When people compare the current credit crunch with the economic collapse of the 90s, I have to take several deep breaths. For me and my family, no matter how bad the economy gets, nothing could compare with that time.
In the summer of 1990, when I was 19, I went to stay with my parents, having just finished my second year of a politics degree at the University of Essex. During the car journey, my stepfather, Bill, announced that he and my mother, Jacqui, had given up their jobs and bought a country inn, complete with a large bar, a 100-seat restaurant and an annexed hotel.
It was sudden, but not unexpected. Bill had dreamed of owning a pub for many years, and although my mum, a personal assistant to a City fund manager, had been reluctant to give up her job, Bill was the happiest I'd ever seen him. He had been made redundant several times in the 80s, and it was often my mother's salary that kept things going, paying the bills and mortgage and sometimes even the maintenance payments to his ex-wife.
The pub was to be their pension and, at the time, it seemed like a good idea. Things still looked rosy in those days, with house prices rising and people spending like crazy on credit cards. It seemed as if you couldn't lose on property, and mum and Bill had traded up on their house quite a few times; I think they were quite caught up in the spirit of the times.
As with most businesses, they didn't quite own the pub. The building had cost £700,000, and that was before the expenses of running the business. They had to part-exchange our £250,000 five-bedroom house and take out a loan of more than £400,000. I think there were other loans too, but I didn't pay too much attention: I was too excited about my summer trip, travelling around Egypt with friends.
We had to move out of our home, but the pub was just down the road from where we had been living in Birchanger, Essex, so it wasn't too much of an upheaval for me and my sister, Katie, then 18. And that summer, Bill was in his element. For the first time since he'd married my mother, we got on. We'd never had the greatest relationship, but I began to respect him for the long hours he was putting in to make his dream a reality.
At that time, gastropubs were just starting to become popular, and mum revitalised the menu, introducing gourmet food such as real ale pies. They put out hanging baskets, and carried out a modern refurbishment. By Christmas, the pub was looking like a great investment; the restaurant was fully booked, and the hotel was making good money.
Gradually, though, it became clear that even though Bill and my mother were working flat out, the figures were not adding up as he had expected. I think Bill had known he was taking a risk, and some corners were cut, but the bank liked my parents and felt that the business was worth the amount they had wanted to borrow.
Then, at the beginning of 1991, the Gulf war had an impact on the stock markets, and people started tightening their belts. Locals still came in for dinner, but only once a week instead of twice. People were drinking less, and that spring and summer saw a slight but noticeable drop in business. Bill didn't seem too concerned, but my mother went back to work in London. The pub was still doing as well as its neighbouring rivals (one of which was the pub owned by Jamie Oliver's dad) but the mortgage and loan repayments were so huge - about £4,000 a month - that any dip in business was really bad news.
I spent the summer after my graduation in 1991 travelling around south-east Asia and returned at the end of October. My grandmother, who had sold her house in London to move in with us, told me that my parents had been having huge fights over money, with my mother accusing my stepfather of not having checked the figures of the pub properly.
My stepfather had always had a dramatic side, so when he took my sister and me aside one evening and asked us to make sure that "whatever happened" we "took care of mum", we dismissed it as "Bill being dramatic".
That evening, a Sunday in early November, I went to bed early. I couldn't sleep very well, and in the early hours of the morning I nearly got up to join Bill in the lounge; I had heard him cough and could hear the TV on.
The next morning my mum was frantic. Bill had gone missing. She called around, asking friends if they'd seen him. Then she admitted she'd taken the week off work because Bill had been crying; something he, in common with many men of his generation, simply never did.
At about 10am, some friends of my parents came to the pub, asking me where my mother was. The next thing I remember was my mum screaming, and someone calling for the doctor. The police arrived. Bill had taken the family Volvo to a nearby field and gassed himself.
The next few days were a daze, but things started coming out: how mortgage payments had been missed, how Bill had been drinking a lot. He had made a recording just before he died, and in it he talked about their life insurance, and how it was going to sort things out. It didn't take long to discover that their life insurance had been mis-sold: it was worthless.
I hoped people would rally round and help us. Not only had my mother lost her husband, she had been left with a pub to run and mounting debts. Instead, she struggled to keep the inn running on her own, and I postponed a journalism course to help. She worked long hours, but she still wasn't making nearly enough when interest rates started to go up in 1992. She tried to hide it from us, but I'd answer the phone to find it was the brewery demanding payments. I knew what was going on.
Black Wednesday hit, and my mother didn't stand a chance. Eighteen months after Bill's death, the receivers came in and sold the pub for the ridiculously low price of £300,000. Having worked full-time for most of her life, and bought her first house at 21, my mother was left penniless. She lost her home, her pension, and many years' worth of savings.
Mum tried to hold it together: not just for us, but also because she didn't want the pity of other people. She encouraged me to take up my place on the journalism course and, after a stint on a local newspaper, I took a job as pensions correspondent for a financial magazine.
Looking back, it was no coincidence that I felt drawn towards financial journalism. In the years following Bill's death I had become blasé about money. When your mother has lost more than half a million pounds, smaller amounts begin to seem meaningless. Spending money became tied up with my emotional state: I thought if I treated myself to a new haircut or new clothes, I'd feel better.
Underneath it all, I knew I needed to take control of my attitude towards money, and writing about financial issues seemed to be a way of doing that. I also desperately wanted a career that would be a stable source of income. I was determined never to find myself in the same situation as my mother had.
Since then, I have written a book advising young people about financial issues. I wish I'd understood more about it when I was younger. My parents, and my mother and stepfather, had always argued about money. And what happened with Bill only cemented the sense that money was a matter of life and death.
Now, after counselling to deal with Bill's death, and a concerted effort to get my own spending under control, money is no longer the most important thing in my life. I'm not jealous of people who have lots of it any more. When you've lost everything, you realise that it is health, not money, that is the greatest blessing.
My mother is still angry about the way things turned out, particularly because she always wanted to give my sister and me the financial stability her mother had given her. I will never really come to terms with what Bill did and the debts he left her with. I will certainly never put myself in the situation that my mum and Bill put themselves in. But at the same time I feel that there is no problem, however severe, that cannot be dealt with.
In the future, I'd like to set up a charity that helps people with financial troubles. One of the hardest things, and something Bill found extremely difficult, is admitting that you have problems. But once you do, there's nothing that can't be overcome. I know that now.
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