In late 1989 it fell to me, the senior chalkie at the Brisbane Stock Exchange, to train my successor. At the time I did not know he would be the exchange's last trading floor clerk. I had been a chalkie on and off for five years from the mid-1980s, between periods at university. Now I was doing both: reading for my final semester of English and chalking a few days a week.
A call from the exchange's deputy manager – a slight man who fiddled too often with the tongue of his tie but who had been kind enough to hire me when I flunked uni at eighteen – saw me chalking at the stock exchange's new premises in the Riverside Centre in Eagle Street for the first time. His original offer had saved me from the dole queue and the wrath of my parents. His new offer saved me from a cleaning job in a Toowong office tower where I was in charge of all polished surfaces. Back at the exchange, I was responsible for thirty metres of trading board space: the two metre-high blackboards that listed five hundred or so stocks under their three-letter codes: ANZ, BHP, CSR, MIM and so on.
The new trading floor was a signature feature of a signature building in the city's waterfront redevelopment Riverside Centre, the first of two Harry Seidler towers on the Customs House reach. It made the most of its views of the Story Bridge, but the trading floor was a large windowless room on two levels. Its only outlook was to a glassed-off public gallery where hardcore private traders spent the day watching the sales. There were regulars: a retired chemist in dress shorts and long socks, a retired colonel in a dapper linen suit and a thin Indian man whose racoon eyes suggested he traded overnight as well. Visiting school groups were the only relief. The young chalkies would put on a show for the school girls – few women chalked in Brisbane. We would run back and forth to mark up bids and offers with verve, making it look busier than it ever was.
The five metre-high catwalk was daunting. The old exchange in Queen Street (Riverside was its eighth home since 1884) had a low catwalk. I had fallen off it trying to cut the corner and suffered only embarrassment. The new catwalk had a guard wire, but you still had to respect the edge. One chalkie who began to experience vertigo moved upstairs to a desk job.
TRAINING A NEW CHALKIE IS A LENGTHY PROCESS. At first the trading seems chaotic, impenetrable, and impossible to make sense of the operators' or brokers' calls of buying prices, selling prices and sales. Nevertheless, we would drag the new chalkies up on the boards on the first day – just to scare them. Most were bewildered for a week or so, catching and recording only fragments of the trade while we marked up most of the business.
A new chalkie needs to learn four things: the three-letter codes for each stock; their positions on the boards; each broker's number; and eventually each broker's voice. I remember that my nemesis, Ron Lynch, an angry, elderly wing-nut who liked to stick it to us for any errors, was number three. He had a bark of a voice that was easy to pick when your back was turned. Other voices were less distinct, and easily confused. Brokers would get exasperated or even angry if their selling or buying price was marked up incorrectly. A lisp or an unusual voice was a useful thing.
In the late eighties, Brisbane was a small exchange and trade often ebbed after the rush of the first half-hour. Two chalkies would start the day, but one would tend the boards through the morning and afternoon sessions. It took, perhaps, four weeks of practice to be ready to be left alone up on the boards, but even then it could be terrifying if trade picked up and you faced twenty or so brokers screaming to get their orders filled as the market moved. The Black Monday Crash of October 19, 1987 was the busiest day's trade I ever saw. Three chalkies were up the whole time and ran all day. More usually, trade was slow.
Before deregulation of the sector having a father with a seat on the exchange, or chalking, was really the only ways to get a start in the business. One day, a somewhat puffed-up young man, who boasted of his membership of the National Party, arrived and worked there for a few months. Luke Shaw soon acquired greater fame as the foreman of the deadlocked jury and the crucial dissenter from a guilty verdict in Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen's perjury trial.
The manual system had been dying with the incremental introduction of computerised trade. For the final few months, I had been taking a chair and a book up on to the boards. I got through all of Michael Holroyd's four-volume Life of Bernard Shaw in slow August trade as I also trained the last chalkie. Mark was an upright young man with a formal demeanour and a tiepin. The pin was not a bad idea. In some ways this polite and conservative young man, who had been appointed to oversee the floor's demise, was a throwback to an earlier time of closed local markets and family broking dynasties. He was nervous, but the dead trade made learning easier. He oversaw the last trading sessions before they found him a job upstairs in investor services. In March 1990, the trading floor bell rang for the last time. ♦