THEO PANAYIDES meets a jack of all trades with almost as many interests, in his element with facts, figures and data
If you’ve ever seen the old vaudeville skit where first one person then another, then another and another – a mind-boggling overabundance of people – all emerge from a medium-sized car, then you have an idea what it feels like to talk to Robin Chater.
On paper, he’s medium-sized car personified – something safe and straightforward, a Golf or an Auris: he’s the secretary-general of FedEE, a British company with an office in Cyprus which provides support (with a focus on employment law, and legal and HR compliance) to a global clientele of multinationals. Could it be any more blandly respectable? Look closer, though, and the corporate surface gets complicated. Even the acronym doesn’t wholly fit, given that FedEE stands for the Federation of International Employers (‘International’ was once ‘European’, back in 1988 when the company was founded) – and Robin himself doesn’t really fit the part either, a ruddy, flamboyant-looking man with a marvellous thatch of blond hair. It turns out he’s not a Golf or an Auris at all – more like a Lotus Elise, one of the snazzy sports cars he used to race as a hobby. “I almost killed myself so many times. Eight times – I calculated it – eight times in my life I should’ve been killed. Eight!”
It’s not just the motor racing, though. It’s also his glasses, for instance, which are hand-painted red, green and blue – or his shirt, on the day of our interview, which is not only eye-catching (half-white, half-pink, with a flowery detachable collar and what he calls a Paddington Bear pocket) but also made and designed entirely by himself. He’s not a fashion designer, at least not professionally, but he likes to dabble; men’s fashions are so backward, he laments, they’ve barely developed at all. He likes to dabble in general. Could we call him a jack of all trades? “Renaissance man!” he replies with dignity, and laughs. “I’m interested in everything.”
He’s been a journalist, and quite a well-known one. He’s been a management consultant. He’s been trained in robotics, and worked at a high-tech firm called Cambridge Consultants as Head of Process Control. He’s advised the European Commission on gender equality. He’s been a teacher – his very first job, in a grammar school, teaching English and Drama. (Was he flamboyant? “Very!”) He’s been on assorted radio and TV shows in the UK – mostly as an expert, “brought in to chat” – from Parkinson to Panorama. He speaks Cornish, and a little Mandarin. He’s a pacifist and a vegetarian. He performs ‘slam poetry’. He writes short stories (he wrote one last Sunday, his first to be set in Cyprus), and is halfway through a novel called The Rest is Silence. His second wife Lynda was also a novelist – though also a polymath, with an IQ of 190 (Robin’s own IQ is 174) and a photographic memory. You could open Halliwell’s Film Guide at random, he recalls, give her the name of the director and maybe one of the actors, and she’d give you the title of the movie.
Like the car in that vaudeville skit, Robin Chater keeps surprising you: just when you think he’s disgorged all possible bombshells, he comes up with more. “I’m quite an ancient person, really,” he muses (he’s 69), “but I still work. I’ve always worked 80 hours a week, ever since about the age of 20. And I was an entrepreneur right from the age of around 11.” His first start-up was a magazine business, printing his own and delivering others; he made a deal with kids on paper rounds to distribute Sunday papers. “I was personally earning then – at the age of 11 – I was personally earning £25 every Sunday”. Given that we’re talking about 1960, and £25 then would be worth over £200 today, this is quite a bombshell – yet it’s easily topped when I ask what prepubescent Robin actually did with all that money.
“I bought motor cars.”
“Yeah. I could drive from the age of eight.”
His parents ran a country pub in Worcestershire, with fields behind; young Robin built a track there and would buy cars, strip them down, then drive around the track with his friends hanging on the back. Cars (and bikes) have almost been his downfall, and he spends an entertaining few minutes talking of his many close calls, the first at the age of 17 – when he suffered a broken back in a motorbike crash, though he didn’t go to a doctor and remained with a half-healed back for 20 years – the most recent in 2013. Most of his accidents have been on a track, racing supercharged Lotus cars, but he’s had serious spills on country roads and motorways too. A drunk German driving on the wrong side hit him head-on, around a bend in Northern Ireland. His sports car bounced off a lorry tyre on the M40, smashed into the central reservation and spun so violently that the car came apart. “The whole car was shredded and I was left in this little seat – it had a little box of aluminium – and everything around me had been demolished. And yet I didn’t have a mark on me”.
Is he philosophical about these near-misses?
Robin laughs: “You know, I don’t know whether there is a God – I’m more Buddhist than Christian – but you have to ask, well, ‘Why am I given all these reprieves? Is there something I’ve got to do? Is there some mission I’ve still got to serve?’. Maybe there is.”
Maybe the Almighty just feels bad about cutting short such a packed and industrious life – and the life has indeed been accomplished, yet there’s also an air of desolation to this gifted, hyper-articulate man, and not just because of his near-misses (there was also a bout of pyelonephritis in the late 90s which nearly killed him; if a friend hadn’t happened to find him unconscious and taken him to hospital, he wouldn’t be here now). He’s been touched by unhappiness, and seems to have been quite unlucky with his loved ones.
His parents weren’t especially supportive. Robin speaks of having been “mistreated as a child”, adding that “I didn’t really have anything to do with my parents”. (The real father figure was a friend of the family named Reg, an avuncular mechanic who kindled his interest in cars.) His first marriage ended in 1996, after 24 years. He married Lynda, the aforementioned polymath, soon after, but in fact it wasn’t really a marriage – more a case of two clever, unconventional friends deciding to use the system for their own ends, forming a quixotic marriage of convenience to ward off annoying suitors and allow them to live an “ordinary intellectual life”. That union ended too, after 12 years.
Above all – and most tragically of all – he’s experienced a parent’s worst nightmare, not once but twice. “Had two children,” he reports briskly, “but unfortunately they were both, sadly killed in accidents. One falling from a horse, doing gymkhana. And the other one – stupid man,” says Robin, shaking his head – “a son, who went to a party and took the wrong drugs, and alcohol, and was rushed into hospital, you know. He was just – silly age, really,” he adds rather gruffly, as I offer my condolences. “So it was very…”
For once, words fail him (sometimes words are inadequate) – though he rallies soon enough, the pain of those particular bombshells having long since been subsumed into his questing, mercurial personality, allowed to reverberate quietly in the background of our conversation. Does he get depressed when things go badly? “I get tense, not depressed,” he replies – and his energy is indeed rather jittery, flitting from subject to subject. It’s not that he rambles, per se; but one thing reminds him of another. Take Brexit, for instance, the event that made him flee the UK (he claims to have seen it coming, and even won money by betting on it). Talking of Brexit – which he says is being handled so incompetently that the outcome is bound to be “a Greek state; a failed state, only bigger” – gets him on the subject of Theresa May, which (given that he calls her “the worst PM we’ve had, apart from Churchill, in the last 100 years”) inevitably gets him on the subject of Churchill, who was such a “dunce” during WWII. “All we had to do – using the base here, probably – was bomb the oilfields in Romania. That’s the only oil Hitler had. Without the oilfields, he couldn’t have conquered anything”.
I learn that WWII was “all about oil”. I learn about the war in Ukraine, the setting for his half-finished novel. I learn, with examples, that Napoleon wasn’t much of a strategist. (Robin seems to have a passion for military history.) I learn that the word for ‘church’ in Cornish is similar to the word in French. I learn that ‘Chater’ is an Armenian name, the most famous Chater having been the late Sir Catchick Paul Chater, a financial titan in colonial Hong Kong. I learn about China, the superpower of the very near future, and the startling fact – according to FedEE’s calculations – that “there are over 20,000 Chinese companies which are ready to become multinational”. I learn that 50 per cent of the working population in the UK are going to be left without jobs in the next 10 years. The reason is of course automation, and the only solution (he believes) is a guaranteed basic income; there needs to be a new way of distributing wealth, which is not based on work. “It’s called Communism!” says this lifelong lefty, and laughs delightedly.
Facts and figures fly around the small office. This is Robin’s element, or one of his elements: data, facts, information. FedEE actually works on collating information, its job being to monitor laws around the world and inform (say) Coca-Cola that it now has to do Thing X in order to be in compliance in (say) Azerbaijan – a narrow niche, but a lucrative one. One of his other entrepreneurial ventures (“still slightly beta”) is a social-networking site called butN, like a non-sexual Tinder aimed at business travellers, once again collating information.
And behind the facts? A love of art, a prodigious appetite, seven decades of what he wryly calls “an interesting, if precarious, life” – and a certain solitude as well, hanging in the room like a faint shadow. Partly it’s because the Nicosia office is so empty, just him and a secretary; partly it’s because he lives alone in Cyprus (he still has a house in France, which he now plans to sell, and he’s also looking to set something up in Singapore) – but mostly it’s because he’s always been independent, pushed to rely on himself from childhood onwards. FedEE seems to be a one-man show (albeit with assistance), its fortnightly news wire “largely written by me” for the past 30 years. The ‘slam poems’ he performs include – with delicious irony – a one-word poem called ‘Me’, “so the only word you hear is ‘me’ and the rest is acting, really”. Robin varies his voice and uses body language, spinning it out to a few minutes – but the only actual word is ‘me’, repeated again and again. As symbols for a quirky, brilliant individualist go, it’s a good one.
The bombshells keep coming, the car keeps disgorging random people. He has (or had) a method for winning at the horses, based on Bayesian statistics, which was so effective he actually sold it to customers. (Statistics was the first of his Master’s degrees, sandwiched between English at Leeds and Labour Relations at LSE.) He claims to have coined ‘Winter of discontent’ to describe the state of late-70s Britain before the phrase was picked up by Callaghan’s speechwriters, back in the days when he wrote for a journal called IDS Report and was quoted in the Times and the Telegraph. He could’ve run for MEP once – hand-picked for the job by the incumbent, a Tory named Fred Tuckman – but decided not to. He works all night, and generally sleeps at break of dawn. He can write a 4,000-word short story in two hours.
“I’m a strange fish,” admits Robin Chater. He’s speaking of his strange sleeping habits – but he might be speaking of his personality as a whole, from his dizzying range of interests to his self-designed shirts; clearly, he’s not like most people. One thing’s for sure, the man can talk, his energy never flagging throughout our conversation. Almost at the end, soon after Napoleon and before the Bayesian statistics, we get on the subject of dictators (he’s scathing about the one to our immediate north) and the talk turns to Franco. Oh, Spain! he enthuses, like a child with a new toy: “It’s so different from the rest of the world, the Inquisition lasted 250 years without a break there”. Robin nods happily: “I could have a whole conversation about Spain”. He could, too.