There are all sorts of risks in life. There’s the risk of turning on The Shire and hoping your brain doesn’t explode (did I just hear that girl say “If someone told me I had to live without my lips,
I think I’d wanna die”?). There’s the risk of losing your will to live when you see Kyle Sandilands still in the media.
And then there’s the risk of having – with the chance of losing – your well-paid, high-profile job as a chief executive officer in advertising, with a nice house and mortgage in Sydney and four children under five.
Ten years ago Nigel Marsh took a risk to get off the corporate mouse wheel – well, he was let go, so there was a little nudge there – and become a writer. Less money but much more freedom, which, as he came to discover, is priceless. He didn’t get his big paydays any more but he did put happiness in the bank and watched the compound interest grow.
Marsh wrote a book about it, Fat, Forty and Fired, which was a success and Warner Bros. wants to film it, and now he’s written another, Fit, Fifty and Fired Up. The man has lost a lot of weight, he’s lost a problem with alcohol, and he’s lost his foothold in the advertising industry, but he’s gained a lot more.
So it’s a happy man – and, it needs to be said, a loquacious man, given his sentences, which, in his excitement, tend to tumble over each other – who answers the door just five minutes from one of the most beautiful beaches in Sydney.
And he’s happy because he’d got his priorities in order. “My wife and daughters are in the UK, so I’m here with my sons alone for two weeks,” he says. “My younger son has had a school skiing trip, staying in some cabin with 50 boys in one room in Jindabyne and coaching to Perisher every day. I thought ‘Do you know what? I’m going to hire a hotel room in Perisher and join you at the end’.”
This is not something Marsh would have done in his previous life when he was fat, 40 and still employed.
“There are many people who are already enlightened … so the story won’t make any sense. The people who’ve cracked the code, good on you, that’s fantastic. And there aren’t many that have, (realising that) life is about meaningful relationships and they’re happy in their own skin. But there are many who aren’t, and those people, they will recognise what I’m saying, which is the notion that I would do what I’ve just done, the notion I’d even think of it, that it would be a good idea, and the notion that I would actually enjoy it, and it was one of the best weekends in my entire life; you either get that or you don’t. It’s the mental thing that I would want to.
“It’s the fork in the road – I’ve got a free weekend, I want to drink lots of beer and get smashed in the pub and moan about the boss or I want to go and spend the whole weekend just with a 14-year-old lad. It’s two different human beings.”
When Marsh lost his job he was overweight, unhealthy and in need of some major changes. “I had just emigrated from across the world with four kids under the age of five and a wife that wasn’t working. You are 15,000 kilometres away from your friends and family, which gives it added complexity.”
There was an epiphany on a plane. “I was flying back from New York – there had been a merge so I knew there was no future – and I read a quote from St Benedict – ‘Pause for a moment, you wretched weakling and take stock of your miserable existence’.”
Marsh knew St Benedict had a point. He paused. He had questioned ways of living before and knew a change was coming. “I studied theology at uni, so it’s not as if I hadn’t been asking questions. My thought process was as simple as ‘I don’t know what I’m running to but I know what I’m running away from’.”
When he looked in the mirror, he saw an overweight man – “a porker”. “It was a cumulative thing,” he says. “From 24 until 40 you’re just eating and drinking too much and doing slightly less exercise as each year goes on.”
He knew he needed to get off the work treadmill and get onto one that made him fit. “That was the whole deal for me. I’m sitting there, lost my job, four kids under five, alcoholic. I was an unemployed ad man. It’s impossible to describe now how genuinely risky what I did was, because it’s worked out. But at the time I didn’t have an agent, hadn’t written a word of a book – what are you doing? My family and close mates were horrified – what are you doing? They said ‘You’ve got to get a job lickety-split, because you’re f---ed, mate’.”
Marsh had been a high-flying advertising exec, one of the founders of Earth Hour, and a stressed man. I asked if the kids felt this stress. “Lots of shouting,” he says. “From me.” (He has two sons – 17 and 14 – and identical twin girls aged 12).
And it was a bit of shock not getting the big payslip any more. “Of course. But for me, addicted to the lifestyle? Definitely not. Caught in it? Yes. I’d had constant dreams about ‘Is this the way you’re supposed to live your life?’ But once you’re in it, you’re in it. You can’t swan in at half-past nine. It’s a high-paced, high-pressure lifestyle.
“Kate and I are different to some in that we never bought into the ‘Keep up with the Joneses, show off, live right to the edge of your means and beyond’. It was an enormous adjustment because we knew there wouldn’t be any money coming in, but it wasn’t the disaster it is for some where if they stop earning in month one, in month two they have to go to jail. My happiness didn’t go down one jot.”
He found turning 40 an enormous liberation. “I made my way up in the world, doing a theology degree, sleeping in the car in London, working my way up in an industry where there are no easy breaks. You can live a life where you think ‘This isn’t really what I want to be doing, but I’ve just got to survive’.
“When you turn 40 I love the notion that you go ‘Do you know what? You’re halfway through. If you aren’t the man now that you want to be, stop your hard-luck story – ‘Gosh, I’ve got to work hard to get on the board or the big job – and (realise) you’re 40, mate. It’s not a joke. I realise if you’re 23 and you want to get to the next level, you’ve got to work hard, but you’re 40! When is the time when you’re going to have a pause and go ‘I wouldn’t mind putting some of the things that are important to me at the centre of my life rather than at the edge’?”
The reaction to Fat, Forty and Fired was extraordinary. “I’ve had 16,0000 letters and emails pouring their hearts out in a way that they probably wouldn’t to their closest mates. They think they know me because they read the book and I put myself in there and they think they’re never going to meet me because why would they? So it’s a safe audience to say ‘I don’t love my husband, I hate my life, I haven’t got any friends’. I get the sex, the drugs, the drink. I also get wonderfully upbeat ones as well.”
“It’s impossible to describe now how genuinely risky what I did was, because it’s worked out.”
Losing his job was devastating at the time but it turned out to be a blessing. “I feel very fortunate retrospectively about what happened to me because at the time I thought my life was ruined and over. If I hadn’t lost my job I’d be four stone (25 kilos) overweight, not three (17). I wouldn’t be drunk yet (at 4pm) but I’d be suggesting ‘Do you fancy a beer?’. And I’d be a sad (ex) advertising bloke. A completely different human being.
“I was sufficiently clever to take the break. What happens to many, many men and women is that they don’t … The sad letters I get are from the 60-year-olds… which is 20 years on from my fat 40 and fired story. (They say) ‘I’m on my third wife, I don’t know the names of any of my children’s friends’. Successful career, old age full of regret.
“Assess the type of person you wanted to be and overlaying that with the type of person you actually are. You might decide ‘I’m really happy being Gordon Gekko, not knowing my wife or my kids, making myself not vice-president of sales but president, that’s great! You crack ahead, mate! You slide into a life where you wake up and go ‘I’m divorced three times, I don’t know my kids but I’m really successful in (business) but I wish I wasn’t. I wish I was married and had a few mates’.”
I asked about Marsh’s alcoholism. “l define myself as an up and out, not a down and out, A functioning alcoholic. If you go to AA, you’ll see vicars, judges, rock stars, it’s the whole section. People want the hard-luck story – I shot someone, I was in prison … (but) I was running an ad agency and I’m still married and I don’t drink and drive and I don’t drink in the morning. You wouldn’t know (I was an alcoholic) unless I tell you. And that provides an added problem because part of the disease, and it’s a clever disease, is you always look for someone worse than you to justify that you haven’t got a problem. It’s pretty easy to justify if you say ‘I’m employed, I’ve never lost my licence, I’ve never hit anybody, how could that be a problem?’.”
I asked how he felt to be soon turning 50. “I don’t want to come across as smug or gloating. but orgasmically fantastic. Joyous. I feel comfortable in my own skin. I love not having to pretend to believe things (that I don’t). Just being authentic and happy. On paper the next decade I haven’t got a clue (what I’ll be doing). I have no idea where life is going to take me, and I’m thrilled and excited by that.”
Marsh is now trim and hasn’t had an alcoholic drink for nine years. He’s in a good place.
As I leave, the afternoon sun of a crystal-clear Sydney winter’s day is just starting to dim. Marsh’s 14-year-old son has arrived home from school and it’s time for Marsh to start thinking about the evening meal. He’s relishing the rewards of fatherhood, without the stress. He shows me his favourite spot in the house – a couch near a fire – where he reads. The mouse wheel seems a long time ago.
» Fit, Fifty and Fired Up, by Nigel Marsh (Allen and Unwin) $29.99