Alex's 35th anniversary
The man behind Alex: ‘After a couple of glasses of wine, City people got indiscreet’ A new exhibition celebrates the cartoon antics of The Telegraph's very own investment banker and HR nightmare Alex Masterley By Alex Diggins
10 February 2022 • 10:14am
Brash banker Alex Masterley is a long-term feature of The Telegraph’s Business pages.
They don’t lunch ’em like they used to. That’s the conclusion Russell Taylor has come to after chronicling the City of London for over three decades in The Telegraph’s cartoon-strip Alex. The pinstripes have come and gone. Markets have crashed and rebounded. Bonuses have swelled agreeably with inflation. But, Taylor says, it’s the expense-account blowouts – or, rather, their demise – that are the true bellwether of change in the world’s foremost financial centre.
“After a couple of glasses of wine, people would get indiscreet, and tell me all sorts of stories,” he tells me. “But these days everything is recorded by compliance. People are terrified. Traditionally, I would go out to lunch, come back with notes scribbled in indecipherable handwriting after a couple of bottles of wine, and write some jokes.”
Put like that, it’s easy to see how Taylor and his creative partner Charles Peattie (who draws the four-panel comic strip) have kept Alex going. From this week, an exhibition at the Chris Beetles Gallery in St James’s celebrates 30 years of the cartoon in The Telegraph’s Business pages.
Alex is an unlikely mascot for the City. The Yuppie that never grew up, everyone in his world is crooked, dense or both, while their language would give HR the heebie-jeebies – and yet there’s a puppyish lovability to the character’s trenchant, unrepentant amorality. In fact, he’s become an inadvertent advert for City life.
“One of my City contacts,” Taylor recalls, “told me Alex was his moral compass! And sometimes we’ll meet graduate trainees who are named after him. They’ll tell me they been reading Alex since they were a kid. I’ll say: ‘So why are you here?’”
Conceived in 1987, Taylor and Peattie’s satirical creation – an investment banker at Megabank – originally ran in Robert Maxwell’s short-lived London Daily News, and then in the newly-launched Independent. A 28-year-old “freelance hack”, Taylor says he would never have dreamt of working for the “very old-school” Telegraph. He and Peattie imagined Alex as a product of the trendy New Labour days: “left-of-centre, but comfortable with making money”.
As were they. When The Telegraph offered them more money, they “jumped ship” in 1991. The character was inspired by a friend of Taylor’s from school, and Peattie’s brother who, at the time, was a banker. For many years, the two worked in the same room. Now they knock ideas back and forth over the internet. “It’s like an estranged marriage!” Taylor says. “But we both know what constitutes an Alex joke these days. It’s a cross-fertilisation of our senses of humour, what the business desk will let us get away with, and what we think readers would like.”
Taylor still feels his role is journalistic. And while the days of hoovering up City scoops alongside magnums of Château Lafite and filet mignon have largely vanished, Taylor still keeps his ear to the ground by reading the financial press and talking to his network of contacts and Alexophiles. It has, after all, been a busy few decades in the City, and from the fall of Communism to Covid-19, the 2008 crash to the great corporate awokening, Alex has had to reflect it all.
Unusually, the character has aged, allowing Taylor and Peattie to mine the shifting mores of the City – such as the generational divide between baby boomers and millennials – to rich effect. Covid, too, was “an absolute gift”. Taylor himself was hospitalised for a month with the disease, but he says: “Lockdowns were hilarious – all these bankers trying to work from home and p—ing off their wives, and their kids clogging up the broadband playing Fortnite. We’ve had great fun with it.”
Part of Alex’s success, too, is down to the delicate line that Taylor and Peattie walk. The cartoon may sit in the Business section, but it’s equally able to poke fun at that world. As Taylor puts it: “I like the fact that people don’t know where we’re coming from. All the characters are ridiculous, so people can’t work out whether we’re leftists trying to undermine Capitalism or apologists for the City of London.”
Are there topics they wouldn’t touch? “There are a few subjects it’s quite hard to write about these days,” Taylor replies. “You can’t write jokes about race or gender or sex, which is a shame because it’s interesting. People are very open to misinterpreting things, and thinking that because a character says something, that’s what the author believes too. But [The Telegraph] trusts that we’re not going to do anything too tasteless.”
How does Taylor feel about the 35-year anniversary? “It feels very strange. I never expected to be a cartoonist writing about the City. When you get to 35 years, you’re almost proud, but it does feel like a horribly long time.”
Suzette Field, a fellow artist and Taylor’s wife, agrees. “Alex is definitely the third person in our marriage. Even when we go on holiday, Russell can’t take his foot off the pedal, and Alex comes with us. It means we can never turn off from the world.”
Even so, Alex won’t be hanging up his pinstripes any time soon. “There will always be stuff to write about,” Taylor laughs. “So long as the world keeps changing, we’ll have plenty of material. Another 35 years, though? I don’t think Alex will be credible holding down a job at Megabank at that age.”