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Correspondent&#39s week

It is more than five years since I began tracking the tragic tale of the oldest life insurance company in the world, having first begun plotting its downfall as a reporter for Money Marketing. One might expect that, by now, new Equitable Life angles would be harder to find than an honest industry guarantee backed up by sound regulation. Sadly, not so.

Following a train ride to Norfolk, I am greeted at the door by a woman who is understandably taken aback by my arrival. “He&#39s only a clerk,” she snaps. But after learning that Lord Penrose&#39s trusted assistant has also been taunting Equitable policyholders on the internet, her mood changes.

The clerk gets off lightly but, thanks to our intervention, will be sleeping on the couch for the next few days.

On Tuesday, I visit the London headquarters of the Institute of Actuaries. Numberone number-cruncher Jeremy Goford is in reforming mood. However, the soothing New Labour-style prose fits uncomfortably with the surroundings.

From Chancery Lane tube station, I walk to the Staple Inn Hall headquarters of the institute. Even Charles Dickens found this Jacobean mansion a bit spooky.

Always one for conspiracy theories, I ask Goford about the secret handshakes. The president&#39s hand twitches near a concealed button beneath the table. Fortunately, his spin doctor intervenes and the hidden oak-panelled door remains closed. Had I asked about the magical qualities of his actuarial tie pin, I might not have been so lucky.

Back at the office, we spice up the actuarial profession by asking readers if they have what it takes to be an actuary with a quiz question from The Actuary magazine, a top-shelf publication for those who enjoy ogling sophisticated figures. I expect that few will even be able to understand the complex question, let alone have a stab at the answer.

Back at home, there is an outbreak of chicken pox. While the two-year-old celebrates his spots in rudest health, the eldest suffers not in silence. There is concern for the four-year-old&#39s health over the first couple of days and, as the week progresses and lack of sleep begins to bite, the illness wears us all down.

Living the suburban dream, I start renovating a plank of wood that 100 years earlier was a rocking horse. It is the latest result of my eBay addiction.

Next day, it is back on the story trail at the grandiose Claridge&#39s Hotel in London, where we are checking out property auctions. Nestled uncomfortably between the sharks and property wideboys are loving couples who have been overdosing on UK Style.

During the feeding frenzy, several lifetimes of savings are gambled away in the wink of an eye. I quickly learn that those of a nervous disposition should sit on their hands.

At the end of the week, my desk is hidden beneath a bulging postbag of mail. The I Want To Be An Actuary competition has proved to be a huge success.

Naturally, most respondents have calculated the correct answer. It is a humbling experience – underestimate the readership at your peril. For one lucky contestant, a bottle of bubbly. For the rest, an exciting future beckons.

I intend to hand over the several hundred losers to the Institute of Actuaries, which complained earlier in the week that its overpaid profession was understaffed.

I go to bed with Martin Scorsese and The Blues.

Toby Walne is a reporter on the Financial Mail and Mail on Sunday


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