Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Great Escape Part III: Drifting

Although I don’t consider my life achievements to amount to anything extraordinary, in writing this canned autobio I am finding that I seem to have covered some quite varied terrain. As such, it is expanding beyond the initial estimate of three posts, but I promise it will lead up to a climax before Christmas. In the meantime, here’s a brief account of how I spent my twenties and how I was sucked into the world of energy trading.

And so I went to Canada. I had never been outside Europe before and never flown on an aeroplane. I could scarcely imagine what it would be like to fly through the sky at such a speed and worried that the plane might crash. A few of my friends had been on planes before, but not many. This was in 1992 and I was 21.

I landed in Toronto and went to stay with some people who had some kind of ancient and tenuous relationship to my family. My mother had told me that everyone in north America wore suits and had impeccable manners, but it turned out she was thirty years out of date. I was picked up at the airport by the son of the family, a cowboy-hatted truck driver, who greeted me with ‘Wanna get some hookers?’.

They lived in the dreary suburbs of Mississauga and the father of the family was a cop. They were hospitable and I hung around for about a week, but was eager to escape. On my last day staying with the family the cop man had an all day whisky drinking party in his basement with his cop buddies and we all watched a video of him taking part in a long car chase, filmed by a news helicopter, and which ended in a shootout and the suspect crashing his car. It was a well-worn video tape and the cops cheered at all the right moments as if they had seen it many times before.

I headed for northern Ontario, hiring a canoe in Algonquin National Park and setting off with my tent into the great outdoors. At night I could hear the wolves howling as I quivered in my tent and it was the closest to a wilderness experience I had ever had. But after a few days a fear of bears drove me back to ‘civilization’ and in any case I was covered in mosquito bites and half-starved.

From there I headed south to the border and crossed over in the US at Niagara Falls. I then spent a couple of months journeying around the country, mostly on trains but sometimes by Greyhound bus, taking in Boston, Cape Cod, California (with a day trip to Mexico), New Orleans and Chicago. I ran out of money in Chicago but still had a bus ticket to New York. Penniless, I spent five days walking around that great city with nothing to eat apart from what some girls I had met in Boston gave me. I even spent a night in Central Park but managed to blag myself some free floor space in a hostel in Harlem for a few nights after that.  Eventually I rang my parents and pleaded with them to send me some cash, which they did, and spent the last few days of my trip eating out in some style and seeing all the sights that cost money.

All in all it was an interesting trip, albeit a lonely one. The places I got on best with were Cape Cod and New Orleans (I went for one night and ended up staying for two weeks). I also enjoyed visiting California, although found it difficult to meet people there.

Back in England I embarked on my final year at university. The economics course I was on became less interesting to me and had descended into advanced macro and micro economic theory and statistics. Gone were the hippyish professors from the earlier years who had taught political economy and philosophy and instead were sharp-suited hard-nosed men who took no nonsense from the students. The saving grace of all this was a module I took in oil economics, taught by a humorous Nigerian man who managed to enliven what on paper had looked to be a dull course.

Just before I took my final exams the phone rang. My sister told me that our mother, who had been suffering from cancer, had taken a turn for the worse. She drove up from Southampton that day, collecting me in London, but by the time we reached Solihull my mother had passed away. Her death was a great sorrow to me, made all the worse by the fact that the only person who seemed to have known the full extent of her sickness was my mother herself.

I took my exams and got a lower second degree. Not exactly great, but okay. I had no idea what I was going to do next but managed to get an interview at a merchant bank in London. At the interview they said I’d be working one week in London, one week on Wall Street and earning a high salary. At the end of the interview they asked me how I was doing and I said I’d just been to my mother’s funeral and my throat froze up and I couldn’t speak anymore. This was probably a major faux pas and they looked at me with their cold hard capitalist eyes and offered no sympathy. I heard the next day that I didn’t get the job, which was probably a good thing.

Instead I went to France and worked in a train factory, halfway down the Atlantic coast in La Rochelle for three months as an intern. My father by now was a director at GEC in the UK and could pull strings. I worked in the purchasing office of the factory that made the high speed TGV trains and also the trains that would go through the still-being-bored Channel Tunnel.

The job was dull and perfunctory. I had to learn all the technical terms for train parts in French and make sure they were translated correctly on purchase orders. I also had to answer the phone, which I dreaded on behalf of my half-baked French, and deal with various supply problems. Apart from the dull nature of the work though I enjoyed my time there. Lunches were long leisurely affairs with excellent food and wine. I would spend weekends cycling around the beautiful nearby Isle de Ré and generally living the French good life and wondering why people in England didn’t live the same way.

It was in France that I picked up a dog-eared copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book had a profound effect on me, opening up my mind for the first time to the fundamental cyclical nature of reality. This led to a fascination with Buddhism and opened up my doors of perception a crack. What particularly appealed to me was the relief I felt that this book was telling me that the world was not two dimensional and flat, which is the myth we are fed from birth, but in fact was infinitely rich and packed full of hidden dimensions that could be experienced and explored not just in the sacred but also the profane. It is the only book I have ever re-read the moment I finished it.

When I got back to England, for reasons that are still unclear to me, I decided to do a master’s degree in IT at Warwick University. By doing so I could live at home with my father, who was still struggling with grief. As soon as I started the course though I knew I had made a mistake. I had to wear a suit on campus and missing a single day meant expulsion from the course. Nearly everyone else on the course was from the Far East, sponsored by the governments of Malaysia, China or Japan. As such they were the cream of the IT whizz kids and they were expected to get perfect results.

The course, although IT based, was business orientated. For my project I designed a shopping trolley that scanned items that you put in, eliminating the need for cashiers. We had been taught that this kind of thing was the future. Unfortunately my tutor was not impressed, saying that such a shopping cart had already been invented and that I was copying it. I thought, screw you, and before I left the campus that afternoon dropped a note into course head’s pigeon hole saying that I was dropping out. Nine months and a whole lot of cash wasted.

I applied to go and work as a volunteer in Canada, doing forest conservation work in British Colombia. I sent them the cash and just before I left they asked me to confirm that I was a Christian and that I would refrain from doing un-Christian things at their camp. I didn’t bother going. Instead I went to Thailand with my good friend Toby, whom I had worked at the Treasury with.

Thailand was a major eye opener. It’s fair to say that I probably experienced the last dying moments of that country in its ancient and traditional form, because almost overnight, I was to discover, the country was vandalized on a grand scale. When I was there it was still all dirt roads, colourful buses, friendly people and street food. At the end of the trip we stayed in the small hamlet of Hat Rin on the island of Koh Pha Ngan, and to get there we had to negotiate probably one of the worst dirt roads in the world.  Although it was already a backpacker magnet famous for its full moon parties, there were probably no more than 100 beds to be had, mostly in thatched wooden huts on the beach. These days, I am told, there are some 50,000 hotel bedrooms and a smooth tarmac road conveys tourists there from the airport.

Anyway, after this adventure I developed an insatiable wanderlust. Back in Solihull I spent the best part of a year unemployed, as there were few jobs to be had in those days – well, at least the kind of jobs that and economics graduate was expected to apply for, I could have worked at the local factory where they made Land Rovers. Instead I did odd jobs for Sam, in London, which usually involved me driving around the country buying huge wads of Air Mile coupons, which in those days were transferable, with Sam selling them on at a considerable profit.  I read lots of books, notably George Orwell and Alan Watts. I moved into a shared rented house and managed to get a job as a customer services clerk at the newly-privatized wing of the gas distribution network of British Gas.

Like nearly all office jobs it was yet another exercise in boredom and clock watching. My job was to deal with large-usage customers who had some form of complaint – the kind who had already demanded I want to speak to the manager to some other hapless clerk. It was something I was considered ideally suited to because of my laid back nature and the fact that I genuinely didn’t give a damn about (or even understand) the problems of the angry customers. To me it was all like water on a duck’s back. Memorably, one man threatened to come down from Manchester and ‘grind my blood and skin into the office carpet’ because his feckless son had racked up a multi thousand pound bill by leaving all the appliances on for several weeks while he was on holiday in some other country.

After a year of this kind of abuse, and with wanderlust pumping through my veins, I had saved up enough cash to launch myself on a yearlong adventure. To warm up for this I decided to travel by bicycle from one end of Britain to the other – Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in northern Scotland. I brought a tent and camped in fields and campsites along the way with a friend.

Shortly after this I flew to India to meet Toby and plunged myself headlong into a year of escapades which involved trekking in the Himalayas, travelling around India, Nepal, Thailand and Malaysia. I contracted some type of strange disease in Malaysia which saw me bedridden for two weeks and I lost a quarter of my body weight. When I was on the mend I flew to Australia and spent a number of weeks recuperating in Perth before embarking on a lengthy trip around the entire country on a Greyhound bus.

In Queensland I went out diving on the Great Barrier Reef. On the boat was an Italian-looking girl from Denmark and, cornily, I brought up a shell from the deep and offered it to her as a gift. It must have impressed her because she is now my wife.

As was becoming a habit of mine I ran out of money and ended up stranded in Sydney. I wasn’t ready to return yet so I got a job on a Victoria fruit farm and spent two long months picking two tons of pears a day in a place called Mooroopna aka Fruit Salad City. The work was mildly unpleasant due to the pesticides and the snakes and some of the other pickers were hillbilly alcoholics who would drive around our camping field at night in their beat-up cars firing shotguns in the air and yeehawing. But this work enabled me to save up enough money to travel around New Zealand for a month, spend a couple of weeks in a hut in Fiji and then a week in Los Angeles on my way home.

Upon my return home the economy had picked up and I got a job in London’s opulent Covent Garden working for a small gas marketing firm which had been one of my main clients at British Gas. Michelle had followed me back and we rented a tiny room in a large house in Muswell Hill and, later, a larger flat in High Barnet. I would cycle to work every day through London’s dangerous traffic, a round trip of about 30 miles. I was only knocked off my bike three times in all my years of cycling in London; twice by people in taxis opening doors on me and once by a stoned pizza delivery boy who started crying when he saw me lying on the pavement. I was never injured.

My job at the gas marketing company initially was to deal with corporate customers but I was quickly promoted to the role of energy analyst on a small team that worked a 24 hour shift. Our job was to figure out when it was profitable to buy and sell gas, and to operate a private pipeline by remote control. Within a year the company was taken over by the behemoth PowerGen and I was offered a promotion if I moved to the company HQ in a lifeless business park in Coventry. They would give me a good salary, pay for all the costs associated with buying a house and numerous other benefits if I worked for them for three years. My other option was to work for a rival firm based in the US but operating in London. This rapidly expanding company was offering us all huge salaries – three times what we were currently making – but the word was that there was something not quite right about it all. Where did all their cash come from?

I opted to go with the ‘safe’ choice – after all, Coventry and the Midlands was my home patch. My family and friends were happy that I was ‘making something’ of myself and that, finally, I seemed to be doing something respectable.

And so I signed my soul over to the devil and became an energy trader. Still, at least I didn’t go for the job at the rival company, which went bust some time afterwards, and could perhaps now be considered as the canary in the coalmine that warned of greater fraud-related collapses to come. That company was called Enron.


  1. It is only through experiencing those 'oh shit' moments, such as being in a foreign country with no money at all that we develop resilience .

  2. I love that book! (Never finished reading it, don't tell me how it ends.)

    I tell anyone thinking of riding a bike that they should just plan on accidents as part of the learning curve. The important thing is to always keep in mind, no matter how idiotic the other person acted, find your own fault. I got doored hella bad in Atlanta once, never again rode so close to parked cars. A few other bloody scrapes, near manglings and almost deaths at the hands of wayward pedestrians and motorists gave me a pretty good sense of when to push it and back off.

    1. Justin - I developed some fairly good survival skills in London. Like you say, never take anything for granted. You learn to evaluate everything for its potential danger value, including particular makes of cars. One interesting thing I learned was that people who smoked while driving tended to be more dangerous - no idea why, they just were.

      Over here in Denmark, where cyclists have it easy, I can see that many are complacent- every year X number of women get crushed by turning trucks. Turns out that women have a false sense of safety when it comes to big moving objects. Not sure why - someone should do a study.

  3. Hepp,

    You make me feel like such a naive homebody. Never off my continent, never outside of 1500 miles of my boyhood front door. On a plane, like five times. You make me want to sell my house and paddle to the source of the Amazon.

    Energy trader. I love it. ;) Have I sold my soul to big bank? Like I told the spooked canvasser for Working America (affiliated with the AFCIO), who I gave twenty four dollars of big bank money to, after I told him I foreclose on houses, I'd be just about for breaking up banks and making usury punishable by death. LOL. Until then, I'm happy to do big banks bidding, while I prepare myself for a restored life here or a sale and a paddle (and maybe a sail). Or maybe just a dance into the horizon, in the orange afro. :)

    1. Hunt - paddling to the source of the Amazon sounds like a plan.

      As far as the energy trader thing went - well, I knew what I was getting into and had clear plans to get out of it when my three years were up. And I did. So I guess I didn't sell my soul - just loaned it for a while until I got what I wanted out of the system.

      Get the orange afro out :-)

  4. I agree with William. You have traveled and done things I never had the balls to do. I saw some ports when I was in the navy, but just a few seeing as how we were dropping bombs and didn't have time for such luxuries. I wanted to do the sort of traveling you did. I had credit cards and so never ended up penniless in a strange place.

    I've got ZATAOMM. I read it at some point after the navy, and it definitely stuck. The one thing that has always stuck with me is the bit he did about "quality." I just looked at it on Wiki and found that quality was indeed his forte. "Metaphysics of Quality"

    From Wiki:

    ""Quality," or "value," as described by Pirsig, cannot be defined because it empirically precedes any intellectual construction of it, namely due to the fact that quality (as Pirsig explicitly defines it) exists always as a perceptual experience before it is ever thought of descriptively or academically. Quality is the "knife-edge" of experience, found only in the present, known or at least potentially accessible to us all. (Plato's Phaedrus, 258d). Equating it with the Tao, Pirsig postulates that Quality is the fundamental force in the universe stimulating everything from atoms to animals to evolve and incorporate ever greater levels of Quality. According to the MOQ, everything (including ideas, and matter) is a product and a result of Quality."

    I had no idea about all of that. I just know that I came away from the book with an understanding of why "quality" was so profound. He definitely influenced my thinking.

    That's wild that you almost went to work for ENRON. You could have ended up in prison. I did. That's actually where I'm going with my next post. Also, don't feel as if you are rushed to get through this. I've come to the conclusion that autobiography is very important right now. I can't say why, it's just an intuition. It feels right.

    1. Lucid - it took me a while to get to grips with his ideas of quality, but when I did it made perfect sense. The thing that also struck me was his example of his friends who got so angry because they couldn't fix their leaking plumbing due to their lack of understanding of how things work.

      BTW I'll tell my friend about the Airsteam - sorry I never replied the other week, I was in darkest Africa without an internet connection (which I'll blog about later this week).

  5. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was one of those books that really stuck with me for a while, trying to think the whole thing through.

    The most interesting part- to me- and it's been fifteen years or more since I read it- was the sequence where- to an outsider's eyes- the main character- who I assume was Pirsig- went crazy. Sitting alone in a room, soaked in his own urine, smoking cigarettes- until others intervened. But what he experienced wasn't going mad- it was enlightenment- at least as far as he knew, it was. Being in America, it was of course unacceptable to be enlightened, and countermeasures had to be taken.

    It reminded me a bit of the protagonist in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest- which is also a really good read if you have a little time.

    Looking forward to your next installment. These have been really good- as have all the other autobiographical spiels- Lucid's have been a good look into the underbelly of the Navy. Yours into the energy trading world. Thanks for taking the time to do it.

    1. Hi Jeff - I have never read OFOTCN - must do some day (I saw the movie ...)!

      I'm glad you like my little canned history - I hadn't expected people to enjoy it as they seem to be! No, honest!

  6. Jason, I'm with Lucid; there is something powerful about autobiography right now. I think it is partially because these are REAL stories, and as such they are an antidote to media culture and its narratives that we know are false and hollow. The real stories feel grounding; reassuring. Like family dinners where relatives tell the stories of where we are from over and over again.

    Like so many (just after you :) ), I spent my early twenties travelling--the US, Britain, Australia--and always assumed I'd do more. But I'm really struck that the so-powerful rite of passage of international travel will be another blip of the industrial age. Something only for elites until the 1970s through to the near future...

    Look forward to the next installment!

    1. Thanks BYF! I hadn't considered that people's actual real stories might have some value over the glossy media ones. Interesting ...

      I'm with you on the blip. I had a powerful feeling by the second time I went travelling (about 12 years ago) that it wasn't going to last. Most of us don't realise how lucky we truly are.

      Next installment coming soon ...

  7. Hi Jason, I never comment on blogs but felt compelled to today. Really enjoying the biography. I grew up in childrens homes in the US, was adopted and shipped from less than desirable situation to even more undesirable situations until I found an athletic talent that took me away from it all (and around the world). I see myself in your rebellious nature and wanderlust. I wonder if that's what caused us to "wake up" to the global situation sooner than everyone else (if some ever will). Is it that our questioning establishment from the start allowed us to question a system that even for us (your energy trading) was very financially rewarding?

    1. Hi. Well, thanks - you have raised a good point. Going to lots of different countries as a traveller rather than a tourist exposes you to the fact that countries can and do undergo tumultuous changes. I've wandered through ballrooms now overtaken by Indian jungles, and seen grand French mansions in Cambodia fallen into ruin and home to squatters - and I'll bet the inhabitants of both could not have pictured how they would end up.

      I admit I used a well-paying job to finance my wanderlust - better than spending it on cocaine, I suppose.

    2. Oh, and I should have added that travelling around the world a lot has taught me that we can live pretty good lives with far less than we have now. Probably better, in many respects.

      Who was it who said that travelling is the only thing you can waste money on that makes you richer?


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.