair's main trading company and the focus of many a newspaper article speculating about the “mystery” of his business structures.

We ended our two-hour tour at the US Embassy on Grosvenor Square. Keen to avoid a clichéd attack on the US, the guides focused on the more positive aspects: the civil rights movement and its hugely successful Occupy campaign, which pre-dated and inspired the British one. They ended with a reading from John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, which though published over 70 years ago is still seen as a harbinger of the current crisis. “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this,” Steinbeck wrote of the Great Depression, a message that many on the tour nodded to in vigorous agreement.

(This article was published on February 16, 2012)
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