WHEN I WAS nine, I won ten Cadillacs from my father in a bet. The deal was that I'd be able to claim my luxury American gas guzzlers when I was twenty-one. Until then, my father reserved the right to win them back through further bets.
The marque had a lot to do with my father's aspirations. The multinational oil company he worked for gave its employees cars precisely commensurate with their fingerhold on the slope of the corporate pyramid. At the time, my father was driving a middlebrow Ford with a radio and white-walled tyres. A Cadillac Eldorado or De Ville was a distant future prize but, given his temperament and the forces that were propelling him through life, I've no doubt he had his eye fixed on it even then.
The year was 1954. We were living in Guatemala, a small Central American country prone to earthquakes and social inequity. My father was manager of Shell's Guatemala operation, whose function was to market imported oil products around the country. The subject of our bet was the quetzal, one of the western hemisphere's showiest birds and Guatemala's national emblem. With iridescent green tail feathers up to three metres long, the quetzal lived in the remote cloud forests of Guatemala's central highlands. I'd been learning about it at school, so when my father claimed one day that it was extinct, I pounced.
"No, it's not."
"Yes, it is."
"Betcha it's not."
He looked me in the eye for a moment, sucking on his pipe and making
it gurgle like the bathroom sink draining.
"Righto. I'll bet on that."
He was prone to using British idioms like that. "Righto", "righty-ho", "goodo", "cheerio", "snafu", "tally-ho, chaps" and "jolly good show", that kind of thing. He'd probably grown up with some of them in Chile before the war and picked up a good many more in the RAF during it. I was at the American School in Guatemala City and had acquired up-to-the-minute yankspeak. When he uttered those quaint expressions alone to me, I would jeer at him inwardly; when there were other people around to hear him, the sweat would break out on my upper lip.
"Okay," I said. "Twenty Cadillacs."
"Good grief! No, just one."
ALTHOUGH MY FATHER was an oil man, he could just as easily have been a detergent man or a home-appliances man. He would have succeeded in any business that held out to an impatient rookie the shiny prospect of a place at the top of the heap. This impatience may have had much to do with circumstance: he saw the business world as offering him an escape route from mediocrity and provincialism and he couldn't wait to hit the road.
Despite his skills and a growing bank of experience, my father insisted in later life that luck played a major, if not the major, role in his business success. He conceded that there were other people more talented and more clever than he in Shell but that he leapfrogged over them because he happened to be in the right places at the right times and knew the right people. He was, he said, the last of the uneducated to become a senior executive in the company.
Luck and contacts played their role from the start. My father joined Shell in Santiago, the Chilean capital, in 1937, at the age of fifteen. His father, Lionel Meredith, got him the job. Lionel was a Freemason; the general manager of Shell's Chilean operation was also a Freemason but junior to him. So Lionel pulled rank to give his son a leg-up.
Lionel, a stocky, good-looking fitness fanatic, had emigrated from England's midlands in 1906 to work in the nitrate industry in northern Chile. Nitrate, which yielded nitrogen for explosives, fertiliser and a range of chemicals, was Chile's biggest foreign-cash earner, although the industry was mainly British-owned. In 1910, Lionel married Maria Concepción Pinto Ceballos (always called "Conchita"), the youngest of eighteen children of a Sorbonne-educated Ecuadorian doctor and his Peruvian wife. Conchita produced a daughter and five sons, the youngest of whom was Wilfred, my father, born in 1922.
While the nitrate business flourished, Lionel and Conchita's children led charmed lives, spending their free hours horse riding in the Atacama Desert, swimming in pools and the Pacific and playing tennis. But the idyll began to crumble in 1924, when Conchita died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-six. Then a combination of the Depression and the growing output of synthetic nitrate killed the Chilean nitrate industry. Jobless, penniless and wifeless, Lionel ended up in Santiago in about 1927 selling insurance. Life for the Merediths had become far less carefree.
Having inherited Lionel's love of physical activity, as well as his good looks, Wilfred did better at sport than academic subjects at school. The most useful skills he brought to his first job were shorthand and typing. He started as secretary, filing clerk and dogsbody to the general manager's female secretary, who took advantage of the handsome lad in the filing cupboard on more than one occasion, though not against his will.
After a while the routine became so boring that not even the hanky-panky could compensate. The only job worth having in the organisation, he decided, was the general manager's. He saw that the way to get it was to study for a qualification, gain a reputation for hard work and foster useful contacts. So he embarked on a correspondence course in automotive engineering and began to put in long hours at the office. Three years later, with a diploma in automotive engineering in his pocket, he was posted as sales rep to Antofagasta, a copper and nitrate port on Chile's mid-north coast.
WORLD WAR II interrupted Wilf's upward march only briefly. Like many of his fellow expats in Chile, he volunteered to fight for Britain. Unlike most, he had a good war, flying bombers for the RAF and emerging from it unscathed, self-confident and itching to celebrate life. Having married his long-time girlfriend, Joan Irvine, another Chilean-born British expat, he was back in Antofagasta in 1950 as Shell's branch manager. By then he and Joan had three children – me (born in England in 1946) and my two younger sisters (Gill and Jean, born in Chile).
Despite his flourishing career and the nightly parties in Anto, by 1951 Wilf was beginning to feel he was slogging up a dead end. The most he could hope for after a lifelong Shell career in Chile would be the post of general manager there. He wanted more than that. He wanted to jump from the little pond into the big pond, from Shell Chile to Shell International, "to a life where horizons were broader, where I could prove myself to be as good as any other in the Shell Group".
Shell International was Big Daddy. This supranational corporation was an entity set up by Royal Dutch Shell to manage its subsidiaries around the world. Royal Dutch Shell was born in 1903 out of a merger between the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company (founded in 1890) and The "Shell" Transport and Trading Company, a United Kingdom firm (founded in 1833) that handled cooking and lamp oil, though initially it imported seashells for British collectors. In the early twentieth century, Shell expanded vigorously, buying or setting up subsidiaries in Europe, Africa and the Americas. The immediate post-World War II period marked the start of a worldwide boom in oil demand that paralleled the explosion in car sales.
For some time my father had been suggesting to Shell Chile's general manager that a trip or posting outside the country was bound to sharpen a young man's business skills. Early in 1952 his hints paid off: he was to be sent on a temporary assignment to Guatemala, though he'd still be on the Chile payroll. It was his big break, "one of those chances that hardly ever comes in a whole lifetime", as he said of it later, another of those turning points that he ascribed to luck or the hidden hand of a sponsor or patron somewhere in the corporation.
His hunger for this posting was put to the test on the morning we stepped off a disintegrating DC3 at Guatemala City's airport. The British local manager, one of the Shell dignitaries who met us, handed my father a telegram as soon as they were done with greetings. Its message was that Lionel had died in Chile while we'd been en route. To have returned to Chile for his father's funeral might have stalled Wilf's career right then. He read the telegram in silence, folded it, put it in his jacket pocket and got on with the business at hand.
We moved into the departing manager's house. Called "Las Brisas" ("The Breezes"), it had two storeys and stuccoed walls and was our biggest and most luxurious so far, though it had no phone. It came with three servants, all Mayan: a gardener with a torn ear and a grudge against the colonising race; a sad crone, the kitchen maid, who drank and had a disturbing way with a carving knife; and a sweet, plump housemaid named Marta who loved children.
My father started travelling a day or two after taking over the job. After touring Shell's facilities in Guatemala, he started on neighbouring countries. During his trips, my mother's anxiety filled the house like a fine aerosol, and the replica Roman broadsword that normally stood on the mantelpiece migrated to her bedside. She'd sit in a wicker chair on the back patio, smoking du Mauriers, darning socks or writing letters as hummingbirds drank from the honeysuckle on the balustrade. I'd sometimes find her there when I came home from school. We'd have tea and biscuits that Marta brought us on a tray, and my mother would occasionally gaze beyond the honeysuckle and the kikuyu lawn to the high wall at the bottom of the garden. A ladder was propped permanently against it. The gardener lived on the other side in a shack with his family. He'd toss bricks over the wall from his side if he knew I was nearby on our side.
WHEN MY FATHER Was home, activity in the household would move onto a higher level, as though someone had pushed a lever. The frown would lift from my mother's face and my sisters would shout and laugh and we would run about. After work my father would sometimes tell me war stories. He'd shaved off his RAF moustache by then, and though he'd filled out a little around the waist and face, to me he was still the lean, swashbuckling aeronaut who flew under a lucky star. His pipe would rattle between his half-clenched teeth as he repeated the turret gunner's warning, "Bandits at five o'clock! Bandits at five o'clock!" and his hands swooped down to show how Jerry fighters, with Spitfires on their tails, pierced his squadron of light bombers.
I daydreamed of planes and flying. We lived in the flight path of the airport and I learnt to recognise the different aircraft by the sound of their engines. At night, I'd lie awake and watch them passing over the house in my mind: a Super Constellation, a DC3, a Cessna, a Piper ...
Then, at dawn on the morning of June 18, 1954, when I was eight years old, I was awoken by an aircraft I'd never heard before. It snarled in a way that made me sit up. That morning the school bus failed to arrive. My mother had the radio going in the sitting room and the maids had theirs on in the kitchen. The radios issued blasts of unfamiliar, strident music, broken by voices shouting about something called liberation. Later, two chunky fighter planes of an astonishing blue howled over our part of town and seconds afterwards there were bursts of machine-gun fire.
If my father had been there he'd have explained what was going on, I knew for sure; he'd have been able to dispel our sense of impending doom. But he was in London attending a Shell course, and my mother's mist of anxiety turned into a fog. We followed her around like a small school of minnows. She smoked and cleared her throat a lot, and when she spoke it was in a voice pitched higher than normal, her lips tightened into a little smile that was meant to reassure but didn't. This caused the maids to reply in long harangues punctuated by cries of "Ayayay!" and pleas to the Good Lord, his son and the Virgin.
She put on the same face when the torn-eared gardener came to the back patio to ask if he could move his family and animals into our garage for safety. When she said no, I worried that he might lob a lot more bricks over the wall.
The full story of what happened in the Guatemalan coup of 1954 emerged years later. Suffice to say the Americans instigated an armed putsch that ousted Guatemala's democratically elected president, whose left-wing ideas and communist sympathies the Americans considered a threat. A shambolic ground offensive by right-wing paramilitaries achieved less than some noisy but mostly harmless air attacks combined with an ingenious psychological campaign delivered by radio.
During the ten days of the coup, my mother heard nothing from or of Wilf. British diplomatic officials advised her to stay at home and await orders in the event of an evacuation. There were blackouts at night during which we would have dinner behind the big sofa by the light of a tiny candle. Lying in bed, I would hear occasional shots, some far away, some closer, and now and then a bullet flew over the house.
The first air attacks filled me with terror. It was a feeling of being stalked by people bent on killing me, and me alone. "Why me?" I wondered. What had I done to earn such detestation? When the planes came over and the bombing and shooting started, the sound was of fabric ripping, as though the sky were being torn apart from horizon to horizon. It was a solid thing that battered the wind out of me like a fist.
But soon the attacks lost their sting and a high-voltage exhilaration took over. On June 25, when the planes bombed the city's military barracks, I danced on our front balustrade as I watched the aircraft dive and the distant smoke rise.
The following day, a technician from the Shell oil depot on the city's outskirts called by. We kids pushed in close to my mother as she spoke with him at the front door. The man told her in Spanish that the planes had strafed the depot before attacking the barracks but had only punctured the tanks without setting fire to them. He showed us a machine-gun bullet recovered from the site. It seemed huge in his hand, like a copper sausage, and it was slightly bent.
On Saturday June 19, the day after the first attacks, my father had read about them in the British newspapers and phoned the Foreign Office. An official assured him there was nothing to worry about. So he decided to stay in London. His course still had another week to run but, more importantly, he had interviews with senior executives on the following Monday. On those interviews rested his career's future direction: they would dictate whether he would return to Shell Chile or join Shell International and move out into the wider world. He arrived home five days after the coup was over.
The Americans installed a puppet right-wing regime, I went back to school, my father confirmed from workers in his office that the quetzal was alive and reasonably well in the highlands, and the torn-eared gardener made peace with me by giving me a slingshot to shoot hummingbirds with. I always missed, which made him cackle oddly.
Less than six months later, Shell posted my father to Brazil as regional sales manager. He was in the big league at last.
MY FATHER'S LUCKY star shone for the next decade. After Brazil, there were postings to Mozambique and Portugal. In each case, the house and the car got bigger and the servants more numerous. Portugal was the jewel in the Shell crown. The job came with a house as big as a hotel and a chauffeur-driven Oldsmobile like an aircraft carrier.
By the time my father took over as managing director of Shell Portugal, we kids were at boarding school in England. As it had in Mozambique, the company paid for our air fares home in the holidays. In summer especially, the days in Portugal seemed to pass in a hedonistic haze. It wasn't all beaches, pools, bars, nightclubs, dinners in ritzy restaurants and parties aboard gin palaces on a glittering sea, but there were enough of those to make me remember Portugal as Elysium and not as an ugly police state under the dictator Antonio Salazar. The real world lay far beyond the horizon.
And that's how it was for my father too. "The atmosphere in which I worked was heady; so was the socialising," he wrote later. "One could easily succumb to all the sybaritic temptations and, under the disguise of 'making connections', have a very good time. Wine was cheap and plentiful and it was considered discourteous to refuse it ... I have never before or after drunk so many Alka-Seltzers as I did in my four years in Portugal. All this was not doing my health any good, although my ego was functioning all right."
Looking back later, he saw that a kind of "folie de grandeur" had set in towards the end of his tenure in Portugal. "I took it quite naturally [sic] for my chauffeur to overtake the British Ambassador's car on the way to a reception and to put me down ahead of him. I sealed my fate in Portugal when the Co-ordinator Europe, Len, came south from The Hague for a visit/inspection. I laid on a lunch of sumptuous proportions for twelve of the most distinguished businessmen and financiers in Portugal ... It was all too good to be acceptable to Len."
Len had given my father's career an upward nudge more than once in the past. This time, though, he nudged my father in the opposite direction. Dad landed with a dull thud at Shell's head office in The Hague, Holland. There he had a job he found restrictive and a salary he considered inadequate. His house was two shoeboxes on top of one another, and his car was a frumpy Ford Zodiac he bought with borrowed money. In Portugal he'd been a big wheel; in The Hague he was a small cog in a vast machine.
It looked like Wilf's last post. His bosses, some of whom knew of his sybaritic tendencies, gave him no reason to believe otherwise. They told him they saw little future for him outside Holland and that, at the age of forty-five, he should resign himself to living and working there for a long time.
After I graduated from an English university in the middle of 1968, aged twenty-two, I hung out in London doing casual work, mostly for a house-cleaning agency called Housewives' Services. I lived in a flat with a mob of acid freaks, potheads and drunkards, all formerly respectable friends of mine. I tuned into Jimi Hendrix, turned on to a pocketful of mind-altering substances and would have dropped out had I not needed cash for food. I ranted on against Big Business, population growth and a capitalist-plutocratic economic system that fed off population growth, polluted the planet and was looking to dragoon me into its ranks to further its malevolent aims.
As the economic system's ambassador, my father was doing the dragooning – by announcing that he would cut off my rent allowance in six weeks. It would therefore be wise, he said, to find a "proper" job pretty quickly. He did try to help me with my job hunting, though. He believed with every cell of his body that business life, and especially Shell business life, was the best kind of life a man could want. I knew he'd have been proud if I'd joined Shell and followed him up the pyramid.
"I want to travel and write for a living," I told him once when he was in London on a business visit from The Hague.
"How will you do that?"
"As a journalist – a foreign correspondent or a travel writer or something."
He shook his head. "I don't know anyone in journalism. From what I hear it's extremely difficult to break into. Still, it's something to aim for, I suppose. In the meantime I'll arrange an interview for you with a personnel chappie I know in Shell. I'll pay for you to get your hair cut and your suit cleaned."
I acquiesced, had a haircut and wore a clean suit to see the personnel chappie in Shell. He didn't like what I had to offer and I hated what he had to offer. So my father arranged an interview with one of his other mates in Big Business, but that didn't work out either. Then my father suggested advertising. He knew someone in one of the London agencies, he said. I reasoned to myself that at least in advertising there'd be scope for imaginative writing: I could turn out persuasive copy during the day and write brilliant novels by night. The agency put me through an aptitude test but didn't find me apt.
With the rent-allowance cut-off date looming, my letters of application grew more eloquent. Eventually, after interviewing me more than once, Big Tobacco offered me a job as a management trainee. The interviewers had hinted at the possibility of travel to exotic places and also promised a generous cigarette allowance. As I was smoking nearly forty a day at the time, this was enticing. I accepted at once and began to wear a suit five days a week and smoke the company's brands seven days a week.
AROUND THE TIME I joined big tobacco, my father's lucky star made its last pass across the firmament. It directed his superiors to change their minds about him and post him back to South America. He went as a director of Shell Venezuela, the most important Shell production company at the time. One of his biggest tasks was to set up a marketing organisation to control the activities of Shell in the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America. His staff called him the Tsar of the Caribbean. It was his most prestigious and best-paid posting.
I was surprised, therefore, when I later visited my parents in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, to find them living in a house that was modest after their mansion in Portugal. Granted, the house had three storeys, but this was because it was built into a hillside. It had no a garage, just a single-space carport for my father's second-hand Chev with a blowy muffler.
What was he playing at? Was he going easy on the status symbols to save money? Or was he into reverse status, so at ease in his position that he could dispense with some of its outward trappings? They were some of the many questions I never asked him.
From his earliest days with Shell, my father had relished personal contact with far-flung company representatives. During one of my holiday visits to Caracas, he was due to fly to Lake Maracaibo, in north-western Venezuela, to inspect the company's facilities there. He invited my mother, my sister Gill and me along for the ride.
Covering some 13,000 square kilometres, Lake Maracaibo is South America's biggest lake and is thought to be the second oldest lake in the world. Long before the Spanish conquest, oil had been seeping from a hill on the lake's eastern shore, providing indigenous Indians with medicines and fuel for fires. The oil came from what is now known to be Venezuela's richest deposit, one that Shell began exploiting in 1924, thereby helping to make the country the world's fifth largest oil exporter. At the time of our visit, Venezuela was producing about 3.6 million barrels a day, seventy per cent of it in the Maracaibo region, and Shell was pumping about a million barrels a day from wells in and around the lake.
A mostly empty twenty-seater Shell plane flew us from Caracas to Lagunillas, an oil town on the lake's eastern shore. I was grumpy, withdrawn and rebellious. I reckoned I had good reason to be. My job with Big Tobacco wasn't working out and environmental issues were on my mind. They centred mainly on pollution, for which I blamed the big corporations, including my father's. So it wasn't surprising that my mood failed to be lifted by what I saw from the plane as we made our landing approach. One window showed the lake, its littoral waters forested with derricks, rigs, wellheads, balance pumps and drilling barges. The other gave a view of endless scrubland sliced by pipes and dirt roads and blotched with dark patches I took to be spills.
When we stepped out of the plane, the boiling clouds of this overcast day tried to climb into my lungs. I was deeply grateful for the air-conditioning in the purple Cadillac De Ville that awaited us. However, as the middle-ranking manager who was our driver and guide sped us through the dead-flat scrub towards the oil town, the very coolness added to the feeling of unreality that overcame me as I rode in this sumptuously furnished machine, with its synthetic paisley and fake-leather upholstery, its electric windows and inaudible engine, through a landscape being ripped apart to provide fuel for it.
We followed a triple pipeline into the town on a road sealed in crude oil mixed with sand. Balance pumps dipped and rose like giant mantises at the roadside, in churchyards, in parks and among the shanties of the unskilled workers who'd flocked to the region to find oil-related jobs. In places, pipes looped over the road. We passed a drilling rig that was installing a new well on the verge. Further on, outside the gates of a tank farm, an oil-fouled dog was licking itself clean.
Because it was strictly a business trip, the rest of us had to trail after my father as deferential men guided him around and pointed every which way. We visited one of the Shell camps, where thousands of people lived and worked in air-conditioned regimentation. We skimmed in an air-conditioned powerboat over the lake to unmanned pumping stations and gas-separating plants that hummed to one another across the water.
And, at one point during the day, we pulled up at a beach where we got out of the car to stare at black-stained rocks and a tableau of steel spires on grey water. I thought: "This is where it starts. This is where the stuff comes from that powers that Cadillac, gave Dad the life he so cherished, raised me, educated me, made me what I am and flew me halfway around the world to this spot to contemplate the meaning of it all."
I glanced about, wondering how the place looked before the Spanish came and how it would look after the oil ran out.
AS WE DROVE on, I eyed the little Cadillac logos dotted around the inside of the car. With their shield, crown and laurel wreath symbols, they denoted, I supposed, privilege, regality and success. It struck me, not for the first time that day, how apt it was that, at the pinnacle of his career, my father should be parading around in a car he once considered the acme of motoring prestige.
I always remembered the ten Cadillacs I'd won in 1954, but I had no idea what had happened to all but one of them. My father insisted I'd lost them in bets over the years since then, but I couldn't believe I'd been that stupid so many times. I knew he was pulling a fast one, just as I knew he was deliberately stalling on handing over the one he still owed me. This had been going on for four years.
Over a dinner later during that Venezuelan holiday, I asked him, "When do you think the oil will run out?"
"All the oil, Venezuela's, the world's."
"It'll never run out."
"Whoa, Dad, I can't believe you just said that! You're an oil man. You should know all about it. It's made from the bodies of tiny sea creatures that are crushed and pressure-cooked until they're chemically transformed into petroleum. The process takes millions of years and we're pumping it out as fast as we can. Of course it'll run out."
My father didn't seem moved by my outburst. He went on chewing.
"Tell you what," I said. "I'll bet you it's going to run out sooner rather than later. I'll bet you the last Cadillac. If I win, I'll take cash in lieu. If you win, you owe me nothing. How's that?"
After a moment's thought he said, "Righto."
When he flew into London for a lightning business visit some weeks later, he said to me over a meal at the RAF club, "About that oil bet. I'll give you cash."
I asked him what had prompted the change of tune, but he was vague. I suspected there hadn't been a change at all. I suspected that my father, ever the petro-optimist, was just humouring me. Whatever the case, though, I got some money from him. It wasn't enough for a Cadillac but it would buy me something second-hand in reasonable nick. I was happy with that.
After my father retired from Shell at the age of fifty-five in 1977, having surfed the postwar oil wave, he settled with Joan in cosy south-east England and died twenty years later. Shell continued its transglobal march without him, growing more successful than ever, despite its record of pollution, destruction, deception and neglect in some places. Today, operating in 143 countries, it earns millions of dollars every hour. In terms of turnover, it's the fourth largest private corporation in the world; in terms of gross profits it's the second most profitable private business after ExxonMobil.
Nevertheless, just over the horizon stalks the spectre of the dwindling of the resource that made it rich. Logic dictates that oil will run out one day, whatever the optimists say, and long before then, things will get difficult for societies addicted to it. So, like most if its rivals, Shell is dipping its toe into the waters of sustainability and renewables.
IN A WHEAT field near Amarillo, Texas, ten graffitied Cadillacs stand in a line planted nose-first in the ground, their tail fins pointing into the sky at the same angle. I sometimes fantasise that they were the ten cars I won off my father, magically translated through time and space to that spot. But the truth is that they were put there by a bunch of artists in 1974. Since then, these classic Cadillacs have become one of America's most famous public art works. Chip Lord, one of its creators, says the work can be seen as a symbol of the decline of the American empire. I see it more as portent of the end of the oil age.
More on the Cadillac Ranch here.