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The Time I Felt I’d Won

A meandering tale of bankruptcy, a Triumph Bonneville T120 and how I scored a moral victory over a company with net assets of almost £1 billion

This is a long story. It starts with good intentions, as most failures do, I suppose.

Roughly 15,000 to 17,000 individuals declare bankruptcy each year in the United Kingdom. That’s not to be confused with the roughly 14,000 companies that also face some sort of insolvency. I’m just talking about individuals here – people – most of whom probably started out with good intentions. 

One of the people in this photo is bad with money

Bankruptcies in the United Kingdom have been on the rise over the last few decades – a trend that fits with the rising number of bankruptcies in Canada and the United States. The UK’s statistics don’t offer any sort of information about those people, nor what their stories might be, but it’s easy enough imagine them: the young person who has moved to London or Manchester or some other place where the jobs are but soon found herself crippled by student debt and an impossible cost of living; the parents who want to give their children better lives than they had growing up; the guy who tried to buy a sports car in 2021.

It’s a cruel facet of insolvency in the United Kingdom that the government publishes your name for all to see. Take a look through those thousands and thousands of names and you’ll find a lot of “normal” people. These aren’t Donald Trump wannabes – not people gaming a system as part of a nefarious business strategy – they’re chefs, personal trainers, secretaries, civil servants, repairers of Tudor furniture. People who made a series of (largely innocuous) bad decisions from which they could not escape. People who started out with good intentions but didn’t properly understand what they were doing, weren’t realistic, got overwhelmed by bad luck, or some combination thereof.

In many cultures there is a tendency to see debt as a kind of moral indicator; some debt is good (in the form of mortgages, for example) but the person who cannot handle it is a failure. The person who tries but does not succeed is bad – sinful, even – and should feel shame. He or she deserves scorn, deserves to be treated as less. This is why the Victorians had poor houses. It’s why the UK government still publishes people’s fucking names.

A NECESSARY AND THERAPEUTIC EVIL

You won’t find my name on the government’s database (I don’t know why) but it should be there. I declared bankruptcy two years ago last week, on 1 December 2019.

My story is one I’ve shared pieces of in the past: I went into business for myself and attempted to build up a website called The Motorcycle Obsession, hoping to create something unique and wonderful and profitable. I didn’t do that – not even close – and the proverbial ship started sinking almost from the get-go. Its ultimate demise tipped me into a massive depression.

Meanwhile, although I reject the idea that people who get overwhelmed by debt are morally bad, I wholly accept that many of us are susceptible to bad ideas. Attempting to make a living from a website is a bad idea; attempting to make a living from a website that focuses exclusively on motorcycles is badder idea. These bad ideas were compounded when implemented by someone with no discernable business sense or work ethic.

And great googly moogly did I make stupid decicions. I am too embarrassed to divulge the full extent of my imbecility but chief among the idiot ideas was taking out a bunch of loans to keep myself afloat whilst waiting for my ill-planned bad idea to somehow start making shit tons of money. I used loans to pay rent; I used loans to pay for food; I used loans to pay credit card bills. You’re probably sitting there thinking: “What?! I can’t believe that’s something that someone would actually do!”

But such is the nature of desperately wishing you were better than you are; you want so much for a thing to be true that you dupe yourself into thinking that it is or will be. The American way of life is built on this kind of thinking, by the way – Law of Attraction and whatnot. A number of Western economies are fuelled by the hopes and dreams of people who aren’t connecting the dots. 

I made a lot of horrible financial decisions but I met A LOT of amazing people. Here I am on a Milan subway with Morgan Gales, Rennie Scaysbrook, Jensen Beeler and Ryan Adams

However, in the face of all this I, at least, had two things going in my favor: 

1) I live in the United Kingdom, which has incredibly helpful groups like Citizens Advice and StepChange.
2) I was such a colossal idiot that in my 40+ years of life I had managed to acquire absolutely nothing other than debt; I had no assets.

For those of you playing along at home, Citizens Advice and StepChange are nonprofit organizations that people in the United Kingdom can turn to for help and advice in dealing with debt. Actually, debt help is just one of the things Citizens Advice does; the volunteer-run service offers guidance in everything from buying a used car to overcoming homelessness.

I highly recommend checking out either organization if you’re struggling to keep on top of finances – even if you don’t live in the UK. Both have websites full of free tools and information on how to get your life together. This budget calculator, for example, is extensive (it takes at least 30 minutes to complete) and life-changingly useful. Really: try it out. I cannot overemphasize the good it has done me.

I spoke to both StepChange and Citizens Advice, with the latter even providing the opportunity to come into a local office, sit down with a debt counselor and extensively go through the shit circus of my finances. Neither organization outright tells you what to do – you ultimately have to make those decisions for yourself – but both identified that because I had no assets, bankruptcy was a viable option. I didn’t actually own anything, so nothing could be taken away.

Ironically, it costs money to declare bankruptcy, which, obviously, I had to borrow (from my father). The process is anything but easy, taking roughly four months in a pre-COVID world (probably longer now), and it is chock full of circumlocutory paperwork and dire warnings on the infinite repercussions of bankruptcy. It’s a Bad Thing For Bad People, afterall, and the process seeks to remind you of this regularly.

The process eliminated tens of thousands of pounds of unconquerable debt but it also nuked my credit standing. My credit cards were scrapped and I was legally not allowed to borrow money for the first year (or start a business or be the trustee of a business). Information about the bankruptcy will sit on my credit report for 6+ years, so although I now legally could borrow money no one will lend to me. 

I mean, no one. Take a look at the screenshot below. To amuse myself today, I logged onto Experian to check my eligibility and found that even in the case of a card with a 60 percent APR (Fuck me! 60 percent! How is that even legal?!) there is a 0-percent chance of my getting approval.

59.9% APR! Sweet baby Jesus!

Renting a home is a ball ache; I can’t get a phone contract; I can’t pay for stuff in installments; I definitely can’t get a car or motorcycle loan; and so on. I also cannot become a British citizen. I live in the United Kingdom legally as a permanent resident but I am not allowed to swear my allegiance to the Queen because, in the parlance of Her Majesty’s Home Office, I am “not of good character.”

Can we digress for a moment into how hilarious that is? Other people who are not of good character include sex offenders and war criminals. Rape, genocide and buying a 60-inch TV on installment – truly, that is the trifecta of evil.

Anyhoo, the situation sucks and it creates challenges that I will be dealing with for the rest of my life. But…

Going bankrupt was also kinda one of the best things ever to happen to me. I am debt free now; I don’t owe anybody a damned thing. And thanks to the extensive budget counseling I received in this process I’m not only living within my means now, I’m actually saving money. There is money in my savings account! Enough that in, like, five or six months, I’ll be able to buy a new (to me) motorcycle. Out of pocket!

Also: life without credit cards is really satisfying. When I pay for stuff I just pay for it. I don’t keep paying for it forever; I don’t end up paying more than the price of the thing because of interest. And because I have to think about the stuff I buy – have to make sure I actually have the money for it, have to make a conscious decision to spend X amount on something with the understanding that it inherently means X amount will not be available for other things – I have a lot less buyer’s remorse. Because I actually have the money for the shit that I buy, no longer does every purchase feel like a deal with the devil.

Overall, my outlook on life began to improve almost as soon as I clicked “SUBMIT” on my filing. I soon found myself walking around thinking: “Have the birds always sung this loudly? Have the people of my town always been this friendly?”

I sleep so much better now. 

I TOLD YOU ALL THAT SO I CAN TELL YOU THIS

You may remember that I used to own a Triumph Bonneville T120. Based on everything I’ve just shared, you would be correct to assume I did not actually own it. The vehicle was simply in my possession as a result of a personal contract purchase (PCP)  loan.

For those of you playing along at home, PCP is a somewhat nefarious kind of financing that allows a borrower to make lower monthly payments than he or she would traditionally. This happens by shifting the weight of the loan to a final balloon payment or option to refinance. (If you want to know more, here’s a link explaining PCP) It is wildly popular in Britain and understandably so – it seemingly makes the latest most shiny things accessible right now. You can ride a £14,000 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 for just £150 a month. 

If you were to instead set that same monthly amount into a savings account, you’d be waiting almost 8 years to be deafened by the rumble of freedom. That’s no fun, so a lot of riders just look the other way when it comes to considering the numerous downsides to PCP, such as: how they’re going to find the money for that final payment (If you’re choosing PCP over a traditional loan that implies you don’t have the money to make a traditional loan payment, which means you probably don’t have any cash left over at the end the month to be able to set aside for when full payment comes due), or the fact the loan limits the number of miles you can ride each year – usually to about 4,000 miles.

I used my Bonneville T120 for commuting (and everything else) so my monthly payment of £194.58 reflected that. It was a payment that contributed considerably to my constant financial anxiety but one that I never missed. In filing for bankruptcy I hoped this little fact would play to my advantage. 

A fun motorcycle but arguably not worth the asking price

Because I relied upon it to get to work and because seizing it and selling it would not have even paid off the loan (In an evil twist, PCP loans are designed to be upside down, to disincentivize you from trying to get out early), the government had no interest in the Bonneville. Yes, I had read the bit in my PCP loan contract stating that in the case of bankruptcy, the loan company – Black Horse Finance – reserved the right to cancel the contract. But I hoped it would see the advantage of just carrying on as before, simply allowing me to keep paying too much money each month for an overpriced/overhyped motorcycle.

And for the first few months that’s how things went. Then, in early April 2020 I received a letter informing me that my agreement was being cancelled and my bike would be seized in less than two weeks. I had no money; I legally could not borrow any money; and I had less than a fortnight to figure out how I was going to replace my only means of transportation. That’s pretty stressful.

Though, admittedly, not as stressful as it might have been. You’ve heard of COVID, right? In April 2020 it had all of us sitting at home, under lockdown; I hadn’t been into the office or used my bike since 17 March. As things would play out, I would never return to the office; nor would I visit the offices of my consecutive employers (The organization I work for now doesn’t even have an office).

But I didn’t know any of this at the time; back then, we were telling ourselves the pandemic would blow over by summer. So, I begged my dad for some dough and got the best cheap bike I could buy: a 2006 Honda CBF1000. Which actually turned out to be a decent bike – but that’s a different story for a different day.

My 15-year-old CBF1000 has turned out to be a markedly better motorcycle than I was expecting

The (very long) story that I’m telling you now, though, is about the Bonneville that wouldn’t go away. Because the stated date of collection came and went without anyone showing up to take the bike away. No one came the next day, either. Or the next day or the next or the next or the next. So, I decided to send a letter to Black Horse:

“Sirs – A week has passed since you chose to terminate my agreement and you have made no effort to recover the bike or get in contact with me. I have cancelled any further payments on the vehicle… As of 30 April 2020 I will begin charging you £20 a day for the secure storage of your property.

Their response?

Nothing. A week passed; the Bonneville was still there. Then another week. And another. And another. So, I wrote to them again:

Sirs – Please be aware that I am continuing to charge £20 a day for the safe and secure storage of your vehicle.

Their response? Again, nothing. 

Another month went by, so I sent another letter. And again nothing. 

Then another month, another letter. Nothing. 

And so on and so on until October – six months after the initial letter – when I decided this was all getting pretty silly and chose to spend a day wandering around the phone jail rabbit warren that is Black Horse’s customer service department.

So, here’s a funny thing: it turns out the letter they sent me was a bluff. What Black Horse had clearly wanted me to do was call up in a panic, begging and pleading to keep my bike, and work out a new agreement (that would almost certainly have been to my disadvantage). They didn’t say that outright but I was able to guess it from the utter surprise expressed by representatives I spoke to.

“So, you don’t want the bike?!?!?!” they would ask, aghast.

“That option was not explained in the letter you sent,” I would say. “Now that I’ve found a replacement – one that does not cost almost £200 a month – no, I do not want the bike. I want you to come and take it away, like you said you would.”

Flummoxed, they would transfer me to someone else and I’d go through the story again – each time hammering the fact they owed me in excess of £3,000 for the inconvenience caused. Did I expect to actually get this money? No, I did not. I kept bringing it up simply because having a nuked credit rating makes a man fearless in the face of banks. It struck me as amusing.

‘My’ Bonneville T120 and the shed I charged £20 a day to keep it in

But here’s the most amazing part: ultimately it was decided that I was due compensation. After some back and forth, it was agreed that Black Horse would give me £2,000.

Really. I am not making this up. This actually happened. I was victorious. I had slain the dragon. I had beaten the system, man. Crank up the Americana soundtrack and roll credits; I’m a working class hero.

Except, not really. In the first year of bankruptcy any additional money that you receive (ie, funds outside your regular wages) have to be given to the government, to be put toward paying off my creditors. Black Horse knew this and sent the money directly to the government… which, of course, sent it back to them because, you know, they were my creditors.

I’m willing to bet the knock-on effect of this little escapade is that I will be blacklisted by Black Horse  for life. There may come a day when my credit rating will improve, but there will always be a little note by my name in Black Horse’s database: “This guy is a jackass.” 

That’s unfortunate since Black Horse and its parent company, Lloyds Bank, are seemingly behind every car and motorcycle loan in the United Kingdom. Still, though. It was worth it. Because after decades of feeling depression and anxiety and self-rage and frustration and worthlessness and powerlessness in the face of financial misery, of feeling that I would always be under the thumb of debt, I felt that I had finally won.

And, actually, I suppose I did. Je ne regrette rien.