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  From the
  Where Indiana Jones retired
On the water with adventurer Ondaatje
  Sharon Dunn,
National Post

Christopher 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.

The 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 reply.

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 Geographical."

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 ever sell?

"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 much."

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 myself."

His advice? "Do what you love, back your passion, do things for other people.

"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."

  Last update: May 6, 2009
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