Some people are born rich, some acquire riches and some occasionally get an invitation to hang out in the land of the rich. Of these groups, the third is the most unpleasant. It is made up of the grabbers and gobblers and braggarts. They grab all the freebies, gobble down the Michelin-starred meals and boast about their experiences to anyone who will listen. I know because I’m one of them.
Every now and again I get a day-pass into Richland. I’m invited to a conference dominated by the super-rich or on a junket that will provide me with information that I couldn’t otherwise get (The Economist has strict rules about these things). I always start off securely astride my high horse, a fearless crusader determined to expose pomp and privilege to universal ridicule. But no sooner has a billionaire bothered to notice my existence than I’m reduced to a fawning courtier, hanging on their every word and trying to position myself to write their biography.
One of the most intoxicating things about Richland is the free stuff you’re given. At high-class bars you can fill yourself up with delicious nibbles; luxury-goods companies weigh you down with overflowing swag bags. But the most desirable free stuff is experiential, for rich people are constantly seeking out novel sensations to dispel their ennui.
The latest fad is cryotherapy – getting yourself frozen to -120°F. When I first heard about this I snorted with derision. But given a chance to do it, I naturally signed up.
The uniform is hardly flattering – underpants, socks, a headband around your ears and tape over your nipples (“to stop them falling off”). You step into a chamber the size of a shower cubicle and get frozen to -60° for 30 seconds, which is followed by two minutes at the full -120°.
The experience is like nothing else. Your entire body feels as though it is turning into ice; the backs of your legs begin to ache; a voice marks the passage of time every 15 seconds and you long for the announcement that your two minutes of torture are over.
On leaving the chamber my initial feelings were of gratitude that I was still alive and determination never to go through it again. But when the blood rushed to my extremities to compensate for the extreme cold, the high kicked in. My body glowed with health. My mind was ice-clear. I was Superman! I fully deserved to be a citizen of Richland!
I swaggered into a booth selling private jets and chatted up the elegant lady running it. At first the conversation went well – we talked about her home town, Charleston, as well as my luxury-jet needs – but then I noticed a flicker of disgust in her eyes. At first I thought I must have given away my true net worth. But looking down, I noticed that through my badly buttoned shirt, my nipples, still covered in tape, were visible.
For all its welcoming veneer, Richland lays innumerable traps for intruders. I once got talking to a charming Brazilian at a conference. He told me, or at least I thought he told me, that he found it much more difficult to buy a Miller than a Budweiser. I replied that they were pretty interchangeable and that the bar looked well stocked. It was only later that I learned that this was Jorge Paulo Lemann, the boss of 3G, one of the world’s most successful private-equity firms, and that, having pocketed Budweiser for $52 billion, he was in the process of buying SAB Miller for $106 billion.
My intruder status was brought painfully home to me at a party given by the Emir of Dubai. I had piled my plate high with food and, searching for a place to sit, I noticed an empty tent with plenty of spare seats. I settled down on the comfiest-looking one and began to stuff myself. Suddenly a crowd of angry men emerged from nowhere and began berating me in Arabic: it turned out that I had seized the emir’s throne and defiled it with my plebeian bottom.
My trips on private jets usually lead to humiliation. On a recent one I was handed not just a hot towel but also a tube of hand lotion. Assuming that this expensive unguent would turn my scaly claws into the silky paws of the pampered, I squeezed out a huge blob, and then got lost in conversation with my neighbour. A few minutes later I realised that I had smeared it all over my jacket and trousers.
On another trip, feeling that my host had been generous enough already, I refused the offer of a limousine to take me home from the private terminal. The ground staff looked amused when I asked for directions to the nearest taxi stand, and pointed to the regular airport over the distant horizon. The rest of my party had long ago been whisked away by their chauffeurs, and I had no choice but to drag my luggage across the concrete wasteland to the world where I really belonged.