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told me that everyone in north America wore suits and had impeccable manners, but it turned out she was thirty years out of date.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.