Saturday Guardian February 25, 2006
I was born into money. At 18, I inherited shares in the family business worth half a million pounds. The dividends alone came to around £20,000 a year: back in 1985 a tidy sum indeed. As a result, the world never posed much of an obstacle, and questions of career or income, much less food or shelter, were never raised. So I did what anyone would - went shopping.
On an average day, I woke around 1pm, ate, drove my black Opel Manta to the West End and spent £200 on records, videos, comics and books. On less adventurous days, I rented three or four movies from the local video store, ate an M&S dinner, rolled five or six joints, and spent half the night getting high. If I already had movies, I often didn't get out of bed, just rolled a joint and turned on the TV.
On my 20th birthday, I moved to New York. Beyond the locale, nothing much changed. When I wasn't enjoying pot and movies in my Bowery bedsit, I was drinking tequila and snorting cocaine in an East Village bar. If anyone asked what I did for a living, I took great pleasure in telling them: "You're looking at it."
What no one saw, however, was that I was crying myself to sleep at night. What I wanted most of all was simply to fall in love. But when it finally happened, the woman in question would not, or could not, reciprocate. Suddenly, my life of luxury seemed a cruel mockery: since I could have everything except the one thing I wanted, I no longer cared for anything. A feeling of peace came over me - the peace of total indifference. In the absence of desire, I no longer had anything to gain, or lose.
I was in control of my actions for the first time. Since it no longer mattered what I did, I knew precisely what to do. I sold my shares and put the money into land, then signed the land over to a close friend. I packed up all I had left and gave it to a relative. I kept around £1,000 to fund my escape, but handed half of it out in £50 notes to passersby on Tottenham Court Road. My whole decision was the enactment of a personal fantasy: to go willingly from obscene wealth to abject poverty, and see how it felt. It felt strangely liberating.
I wrote a will and, without mentioning where I was going (only that I was), numbly said my goodbyes to family and friends. No one questioned my decision.
When you leap into an abyss, you don't have to take aim. I was fleeing from my life, and anywhere alien to my western sensibilities would do. I wanted to be reborn, I just didn't want to have to die first, and the masochistic vision that consumed me was of walking naked into the desert: somehow this image soothed my despair. Failing that, I figured I could simply smoke myself into a stupor and remain there indefinitely. So reasoning, I spent the last of my funds on a plane ticket to Morocco.
All I knew of Morocco came from the stories of Paul Bowles, a writer I admired and knew lived in Tangier. Even in my despair, I was drawn by the idea of meeting him, and by the seductive nihilism of his tales.
Setting foot in Tangier, however, my suicidal vision quickly dissolved into a new, much less comforting but considerably larger vista. As the demands of hunger and homelessness took over, I had little thought for suicide or transcendence, much less walking naked into the Sahara. Like most westerners, I had never experienced hunger before. Now it was all I could think about. I was sleeping in abandoned buildings; begging for change from incredulous Arabs and suspicious tourists; stealing bread from the market; occasionally fleeing for my life from murderous moslems. And getting high every night to stave off the unbearable despair (I could always raise 30p for a bag of kif). It was not a pretty picture, but it was what I had wanted.
No one knew where I was, or even if I was alive or dead. In poverty, I was free to reinvent myself, with no one to tell me otherwise. Unlike many beggars, this was what I had chosen to be. And I found that truth was indeed stranger than fiction: within a few weeks of arriving, I had a kif-smoking companion and benefactor - Paul Bowles. But that's another story ...
For the record, I never regained my wealth, nor regretted throwing it away (for more than a moment or two). With hindsight, it was less a whim that made me do it than simple self-preservation. Today I live, just barely, off the proceeds of my books, hand-to-mouth, and one day at a time.