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Lend me Ten Pounds and I'll Buy You a Drink
on 18 August 2012
Paul Allen. Nice bloke, really. Maybe a bit of an accidental billionaire, but it's hard to grudge him the cash. He pretty much changed the world, after all, even if he was, as he admits, merely standing and building on the shoulders of giants. Money isn't everything though, and this is another of those life stories where the music of Neil Sedaka plays in the background as a soundtrack: "I miss the hungry years, we never had a dime...."
I think you'll have to be a bit of a geek to be really gripped by the first half of this book as Allen and Gates struggle to code Microsoft to the top. The key watersheds in the history of the company are written about slightly dispassionately and you are given a flavour of the necessary ruthlessness that permeated the computer industry and obviously still does. Stuck for a good idea? Then go and steal one of your competitors'. (The current patent wars in technology are an indicator that copying is not a form of flattery.) Allen writes almost reluctantly, I felt, about his partner in crime, Bill Gates, and the picture painted isn't one that adds much warmth to one of the world's richest men. Allen, being the nice guy he seems to be, holds back about how he felt Gates stiffed him, dissed him and finally ignored him as Microsoft steamed towards world domination. The final assessment of Microsoft losing out to Apple, Google and the rest seem tinged with an element of glee. But it was Allen's baby too, so the affection is still there.
Halfway through the book and Allen is through with Microsoft, which somewhat surprised me. Was that it? Now as rich as Croesus, what should Allen do with his burgeoning cash pile? He likes basketball, so why not buy a team? And a football team. Build them a half billion dollar stadium on top, to play in. He could have become the ultimate sports mogul, but he's involved in every other project and distraction that comes his way. While Donald Trump wrote The Art of the Deal, Allen works hard on what seems to be the Fart of the Deal, and gamely recounts some of the exceedingly smelly and disastrous investments he made during the Internet years. One bad deal alone cost him $8 billion, while he admits in print that selling too quickly out of AOL cost him $40 billion. It must have been hard writing that sentence.
Allen lives in a different financial stratosphere to everyone except about a handful of individuals on the planet. He splurges cash everywhere. He sees his childhood cinema going to the dogs, so he just buys it and does it up. He liked Hendrix as a youth, so he basically buys everything from guitars to underpants that the man owned and then builds a museum to house them in. He builds a rocket to the moon. After a while, you really begin to think that Gates' philanthropy is an infinitely better deal. Eventually, and maybe inevitably, we get to his charitable work, but he skims over it really, in the same way he does with his battles with his health. The book leaves you with the feeling that Allen knows the clock is ticking and that he has so much to do. His wealth affords him boundless opportunities but, if you haven't got your health....
This was a very readable autobiography, a book of two halves maybe, but it always kept my interest.