From bush-boy to buddhist monk to banker: Michael Dobbs-Higginson

Elliott Haworth
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The early morning is baking.

I’m strolling around leafy Chelsea, sweat glistening on my brow, searching for Michael Dobbs-Higginson’s flat. When I arrive, he’s pacing back and forth on the phone, but ushers me into his lounge; a modest and self-effacing room, the decor a shrine to his life of adventure – a vase from 6 BC China, tapestries, paintings and trinkets from thereafter.

“Are you well?” I ask, as he hangs up the phone and starts making coffee. “No, not really Elliott, I have this terminal disease, which is kind of tedious. I was diagnosed about two and a half years ago; usually it’s about three to four years and that’s it. But I’ve led a very good life, so I’m very relaxed about it. Do you take sugar?”

Such nonchalance is the tone in which our conversation continues.

“It’s rather embarrassing to say it of oneself, but I’ve had quite an interesting life,” says Dobbs-Higginson. “I grew up in the bush in Rhodesia, saw elephants in the garden, cobras in the bathroom, no electricity, that sort of thing.”

I feel it criminal to condense such a life into 1,000 words. So I shall instead touch on the philosophy which saw the man pursue adventure – from a monastic existence and being gazumped by the CIA in Japan, to smuggling opium through Tehran, or becoming chairman of Merrill Lynch Bank in Asia during a period of great economic boom.


Dobbs-Higginson with his mother and brother in what was Rhodesia

Substance

“My mother was a sort of quasi-mystic, and very interested in comparative theology,” says Dobbs-Higginson. “And when I was about six or seven, about to leave for boarding school, she said: ‘I want to tell you something’.

“She said ‘you’ve got to understand that life is about form and substance. Most people focus on form, because that’s the easy part, and that’s usually driven by the ego. But substance is really what the person is made of, what their moral value systems are, and who they really are – so focus on substance’.”

I draw a parallel between him and Harry Haller, the protagonist in Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. “Yes that’s right,” he says. “Or Colin Wilson’s Outsider.”

Dobbs-Higginson’s mother told him he would be much lonlier for choosing a life of substance – not pursuing the societal tramlines of form-following. “And so I opted for substance, and was in effect an outsider for all my life.”

He says one can summarise his philosophy of life in three phases. The first is the aforementioned substance. Another is curiosity. “Intense curiosity. And the reason for that, is that by asking questions you get different answers, and by listening to those answers, you get different options. Because life is full of the most amazing things if you just look.”

A working example of his curiosity, which he says has landed him in the mud on many occasions, is the startups he has most recently invested in.

Ego is such a waste of energy – people want things, people must have, people need to be appreciated. It’s ego. Awful.

“One is in the drone sector. I knew nothing about drones. One’s in the electrical vehicle sector. I knew nothing about that. And the other is a an Alibaba for Africa, which will launch in the next two or three months.” Why approach things you know nothing about? I ask, feeling very firmly on life’s tramlines. “My dear boy, quite simply because I learn about them by approaching them.”

The last dimension of his philosophy, he says, “is ego minimisation. That’s what I learnt in the monastery. At least I learnt the principles of it. I still have sadly, some ego. Ego is such a waste of energy – people want things, people must have, people need to be appreciated. It’s ego. Awful.”

Beatnik banker

A confirmed beatnik, with a patchwork journey culminating adventure, isolation, and a fervent self-awareness, is not, I suggest, the type one would assume to take the helm of Merrill Lynch Bank in Asia. How did he end up there?

“Again curiosity, and necessity,” he says. “I was involved in a big real estate project in Japan, which unbeknownst to me, my partner was working for the CIA, and I discovered that they were wiring up one of the floors where we were going to put the Libyan embassy... And anyway, to cut a long story short, they gave me an ultimatum: join them, and take a lie detector test, or sign everything over and get out of Japan. And I checked with a friend of mine who was working at the British Embassy, who was a number two there, and he checked with the Foreign Office and said ‘there’s nothing we can do, they do play rough and you’d better get out.’ The other option, they told me point blank that I’d have an accident if I didn’t leave. So I lost about $40-50m and had to start from scratch.”


Dobbs-Higginson praying at a Japanese monastery

After weighing up his options, Dobbs-Higginson spoke to a friend, one of Nixon’s economic advisors (“a wonderful man and mentor”), who suggested pursuing a career in investment banking. “The Japanese were just arriving in the City, this was back in the early 70s, and nobody spoke Japanese as a caucasian.” And so it was, he fell into Asian banking.

“I’ve helped change Asia, because as a banker, in my day, we were rather like World War One aces, with white scarf around the neck wearing goggles, hand-dropping bombs, trying to shoot down the competition. And it was very sort of gentlemanly and civilised. But it also enabled one to do some very special things.”

He oversaw a period in Asia latterly refferred to as an Economic Miracle, together with a younger colleague, persuading several governments to use the Eurobond market for the first time. “This gave them another source of capital. We also, most importantly, persuaded India, Taiwan, and Korea to open their domestic capital sub-markets to foreign investors – and that took three or four years each time. But that having been done, well I mean, the markets were in the tens of billions, and now they’re in the hundreds of billions as a result.”

Would you agree, I ask, that capitalism alleviates poverty? “Of course it does, ultimately, because it raises everybody up. Just look at China, they’ve raised 500m people out of extreme poverty, through the growth of their economy. And obviously capitalism has an ugly face – and bankers became egregiously greedy, with huge egos I might add – which is one of the main reasons I left in 1990, I just got sick and tired of dealing with these huge egos and their greed.”

After banking

Since leaving the world of banking, alongside various investments and restoring a chateau, Dobbs-Higginson has written two books, one, in the nineties, an insight into the political and economic future of Pacific Asia.

The other, his recently published memoirs, A Raindrop in the Ocean, I have presently read about two-thirds of, when time allows. With such a variegation of careers, he says people often ask him what his profession is: “I say, living is my profession.”

Almost mythopoetic, he adds that “businesses are just hobbies, because living is fascinating. It’s dealing with people. Trying to understand them. Being empathetic. Because empathy is going out the window with these modern technologies of Facebook and so on – it’s all second hand banal sh*t, quite frankly.”

Looking me in the eye, like thousands before me, he adds that “as a person sitting across the table, observing their body language, the way they smile, the way sweat beads on their forehead and so on and so forth, I must be aware of these sorts of things – they add an extra dimension to the whole point of value in a relationship. How can one understand others, without first understanding oneself?”

Raindrop in the Ocean by Michael Dobbs-Higginson is published by Eye books, £16.99 (weblink is here)

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