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Recent government action [to guarantee investors' deposits] may indicate that this is the end of a seriously bad beginning, but it may be a warning that this is the beginning of the end! Ondaatje has tried hard not to be defined by money, yet it sticks to him like gold leaf.

"He declaims each apocalyptic sheet of scrawl in a passionate voice, using his long hands to semaphore disaster – the perils of derivatives, the snare of sub-prime mortgages, the questionable practice of disguising and repackaging debt and the awful lack of transparency about what is really going on. His amazing story is dominated by it – sometimes too little, sometimes too much.

She cleaned and scrubbed floors in exchange for a room in the basement and Christopher was given a tiny, triangular attic."Even though we had nothing, she made us feel like princes," he says. She had a great sense of drama but no matter how bad things were, there was never any negativity.

She gave us confidence – me to go into finance and Michael [author of The English Patient, which won the Booker Prize], who was 10 years younger, to be this great literary guy."As a young bank employee in London in the 1950s, Ondaatje made a fascinating discovery: that ascribing a piece of paper with a certain monetary value gave it power.

It is sometimes said that Ondaatje turned from business to literature because he was envious of his brother, Michael, who lives in Toronto.

Sauchiehall Street is a name unique to Glasgow and yet known well beyond the city limits.

"Being suddenly penniless," says his friend Peter C Newman, a Canadian financial writer and biographer, "never stopped him acting like a prince."His father died a violent death: he'd been drinking, fell and smashed his head on the stone floor and never recovered consciousness. She found a job running a boarding house in Notting Hill Gate.

Then in 1988, with his firm's net worth approaching 0 million, controlling assets of £1.2 billion, much of it in cash, he went on safari to Tanzania. You go 7,000 miles away and you see people herding cattle and looking for water to survive. I had been a slave to the world of finance for 40 years."Instead of ending the holiday lazily on the island of Lamu, he persuaded his Latvian-born wife, Valda, to travel 800 miles across the Serengeti in an old Jeep, ostensibly in search of a leopard. In business, you are either predator or prey."They did find a leopard, a sinuous female draped on a branch over a dry riverbed. We are absolutely devoted to each other but I don't think she trusts me.

Ondaatje had been fixated by leopards since he saw one as a boy with his father. "This fantastically beautiful thing…" he rhapsodises. "I was standing there with a Canon 300mm lens, only about 12ft away from her. You have this kind of bond." But she was really only a metaphor for something else he was looking for. She should not have to share my madness, sleeping in some filthy dirty tent in the Semliki forest on the Zairean border with insects crawling over you."The limit to loyalty, they both realised, was in December 1996 when they camped in the Semliki the night Laurent Kabila overthrew Mobutu.

"You know you are a freak so you have to survive as if you are in the jungle.

But I could hack it because I didn't have anyone to fall back on. If you are good at cricket, then of course everything is forgiven."While at school, he learnt that his parents were divorcing. I sent letters and cables begging them not to do it." One day, his mother, whom he had not seen for five years, turned up saying there was no more money to pay his fees.

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