John Micklethwait Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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John, welcome to Berkeley.
Well, thank you for having me.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in London. I was raised in a place called Rutland, which is the smallest county in Britain.
Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?
It's a worrying question. I think in general ways, in terms of values, in terms of, I suppose, a general approach to life; but neither of them were journalists. My father was a farmer and an army officer and my mother looked after the house and things. So, there wasn't a sort of bent that would naturally push you towards this, although I had various grandparents who did various public things.
When did you get the journalism bug?
Probably when I was a student. I was basically a very lazy student but I did do a couple of articles. I had friends who did newspapers, and so I used to do occasional things for them. I left Oxford at about the time the big bang was underway in the city, which is a time when suddenly the banks in the city of London were suddenly wandering around offering students what seemed at the time huge amounts of money to go and work for them. Now they seem actually incredibly small, but at the time it was a big change in the way that students could live. I had various friends who applied for BBC internships or went to go and do stuff at The Guardian or The Telegraph, or whatever. I didn't do that. I went into the city for no better reason than the fact that they offered me a job, and I joined Chase Manhattan for a couple of years.
So, your first immersion in globalization was as a banker.
It was. They promised me the world and they took me to Hammersmith! And I actually joined them -- it's a true story. I tried to hang on to whatever contacts I had. I knew an American who worked for J.P. Morgan, so I applied for them, and as a student driving back late one night to Oxford I had two blinding revelations. One was that in order to buttress my CV for doing J.P. Morgan I needed to get another American bank, and second, I was listening to a David Bowie song called "Diamond Dogs," which talks about Manhattan Chase and that sort of sparked off the thoughts. I applied to Chase Manhattan, put very little thought in it, and rather surprisingly they hired me.
Going back to your education, what did you study at Oxford?
That was a fascination that you had?
Yes, I was always very keen on history. I loved history even as a boy. So, I supposed you could argue that telling stories had always stuck there throughout the whole period.
What did you take from your experiences as a banker that followed you into journalism? Anything?
I was very lucky. That's the absolutely crucial fact. I was not a particularly successful banker. I wasn't a complete disaster at it. I did two years, a lot of it with Chase Manhattan training me at alarming expense to themselves, and then at the end of it I slightly decided that I quite enjoyed banking but didn't enjoy it that much. I was very lucky that I had a friend who worked at The Economist who said that they were looking for people.
You have to get back to 1987. It was a very strange period. What was happening at the time was that a lot of people were leaving newspapers and magazines like The Economist. Anyone who had financial training at the time was worth a lot. So, if you were, say, the chemicals corresponded to The Economist, a bank or a stockbroker would come around and say, "Do you want to be our chemicals analyst?," and they would offer you three or four times your salary. So they were actually losing people to the city. And then you had this slightly bizarre young man, actually the two of us who were friends, who wanted to come the other way. So, I had a rarity value. The reason why I was lucky was because I joined in August 1987, and in October 1987 there was the stock market crash. If I had tried to join after October 1987 it would have been much more difficult, because firstly, not as many journalists were going to the city, and secondly, a lot of people who were in the city who weren't that happy weren't prepared to go -- would've wanted to do journalism.
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