Part 10: Standing at the threshold
Retired metal merchant, Anthony Lipmann, illuminates trading for the young entering the world of metals.
As you pause at the threshold of your career, fearing there is little but a pension to look forward to, it is normal to feel trepidation. What will a lifetime in metals bring? Will you survive? How morally compromised will you be if you stick it out?
On the morning I accepted my first job in the metal trade in 1979, I received a letter from a London publishing house with an offer of a position. I did not take it, as I had already committed to metals. On that morning hung the next forty years of my working life. I had taken my metallic vows, there would be no changing of paths, no going back, and – specifically – no career in the arts.
Do I have regrets? I would say not. Becoming a metal merchant, I later felt, meant I had not killed the thing I loved, and still love. I am a luvvie at heart, you see, and a career in metals, you might find, does not prohibit attendance at the theatre, ballet, film, performance poetry or talks. Nor will it prevent you painting or sculpting, reading or writing.
What metals will do for you is allow you to acquire knowledge – much like Voltaire’s Candide does “in the best of all possible worlds”; in this case an industrial one.
Metal might not be anyone’s first ambition, but it will not be long before you become deeply interested in it. It may indeed provide insights into the engine room of the world.
In my first year of trade in 1979 during President Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the Iranian Hostage Crisis was one of those pivotal moments. While I sat at my desk, the Reuters teleprinter, what we called ‘the ticker’, gurgled out a report on light sensistive paper that carried just a single line. “Tehran: U.S. Helicopter shot down” followed by some asterisks which denoted the equivalent of today’s rolling news. Partial information, then and now, is a dangerous thing.
The news, if true, was potentially earth-shattering. The American military was not supposed to be in Iran. If indeed they were, the event had the potential to herald a new world war. The copper price, still quoted in £ sterling, rose by about £100 per ton. And as further news emerged, that it was not more than a bungled rescue attempt, copper fell back by almost the same amount. This was all in one day and I was beginning to get the idea of how metals such as copper lay at the base of our economies. How, as my boss used to say, it was the “bellwether of the market’” (the sheep with the bell on it). He also used to say it was all about fear and greed, and possibly sex (but I’m not clear about that one).
Soon I graduated to more nuanced views on the way elements and their applications provided the prism through which to see politics, war, economics and much more.
Eventually, in the 1990s, metals hunting took me to Russia where I had a front row seat from which to view the end of the Soviet Union. Closer to home it helped me to get to know bits of my home country that Surrey boys didn’t frequently visit – Sheffield, Teesside, Liverpool, Glasgow, Birmingham; to see yards where metal is separated, scrunched and manipulated into furnace-ready forms behind barbed-wired metal gates; where metal is cut, sheared, ground, shot-blasted, pickled, baled, acid treated, re-melted in open hearth furnaces. I got to think the sight of a chimney was a beautiful thing – because it meant industry and work.
And I came to see how metals pass from one state into another and back again. I saw applications I would never have dreamt of, such as how a single crystal is grown through a ceramic core into its perfect shape as a turbine blade. I had to pinch myself as I was invited to see Trent 1000 engines being put together on the production line at Rolls-Royce as fixtures stood on hangers in sealed plastic bags, each with the traceability of a medical drug.
All this metal has given me – and a pension.
Written by Anthony Lipmann