The Trade Journalist we deserved
Trevor Tarring, who died at the end of April aged 90, was a towering figure in the metals industry, and a great friend of the MMTA. However, he was never too great a friend to be influenced in the discovery of price.
In an article written in 2018 for ‘Lord Copper’, entitled ‘Long Ago and Far Away’, he recalled his early years at the London Metal Bulletin which he joined in 1953 where his father had been employed since 1920.
“Father promptly put me on to minor metals and ores. A year or so later the last of UK wartime price controls, on ferro-alloys, were lifted and I got that sector as well. “
Aside from editing Metal Bulletin, his father, Leslie, had written, with Harry Cordero (joint editor), one of the great bibles of metal history entitled Babylon to Birmingham. So, you could say that Trevor was not only born into the trade but into its history too.
The stability of MB as a leading trade journal, then privately owned by the Rice-Oxley family, allowed for both the
Tarrings and Corderos to employ their sons, thus passing on knowledge seamlessly. By the time Trevor retired in 1999, MB had been run by one Tarring or another for 79 years. It was something for which he was to receive the MBE in 1992 for services to the metal trade.
A discussion with Trevor, with my ten words to every one of Trevor’s, would inevitably turn to past events in the world of metal. Trevor’s implied opinion on our industry, gleaned from his books and articles, was that everything that could happen most probably already had. I once mentioned I was giving a talk in the U.S. about great figures in the metal trade who were more powerful than sovereign governments – to which he simply replied ‘Fuggers’. This was a reference to the German renaissance family who lent money to the Habsburgs in return for which they obtained concessions of silver and copper in Tyrol. You learned to listen carefully when Trevor was in the room.
One of his legacies specific to the minor metal trade was the establishment of authoritative published prices in minor metals. In 1953 ours was a by-product sector of a much bigger trade, often not valued by the generator, and merely regarded as a necessary nuisance in base metal offices in London. The minor metals desk was usually consigned to a corner and sometimes the bosses to their cost did not take much interest until something went wrong. This happened in a catastrophic way when Simon Hicks who had dominated the tungsten market for almost two decades bankrupted the august firm of LME brokers of which he was an employee (Metal Traders Ltd) in 1972.
But as the trade in minor metals expanded in the 2nd half of the 20th century, the need for transparency of price was essential. In those days, just ahead of the mega-growth at the invention of the nickel-cadmium battery, those two elements as well as antimony, magnesium, bismuth, selenium and mercury formed the backbone in 1973 of metals as governed by the newly formed MMTA.
In those days, the two key months in the minor metals calendar were the twice-yearly spring and autumn Canton Fairs when The People’s Republic would make annual state-run sales. It was MBs and Tarring’s achievement that the prices thus promulgated could be trusted as much by the Soviets, the Chinese Communist Party and traders in London. His prices were sufficient grounds on which to base long term contracts. I would even argue that the MMTA could not have grown in an orderly way without this confidence which was encouraged by the high standard Trevor set.
A former reporter who joined MB in 1987, described how Trevor remained ever involved in what went on in the office even after the MB float on the London Stock Exchange.
“When Chairman”, she said, “he still liked to be involved with the reporters. He had a massive list of contacts, and each reporter, with their own set of metals, used these and added more, as time went by. At pricing time, between midday and one o’clock on a Tuesday and Thursday, reporters were glued to their phones, contacting the requisite percentage of consumers, producers, and traders to get a balanced view of the market and set impartial prices. The minor and noble metals were handled by the editor or deputy editor, due to their importance. And Trevor was always available for advice.”
It is possible to argue that the standard he set is what allowed London to retain its pre-eminent position as the centre of the world metal trade.
Trevor studied English at Brasenose College Oxford – and it showed. I remember once sharing an article I’d written in which I committed the howler of writing the word ‘rooves’ (as the plural of roof) when it should have been ‘roofs’. I never made that mistake again.
Trevor’s love of English stretched to limericks which he often composed and jotted down on a napkin when amongst company, and then recited at the appropriate moment. He delivered one such jewel at my father’s 75th. I asked his daughter Emma whether she could share one with me for this piece, but she lamented they may have died with him. But who knows? Maybe a cache will be found.
In the late 1990s it so happened I was writing a column for MB about metal hunting in the post-Soviet world, while Trevor committed his commentary to a column under the nom de plume of ‘Janus’. Our regular columns, opposite each other in the magazine, permitted us to send each other drafts for discussion. Trevor’s choice of name was interesting, as it was the name of the Roman god of transitions. Depicted in medieval English literature as an old man with a white forked beard, the name symbolised Trevor’s intellectual rigour always to examine an issue from both sides of the argument!
In the early 2000s Trevor was employed as consultant to the MMTA when we attempted to make representations in the EU as regards the oncoming juggernaut of the EU Chemical Directive. As history relates, despite metaphorically lying down in the middle of the road in front of this vehicle, we did not succeed one jot in obtaining any exemptions. Trevor’s sardonic observation of EU bureaucracy was that the Commission’s proliferation of law was ‘an exercise in Utopianism’.
Now that Trevor is gone, I would recommend that anyone interested in his work should take the time to read some of the books with which he was involved. My personal favourite is ‘Corner! A Century of Market Manipulation’ (1997), which in twelve chapters tells twelve stories of hubristic greed and ultimately unsuccessful attempts at cornering various metals markets.
The glaring characters have gone into history – Secretan (copper and tin), Ronald Prain, (copper) Nelson Bunker Hunt (silver) and Simon Hicks (tungsten) are four of them, but their stories have only been recorded in detail because while we metal traders were too busy, Trevor was unpicking the causes and effects of the various metal heists.
Trevor was a man of many parts, and one of them was car parts. It would not be possible to talk of Trevor without recalling his passion for vintage Frazer Nash vehicles of which he once owned two. Unlike classic cars, these were for touring and using. Garaged at his house at Robin Hill on St George’s Hill he lived in walking distance from the famous Brooklands Racetrack in Weybridge.
Nothing gave him more pleasure – perhaps other than reporting on the metal markets – than to be fettling with his motor. Lunch in later years involved him popping over to our office in Hampton Court preceded by the puffing and spluttering that went with the open top vehicle. He was Captain of the Frazer Nash Club between 1984-87 and, with Mark Joseland, wrote the history of the marque.
All of us who aspire to high standards will miss Trevor and remember how much our trade owes to him and the reporters he nurtured.
By Anthony Lipmann