You know how it is when you get back to work after a break of a few weeks. Someone has stolen your recently acquired orthopaedic office chair and substituted some dubiously stained old clunker on its last legs; your computer screen appears to have been touched repeatedly by someone who likes to eat greasy food with their fingers and is incapable of reading without touching the words as they do so; a toy monkey has destroyed your carefully constructed investment strategy...
That chap Rupert Wright, who stood in for me while I was away, had seemed like a steady, reliable sort. Reasonable accent, decent manners, patrician bearing, a touch curt with the help ... everything one might expect, in other words, from the product of a minor English public school. But it turns out I left Outsider Trading in the hands of the Nick Leeson of The National - a rogue trader hell-bent on the destruction of my portfolio. Out went BP, which I had picked up from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico and had been carefully nurturing as a long-term prospect, and in came ... well, virtually everything else.
I returned to work to find myself the surprised owner of no fewer than 13 shares, plucked at random from the FTSE 100. Worse, by way of a jape, Wright had relied on his child's toy ape to make his stock picks (and yes, thank you, I'm aware that monkeys aren't apes but are you really anticipating taxonomic precision from a columnist whose very raison d'etre is amateurish incompetence?). The joke, however, is on the cad and his stuffed sidekick, as my primate-enhanced portfolio has never looked healthier. Goodbye substantial and humiliating losses; hello impressive gains. Upon my return from the UK, I discovered that the imaginary £15,000 (Dh87,245) I invested in the stock market six weeks ago had become £15,661.40 - a rise of 4.41 per cent, which, in these tough times, is more than enough to make the eyeballs of fund managers in the real world bleed with envy.
For the second week running, only one of the mischievous monkey's 13 picks had failed to flourish (and who can wonder with a company name that sounds less like a respected purveyor of leading medical brands and more like a small-town stock-car racer known for his aggressive driving technique? "And back on the grid after his near-fatal shunt at Darlington Raceway, please give a big Daytona Beach welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to ... Reckitt Benckiser!").
At this rate, I figured, I stood a chance of ending the third quarter up against the FTSE. The trick, clearly, would be to do nothing; just hang out, peel a banana and see just how high the chimp's choices might climb (oh, spare me the Darwinian nitpicking). But then I hit a snag - or, rather, a dilemma, and one born out of the curious process of cultural assimilation. The regular reader (hi, mum) will know that I wrestled with the moral quandary of exploiting the misfortune caused by the blowout of BP's well, but then went ahead and did it anyway. Money and morality, I concluded glibly, don't mix - not even in the unreal world of make-believe investment.
This, however, the product of monkey business, was something different. Scanning Herr Nilsson's financially astute selections, I found my eye drawn to one stock with a sense of disquiet. Now, I know this is supposed to be a lightly amusing read, so forgive this insertion of a slightly heavy counterpoint, but … "Diageo?" I found myself thinking. "The drinks company? Can that be right?" This is the first time I have lived in an Islamic country. I have been here now for more than two years and in that time customs and cultural nuances that at first seemed strange or exotic have, for me, almost imperceptibly, become the norm. And vice versa. During the three weeks I have just spent in the UK, I discovered the extent to which the gradual process of cultural osmosis has adjusted my attitudes and social expectations, attuning them to Islamic sensibilities.
I spent some of my break in Cambridge, picnicking on the banks of the languid Cam and, guided by bitter experience, eschewing the ritual humiliation of punting. Now, England's second-oldest seat of learning is hardly Soddom, or even Gomorrah, but I found my eyebrows constantly dancing to the twin beats of surprise and disapproval at the constant displays of what here in the UAE would be deemed as immodest dress and inappropriate behaviour.
And now, the Diageo dilemma. I have no idea whether a Muslim investor would regard taking an interest in a company such as Diageo to be acceptable, or Sharia-compliant. But what I do know is that, in a Muslim country preparing for the imminent celebration of Ramadan, it just didn't feel right. I'm aware that this sounds bogusly pious, even holier than thou. I am also aware that it is easy to take the moral high ground when there is no actual money at stake (nor, indeed, any actual ground). Nevertheless, I have sold all 89 Diageo shares, and for a self-satisfying loss, to boot.
For an entirely symbolic act, it feels surprisingly good. It's the sort of thing we humans are good at. It's what separates us from the apes. Monkeys. Whatever. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org