Ondaatje, former financier, at his 100-acre home on Meisner's Island,
N.S. Living there and having lobster feasts with his kids is what
it's all about, he says.
beauty of the south shore of Nova Scotia is legendary. Quaint villages
on the edge of the ocean, quiet summer playgrounds where local residents
mix and mingle with the rich and famous without much ado. The area is
a hot spot for American and European society: bank presidents, CEOs, authors,
even former U.S. senators. The area is booming to the point where even
movie stars are said to want in.
But when I ask people on the streets of Chester to name this sea resort's
most interesting summer resident, Christopher Ondaatje is the most common
The Sri Lankan-born, British-raised philanthropist and former financier
is a fixture in these parts for two months every year (spending the rest
of his time in London, England). As I sit outside a deli called Julian's,
Ondaatje's favourite place in Chester, I feel as if I'm meeting Indiana
Jones. The adventurer and writer looks every bit the part in a well-worn,
suede-brimmed cap and a striped pullover sweater that has seen better
days. Ondaatje, on the other hand, looks great, tanned and fit, stopping
to greet local residents who all seem to know and like him.
The hugely successful Ondaatje takes my pen and starts to write in my
notepad as he explains to me his latest project for the National Portrait
Gallery, where he led the campaign to keep two important pieces of art
in Britain, one the portrait of Sir William Killigrew by Sir Anthony van
Dyck, and the other of prime minister Arthur Balfour by John Singer Sargent.
Ondaatje's philanthropy is legendary. He recently gave ?1,650,000 to the
Royal Geographical Society, and contributed ?2,750,000 towards a wing
of the National Portrait Gallery that would be opened by the Queen. I
notice that even the Chester Playhouse has a bust of him in the Ondaatje
Foyer and a plaque that reads, "Donated to the people of Chester
August 24, 1992."
"Can I take my own notes now?" I ask. Undaunted, he continues
writing in my pad, obviously a man accustomed to being in control.
"Chester is home", he tells me, "remember we're Canadian."
Ondaatje lived in Toronto "when it was the fastest-growing city in
North America," and he tells me that he benefited in the financial
world because 1962-1987 was "the greatest 25-year wave in the markets."
In 1988, he sold everything, resigned all directorships, and shifted to
London, "mainly to be close to the international literary world and
The Royal Geographical Society.
"Now I am where I want to be, doing what I want to do -- running
my foundation, trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, council of Royal
He's also a proprietor of the Literary Review in London, writes a monthly
review for the Times, and his latest book, Hemingway in Africa, should
be out this spring.
Ondaatje insists on paying the tab (a wonderful trait of men who like
to be in control), and takes me for a boat ride to see his house on his
100-acre property, Meisner's Island, accessible only by water. Would he
"I can't replace it, no amount of money," he says matter of
factly, "it's priceless."
He proudly points to his 1938 wooden boat Ripple, winner of the 2000 Coronation
Cup and a contender for this year's cup.
While on the ocean, Ondaatje explains his exodus from the financial world.
"If it didn't fit the formula, I didn't invest," he says adding
that he always followed the value-investing teachings of Benjamin Graham
and Warren Buffett.
"My last two years [in the financial world] were the least pleasurable
of my life, the game had changed, people had changed, the world was different."
Ondaatje continues, "I'm really lucky that I lived in the financial
world from '68 until the 80's, because the current investment scene is
fraught with hazards and deceptive accounting practices." He says
what particularly disturbs him is that people don't understand the phenomenal
debt structure of countries, banks, other corporations and individuals.
"They're all in debt, and there is absolutely no intention of repaying
that debt," says Ondaatje.
"I predict", he says, "that the purchasing power of the
dollar will be 10% of what it is now in five years time."
He adds, "I may be wrong by a few years, but I won't be wrong by
He says, "It's time to be liquid, to survive, there's a rough storm
still to come."
About surviving: "I'm 70 years old, I'm 10 years younger than I was
10 years ago. I don't have the pressures, I'm really lucky because I reinvented
His advice? "Do what you love, back your passion, do things for other
"I've had my day in the sun", he adds, "I was lucky and
I'm having a good time now."
Although he's out of the financial world, Ondaatje says "finance
is just like a drug, my adrenaline goes. I don't even want to talk about
it, let's talk about dirty books, films, anything but finance."
During the excursion, Ondaatje points out landmarks in this small community
that swells to only 1,200 in the summer. "This is what it's all about.
I like having dinner with my kids every night, lobster feasts, fantastic
haddock and halibut."
"This is Chester," he sighs. "Heaven."