Julian Barnes fans may experience a sensation of dij` vu if they attend a performance of David Hare’s current Broadway hit, “Amy’s View.” In Hare’s play, the widowed actress Esme Allen is hoodwinked by her accountant, a Lloyd’s of London agent. As a result, she faces financial ruin. Sound familiar? Barnes, the author of “Flaubert’s Parrot,” wrote a 1993 New Yorker article, “The Deficit Millionaires,” about this very topic: how the insurance company purportedly bilked some of London’s most influential and famous citizens of millions of pounds with the same scam used on Esme Allen.
“The Deficit Millionaires” — which later appeared in a slightly different version in Barnes’ 1995 book of essays, “Letters from London” — also featured a woman very much like Esme, whom Barnes calls “The West County Widow.” Like Esme, the Widow loses her fortune as a result of following the advice of her accountant, a Lloyd’s agent. The agent urged her to invest in Lloyd’s by becoming a member (or underwriter), promising that she couldn’t lose a larger sum than the one she had underwritten. But like Esme Allen, the Widow had underwritten a policy that entailed unlimited liability — meaning that if there is a disaster, such as a plane crash, and subsequently someone sues, policies like Esme’s or the Widow’s have to dole out vast amounts of money, often much more than their original investment.
The correspondence becomes even more apparent in one snippet of dialogue in “Amy’s View,” when Esme recalls her impressions of Lloyd’s employees: “I actually noticed when I was a girl, all the thickest people one bumped into always seemed to be working at Lloyd’s,” she says. “There was one chap I knew, even the Church wouldn’t take him, but Lloyd’s — oh, Lord yes, no problem at all.” In Barnes’ essay, another underwriter has pretty much the same impression: “When I was growing up, the thickest men I knew went into Lloyd’s. I should have thought at the time. At school, I had a friend who couldn’t even get into the Navy. He took his maths O level five times and failed it five times. He joined Lloyd’s.”
Anglophiles will recognize this scandal from the early ’90s, a high-end financial crisis that struck many members of Britain’s Tory community, and even hit a few liberals, such as author Melvyn Bragg. Many British celebrities, too — from Prince Charles love interest Camilla Parker-Bowles to Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason to London mayoral candidate and novelist Jeffrey Archer — apparently suffered terrible losses due to their underwriting investments with Lloyd’s. In 1994, however, some plaintiffs sued the insurer’s underwriting agent and settled for more than 500 million pounds in damages.