Rich rotter Gareth Morgan

By Michele Hewitson

Economist and misanthrope Gareth Morgan is wearing an old blue blazer with fluff all over the shoulders, an open-necked YSL shirt which was, at a guess, purchased some years ago. He has black gunk under his fingernails. He has, or is about to have once he gets the cheque from his share of son Sam's $700 million sale of Trade Me, $47 million. It is most unlikely that he will buy himself a new outfit.

I knew Morgan was a misanthrope because I read it in the about-to-be-released book, Silk Riders: Jo and Gareth Morgan's Incredible Journey on the Trail of Marco Polo. The book is about his journey with wife Jo and a bunch of other motorbike riding nuts from Venice to Beijing. It is also an unlikely, and quite possibly unwitting, love story: Jo and Gareth's.

So on many levels I was very much looking forward to meeting a misanthrope. I've never met a self-proclaimed one before. I have, of course, met people who thought they were saints and turned out to be shits.

You can put it to Morgan that people think he's a shit and he won't mind at all. He likes straight talk and it's what he is known for. He cheerfully admits that many people have this very opinion of him and that many times he's thought he was about to cop a knuckle sandwich.

Honestly, what a fraud he is. I had already come to this conclusion after reading the book. It is as told to John McCrystal "based on some pretty rushed and interrupted interviews" in which Morgan attempts to come across as a right grump. After an hour I thought: I hope McCrystal got paid a lot because discovering the bastard Morgan within is quite a task. Also, good luck to anyone attempting to dredge a travel narrative out of him. There are economist's utterances like this: "There's no doubt the policies of liberalisation have been responsible for a quantum leap in the general living standard of the population."

I read this aloud, accuse him of not being able to leave his economist's eye at home, and he hoots into his straggly moustache and says: "Yeah, that's really off a road trip isn't it?" He can't help himself. "No, I can't. And Joanne used to say to me: 'Oh, for God's sake stop doing economics and make it more about what's the oil level like in the bike and how did you re-route the starting mechanism when the wires all got chafed'." As it is there is a fair bit of bikes breaking down and being fixed, a fair bit of Morgan's observations of economies along the way and a lot of descriptions of horrible toilets and having "the squirts".

I ask who he thinks will read this book and he says: "I don't know actually!"

He really is a sweetheart, a description he won't thank me for, given that he is supposed to be a table-thumping, hard-line right-winger with a reputation for excessive grumpiness. I have already been moved to say, earlier, "I think you're actually quite a nice guy, aren't you?"

"Ha. Well, I don't think I'm the guy to answer that."

"Well," I say, "the book says you're a misanthrope and yet you let slip about the charity stuff you do."

"Yeah, well, it's interesting. Maybe I've got one of those, what do you call them, split personalities."

Some of this was, admittedly, sucking up. I was pretending to be nice - just as he pretends to be horrid - in the hope he might give me some of his millions. This sucking up was one-sided. He doesn't attempt to charm or be liked and so ends up being charming, in his rough way. He says I can write an application which will join the hundreds of other "individual sob case" letters he's already had. Oh, all right, he's not that nice. Well, maybe, because "all of which are genuine". Not so neatly fooled might be more like it.

He won't mind me being a bit rude about his clothes because he doesn't care about flash gear - "I'm a shocker" - or flash furniture. He was, I'm pretty sure, although he doesn't say, already quite well off. He says, "I only got rich last week." He's never splashed it about and won't now. "Well, I'm quite happy driving a Toyota Echo; I don't need an Audi. I've got new bikes. That is my weakness I will acknowledge." They have a nice house. He doesn't have an art collection or a wine cellar. He likes beer better. "But whatever. If it moves I'll drink it. Haven't tried turps yet, but you never know!"

And he's not even the tightwad in the family. His wife Jo is the really tight one. She wears the kids' (they have four) hand-me-down clothes. Her idea of shopping is to go on a spree at Mitre 10. This is because, Morgan says, she was 18-months-old when her father died and her mother raised eight kids with no money.

"She's not mean mean but she hates wastage. The value of a dollar's never left her." They married young and spent many years, says Morgan, forging a marriage which has its expression of closeness in their shared love of motorbikes and touring. He obviously adores and admires her. The portrayal of their marriage is to me the most interesting part of the book because they are such different people whose closeness comes through so endearingly.

There's none of that soppy stuff though. On bike tours, he says, "the interesting thing is we stop at completely different things. If I go past something she's stopped at, well, that's bloody good reason not to stop. Ha ha ha." This is more nonsense. When I say they seem to have a remarkable marriage he beams from within like a lighthouse.

"Oh she's unreal, she's fantastic. Full of surprises. She's just come back from a motorcycle tour around the South Island for 10 days. Joanne and 40 guys. She's not long on women friends, actually."

Morgan has a face which doesn't smile easily which no doubt adds to his grumpy reputation. Partly this is because he was born with a hare lip and cleft palate. His primary school headmaster told his mother he was retarded. So, "sucks to him now, eh" I say. That makes him grin. He is entitled to enjoy the satisfying irony that he now makes much of his living as a public speaker.

It is also ironic, then, that he has this reputation for misanthropy. "Doesn't that mean you like your space?" He knows quite well it doesn't. "I think we all need socialisation, but to different degrees. I probably don't need it quite the same as, say, Joanne does. She's a far more social person than I am." He hates small talk and will go "walkabout" from a social function if bored. "I enjoy my own company a lot."

He learned to do this, I think, as a child who spent long periods in hospital having reconstructive surgery and being ill with pneumonia. He was a runty kid who worked out how to make the biggest guys in his class his mates so as to take on the bullies who might have targeted him.

He is, he admits, a contradictory character. Success is not about money but "not being answerable to some prick upstairs". The simplest way to sum up his position on politics and economics, is to say that he hates "privilege". Even before he "got rich last week" he said he wasn't leaving his kids any money. He won't, evidence of the miser at last, even buy them a house. A house doesn't represent happiness or fulfilment and "you don't get solidity out of bricks and mortar, you know. It comes from within".

I have a good go at attempting to persuade him that it might, actually, make somebody (ie me) happy and fulfilled to have a freehold house. This gives him an excuse to laugh and shake his head at me to indicate what a loser I am. "I'm not mean," he insists, though. "You are mean," I say. "Shivers," he says, "I don't want to be held responsible for spoiling anybody," looking much more horrified at the very idea than he did at the accusation of meanness.

He has always been restless. He used to run away from school; now he runs away on motorbikes. But he is a cautious taker of risks. A tour is minutely planned on his beloved spreadsheets. "I definitely do like to control risk. I do like to take risks but I don't like to be totally off the edge." Which brings us back to his split personality. "It does, yeah. It's a constant battle."

This is how much of a misanthrope he is: the proceeds of the book are going to Unicef. That $47 million will be given away to charity. Not that I care.

I went away complaining loudly that he hadn't given me so much as a million. So I'm reverting to my preconceived idea: What a miserable rotter the man is.

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