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  1. Wealth
March 2, 2009updated 28 Jan 2016 7:23pm

New Yorkers trading down

By William Cash

If you are a recently-fired Wall Streeter there’s always the Moon and Sixpence approach to getting your life back on track.

If you are a Wall Street type who has recently been fired, a Madoff victim feeling sorry for yourself, or newly impoverished Lehman Bros trader, there’s always the Moon and Sixpence approach to getting your life back on track.

The Moon and Sixpence is a novel by Somerset Maugham which relates the story of a successful Parisian banker who decides to jack it all in – including dumping the wife and kids – and flee the Paris Stock Exchange to pursue the life of a penniless painter in the South Seas.

The book was inspired by the life of Gauguin; and it seems that today there are plenty of New Yorkers who are thinking of trading their Manhattan lifestyles for that of a monk. I’ve been in New York for a few days and I’ve loved seeing the following ad which is splashed all over the subways and buses: ‘Day shift? Night shift? How about a life shift?’

The ad has been paid for by an organisation called the Holy Name Province which is a Catholic community of friars based in New York. All ordained new priests have to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as well as handing over anything they have left in their bank accounts.

They all live together in a friary on  West 31st Street. The last 12 months has seen a record number of new recruits. Although membership currently runs to only 372, the number of enquiries are running into the hundreds each week.

Of all the monkish vows, I imagine the vow of poverty must be the most difficult for affluent New Yorker types to consider as in New York, perhaps more than any other city in the world, poverty is seen as a social and moral disease.

When I used to visit New York frequently in the 1990s when I worked for The Times in the US, there was stigma attached to losing your job or just being poor. If somebody was fired from their Wall Street job, they would simply disappear off the social radar.

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I remember Anthony Haden-Guest once telling me a story about such a friend of his who was fired because he liked to drink a glass of wine (or two) at lunch and Anthony found himself being almost ridiculed for admitting that he had remained good friends with the man, despite his loss of social status.

The New Yorkers I knew in the 1980s and 1990s invariably applied the cut-throat philosophy of the ruthless and self-serving sexual vixen, the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil, who was played by Glenn Close in the movie version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, adapted from the novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

Her philosophy on life was ‘win or die’, a variation on the modern New York hedge fund culture mantra of ‘eat what you kill’.

The idea of New Yorkers now actively embracing poverty and giving away their BMW and their Scully & Scully antique repro-furniture for a cell in a friary might seem absurd. But the idea of a ‘life shift’ is something that is actually quintessentially American.

People forget that the country was founded by the Pilgrim fathers, a disparate group of religiously minded European adventurers – originally from the East Midlands – who were attracted to the idea of America as a place where they might find ‘a better, and easier place of living’, away from the greed-is-good decadence of 17th century Europe, the ‘children’ of the group being ‘drawn away by evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses’.

Although we have long been held to believe that Americans worship at the altar of money, capitalism and consumerism, the reality is that the country’s DNA has always been more ‘life shift’ than ‘win or die’.

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