Saturday, August 20, 2005

Really Rich

If you have ever written a computer program, you will know that it can be a frustrating business. Every word, the syntax, has to be exactly correct. If not, the program will not work. Programmers have to 'debug' what they have written in minute detail.

Writers have to do the same thing, although their logic is not exactly the same. They have to be aware of the subtleties present in the language. Phrases that seem to be exactly the same, may not always carry the same weight. As an example, I'll mention the word 'really' in two different contexts. Firstly:

"He is a great poet."

If we say he is a great poet, then he is a great poet. But if we say:

"He is a really great poet."

Then we overstate the case, and by overstating we reduce the emphasis on the poet's greatness and emphasise our own eagerness to praise the poet.

If we take another example, however, we will see that context changes the way we understand the world 'really'. This time we are going to describe how much money someone has:

"He is rich."

Yes, he is rich. Simply rich. But we don't say how rich. He might just be richer than other people. But if we say:

"He is really rich."

Then we know that he is not simply richer than other people, but that he is richer than almost everyone. There is no weakening of the statement here by the use of the word 'really'. Instead, the word 'really' emphasises the richness.

I was thinking about this in the context of my continuing internet researches about the life of the only really rich person I know, JC, someone I went to school with. This person inherited his wealth from a family fortune built up originally in shipping and later in investment. I have never met him since leaving school, although I think I did once see him driving a Mercedes sports car around London when I was a student there. As you see, in reality, we live in different worlds.

It was JC who first made me aware of what it means to be 'really rich', at a school brew one evening. 'A brew' was an officially sanctioned event where a number of pupils could get together for an hour, at a time when they would normally be going to bed in the dormitory. They would typically discuss, drink tea and eat toast. At this brew, JC produced a cylindrical tin containing 'Chocolate Oliver Biscuits'. An Oliver Biscuit is an expensive cheese biscuit, like a rather dense Jacob's Cream Cracker and, in my humble opinion, somewhat less interesting to eat. If one can describe cheese biscuits as 'interesting'.

A 'Chocolate Oliver Biscuit' is simply a small plain Oliver Biscuit coated in dark chocolate. They are, however, also expensive. They might even be called 'really' expensive. I seem to remember him saying that this tin of about fifteen biscuits had cost him eight pounds. And this was more than twenty years ago.

The problem was, of course, that having produced a tin of biscuits, he had to share them. Something that, being brought up in an aristocractic, capitalistic family, he wasn't really programmed to do in a fair way. So he decided to share them out based on his perception of the status of the people in the room. What he meant by 'status' isn't really clear. It might be that he was thinking only of money, it might be that he was trying to establish some kind of pecking order. Anyhow he had four or five biscuits himself and offered the rest of the tin to the dozen or so others that were in the room. Some got two, some got one, others, including myself, were offered part of a biscuit. I believe I was offered about an eighth, which I declined. That's how I now understand the term 'really rich'.

JC now holds a personal stake in a company that is worth hundreds of millions. A large chunk of the company is owned by a trust company that represents more than a hundred family members all related in some way to the original shipping magnate.

Over the last five years, the company has been in crisis as an older member of the family, always referred to as 'The Patriarch' has been trying to get the management of the company to return his assets to him at their true worth. The Patriarch is a curious character. He is now in his seventies and divides his time between travelling, his permanent suite of rooms in a expensive London hotel, and his Scottish castle. He has a 'collection' of Rolls Royces, but cannot drive, meaning that he is chauffeured everywhere.

Because his share in the company is large, he has been able to fundamentally unsettle it, saying that it trades at too big a discount to the value of its assets and trying to get other shareholders to side with him in order to get the business liquidated and the cash handed back to shareholders. This was two years ago.

You may remember the case of TM, the farmer who shot at two youths who were breaking into his farm. He killed one of them and went to prison. The case was perceived as an opportunity by some of the 'really rich' to change the law concerning their ability to protect themselves and their assets.

As a result, TM received a number of high profile backers in his defence, including finance from a newspaper magnate and legal support from a group of other rich investors and aristos which included among them, The Patriarch.

All of this activity seems to have come together in an unfortunate incident which occurred in Paris in March last year, when the Mercedes in which 'The Patriarch' was travelling with his sister, A Russian princess, and a fellow captain from his army days was shot at while standing in a traffic queue.

A masked gunman pulled up behind them and put two bullets into the back window, showering them all with shards of glass. Fortunately, since it was a Mercedes that belonged to the Paris Ritz, the bullets did not pass through the window, but stuck in it. The Patriarch's take on all this was that, apparently, there have been a lot of incidents like this in Paris of late and he wasn't sure if it was just a random terrorist attack or whether his car was mistaken for someone else’s.

Two months later, at an extraordinary general meeting of the company, the 'Family' accepted the olive branch of a special dividend offered by the company. The company also simultaneously boasted a 40 per cent increase in its net asset value in the year and hiked its dividend for the 37th consecutive year.

As a Scottish newspaper article puts it: The Patriarch "survived a gun attack on his Mercedes in Paris last year. He accepted the company's peace offer shortly after."

So how does an investment company like this make money? Well, they have to have a good eye for investment opportunities. Recently, a subsidiary of the company has been using its 'blue-blood' connections to buy up Scottish shooting estates owned by dowagers and rich old Americans and selling them off in lots. The unfortunate game-keepers and staff who have been living in estate-owned cottages are given notice and asked to leave the land in which they have invested their lives. One couple have been offered £10 a time to show prospective clients around their rented home, in which they themselves have invested around £50,000 pounds. A Scottish newspaper is referring to the sale of these estates as 'The Second Highland Clearances'. You can read about it here.


fdfs said...

Interesting. Very interesting. In a way, the biscuit-sharing was more enlightening than the shooting. I haven't known anyone wealthy to the magnitude you describe, but I have known quite a few from rich and privileged familes, and they seem bred to share as openly and freely as anyone else, at least to guests in their homes. Maybe the uber-rich live on another plane entirely.

medea said...

This is interesting. I've met a few people of the uber-rich variety. Some when I was dating an ex-boyfriend who, although not rich, had certain talents and a certain popularity that let him travel with that circle. I have met others while working as an interpreter. When I was the girlfriend of a man in their circle, I was treated decently by the men, and like an invader by the women. But when I was a worker... let's just say that if they had broken a biscuit and threw its powder at me, they would have expected me to receive it as manna from heaven.
Anyway, I do think there are some people in this world who have enough money/power to believe that they do not need morals.