'I refuse to let you force my children to walk behind a hearse'
Mounting debt and intimidation from the bank brought George Mordaunt to the brink. When he found himself looking at his sleeping son and imagining his own funeral, he decided enough was enough, writes CONOR POPE
GEORGE MORDAUNT’S story starts in the dead of night, with thoughts of suicide. Mounting personal debt he could not hope to pay, aggression and intimidation from one of the State’s main banks and the constant and stressful struggle to keep his Clonmel car dealership afloat in the face of an almost complete collapse in sales had taken him to the brink.
After months of sleepless nights, it all came to a head in a Dublin bank two years ago.
“Save the sob story. We want our money. If that means
taking your family home, we’ll do it,” he was told at a meeting arranged to discuss his mounting debts.
“I was stunned. Couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This banker, playing with words, puffing his chest out in a display of ego and bravado, telling me how ruthless he would be with my home, my livelihood, my life,” he writes in his recently published book Shepherd’s Pie.
That night he lay in bed “feeling nauseous and gripped with fear”. He couldn’t sleep and try as he might he could not think of a way to keep a roof over his family’s head. He couldn’t see a way out. “My heart was pounding so hard I could hear it in my chest, my mind actively replaying the scene in the bank’s boardroom that morning.”
Convinced he was having a heart attack, he got out of bed and started pacing the corridors of his house. He found himself in his eight-year-old son’s room.
“I gazed down at him and thought about another man, my age, who I had known very well. His kids were the same age as mine and he had lost his battle with control and fear one evening.”
That man had taken his own life. He thought to himself that he couldn’t let that happen. “But, bizarrely, I found myself imagining that it had. I sat on the side of my son’s bed and imagined my own funeral, with my son and my daughter walking behind a hearse. I wondered whether I was losing my mind but knew I wasn’t. I allowed the pain of the image to take hold and then something I wasn’t expecting happened.”
He started to feel anger.
“Are you going to let those f**kers deprive these children of their father? Are you going to allow them to attack your family and everything that your family has created? Are you going to let them inside the gates of your home or are you going to meet them head on and tell them to f**k off?”
He decided on the latter.
The following morning Mordaunt called the bank official who had apparently relished playing hardball with him. This time, instead of being cowed he was raging. The conversation was short and to the point.
“Listen to me very carefully,” he said. “I refuse to let you or any other bank force my wife and children to walk behind a hearse, so do your worst but don’t ever call me again.”
The bank in question backed off. They issued credit notes for his outstanding loans “and they disappeared out of my life”.
DURING THE BOOM years Mordaunt was flash, and his Clonmel car dealership was big. He owned four showrooms and was selling 40 new cars a week. As part of his sales patter, he would offer potential buyers free helicopter rides. It was all terribly Celtic Tiger.
Then, in 2008, the economy fell off a cliff and took most of his business with it.
He called his book Shepherd’s Pie because, he says, he recalls coming home from a particularly stressful meeting with the bank in Dublin one winter evening in 2009 and seeing his children eating that meal at his kitchen table. At that moment he became acutely aware that they were utterly dependent on him and he was in the process of letting them down.
He documents, with unflinching honesty, how he nearly lost control and how he regained it. In the introduction to the book, Fergus Finlay, the chief executive of Barnardos, describes it as “the most searingly honest account I’ve read anywhere about what it was like to ride the Tiger – and ultimately to be almost devoured by it”. Finlay says it is “one of the best books you’re ever likely to read about what went wrong in our country and why” but will also show people “how to come out of it all as a better, stronger person”.
He is not wrong.
Mordaunt’s story is little short of riveting and may act as an inspiration to thousands of people and small businesses who feel they have run out of options because of the levels of debt they have built up.
Speaking to Pricewatch last week, he said he had been overwhelmed by the response from readers, many of whom said his fears of being driven to suicide chimed with their own.
He says that throughout the course of the recession people have been infuriated by reports of self-serving bankers, developers and government ministers. But the personal trauma and the devastating effect this crisis has had on small businesses and those trying to keep them afloat has been under-reported, he says.
Prompted by the response to the book and the steady stream of mails from people who say they have been bullied by banks and are close to breaking point, Mordaunt is embarking on something of a crusade. More needs to be done to highlight the fear people feel, he says.
He has a no-nonsense philosophy on dealing with banks and managing debt. He also says debt forgiveness is a reality, despite frequent denials by the banks. For many, he says, it depends on the approach that is taken.
When dealing with banks people need to talk to the right people and prepare carefully, he says. Crucially, they need to show they “haven’t got the ability to pay” their debts by documenting every outgoing and being straight.
“If you’re meeting your repayments but it is destroying every other aspect of your life then you have to stop, but you can’t just stop: you have to demonstrate that you can’t pay,” he says.
He says “the business people of Ireland have been treating the bankers with the same respect their parents gave the clergy in the 1950s. We need to play more hardball with them.
“And the bankers need to be conscious of the mental state of the people they are dealing with. Some of the individuals going in will not have eaten in days, won’t have slept and will be incredibly scared. That makes them very vulnerable.”
Mordaunt’s experience and his correspondence with people who have read the book echo comments made by the Master of the High Court, Edmund Honohan, earlier this year. He criticised banks and other creditors for pursuing “to the bitter end” debtors who simply cannot pay, with the objective of writing off debts to achieve a tax benefit. He said that meaningless “accountancy exercises” were causing social disquiet and driving some people to suicide.
His comments are backed up by extensive research. A study published in the Lancet earlier this year found that suicide rates had risen sharply across Europe since the banking crisis, with growing numbers struggling to cope with debt, unemployment and austerity measures.
In Ireland, it said, the problem was particularly acute. It recorded a 13 per cent rise in suicides between 2007 and 2009, a rise it attributed to unmanageable debts and poor prospects for economic recovery.
Speaking when the study was published this summer, Dr David Stuckler, its lead author and a lecturer in sociology at the University of Cambridge, said human beings were “the real tragedy of an economic crisis, so it is terribly frustrating that government leaders have not only failed to invest in programmes that protect people but have actually done the opposite . . . This has been the pattern for three-and-a-half decades, but lessons have not been learnt.”
Mordaunt has learned lessons. He has completely redesigned his business and dumped the new-car sales in favour of selling UK imports all over the country and has launched wesourceNEcar.com, which promises to find second-hand cars based on precise requirements.
“I have recovered. I was able to get fresh money. I sorted my head out and I parked my debt. Who wouldn’t recover in those circumstances?”
Now, he says, he wants to help other people come to terms with their situations, too.
Shepherd’s Pie by George Mordaunt is published by Mercier Press
‘ Don’t bottle things up’
THE DIRECTOR of the Samaritans in Ireland, Suzanne Costello, says that while recession and economic difficulties heighten the risk of suicide, they do not make it inevitable.
She says that since 2008 one in 10 calls to the organisation in Ireland have been directly related to financial matters but adds that the issue also permeates many other calls. She says that while it is a “complex set of events” that lead people to develop suicidal thoughts, a financial crisis such as the threat of home repossession can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
She points out that many of those in severe difficulty as a result of the recession are people, like George Mordaunt, who are in their 30s and 40s and find they are saddled with enormous debts and can’t see any way out of the crisis.
A lot of men, in particular, regard financial weakness as “a huge blow to their self-esteem”, she says, and adds that books like Shepherd’s Pie by Mordaunt, which show someone coming close to the brink but turning things around, can be very positive and empowering. She stresses the need for people to keep communicating with family, friends, a GP or the Samaritans and stresses that it is “very important not to bottle things up”.
SIGNS TO LOOK OUT FOR – Take notice when someone is:
Withdrawn or unsociable
Low-spirited or depressed
Drinking alcohol excessively or becoming dependent on drugs
Finding it difficult to relate to others
Taking less care of themselves
Acting out of character
Tearful or constantly fighting back tears
Being excessively irritable
Finding it hard to concentrate
Feeling less energetic or particularly tired
Eating much less or much more than usual
Putting themselves down (self-mockingly as well as seriously), eg “nobody loves me” or “I’m a waste of space”
The Samaritans can be contacted on 1850 60 90 90 or firstname.lastname@example.org