A witty and acerbic novel for our times about corporate greed, the hubris of bankers, contradictions of the clean energy economy and their unintended consequences on everyday people. Finance, environmentalism, rare-earth mining and human frailties collide in a complex of flawed motives. We follow Peter Mount, the self-made Chief Executive of a London-based rare-earth mining company as he and his business are buffeted by crisis-torn Royal Bank of Scotland and by his own actions, real and imagined. Meanwhile in Oregon, Amy Tate and her group of local environmental activists do their contradictory part to undermine a component of the green economy, unwittingly super-charged by the Chinese state. The repercussions of events in pristine Oregon are felt in the corporate and financial corridors of New York and London with drastic consequences. This is a deeply involving novel about the current workings of capitalism, miscommunication, causes and unexpected effects, love and survival.
‘I used to be a banker, then I went straight.’
Until recently these were my only published words (in the Investors Chronicle!) – but now, fifteen years later, my first novel – The Umbrella Men – is about to be published. The title pays homage to Mark Twain, who said, ‘A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella while the sun is shining, then wants it back the minute it begins to rain.’
It has been estimated that the Financial Crisis – which should be called the Bankers’ Crisis – of 2007-2009, cost taxpayers globally an additional $1 trillion in tax. That’s $1,000,000,000,000 – a THOUSAND BILLION dollars. You can build quite a few hospitals, homeless shelters and schools with that… Add to that the additional debt and indirect costs – and the number can be multiplied. This was a crisis kindled in the depths of the ‘master of the universe’ investment banking world. But guess how many senior bankers went to prison?
Not that I am anti-bankers; far from it. Just some of them… But I am vehemently against the misbehaviour of the powerful against the weak, and too often powerful banks behaved – especially when their own bonus-clad interests were threatened – as bullies. Against their customers, both directly and indirectly and, in the end, against tax-payers. There were many victims but few – actually no – prosecutions of senior bankers. Incredible.
The Umbrella Men tells the tale of the Bankers’ Crisis of 2007-2009 from a new angle – that of a small company customer of a big bully bank. A bank that was itself bankrupt and, in an effort to save itself, was willing to threaten its own customers with bankruptcy.
The Umbrella Men is fiction. PD James said, ‘All fiction is largely autobiographical and much autobiography is, of course, fiction.’ If she was right, it is insofar as The Umbrella Men is exceptionally well-informed about the mistreatment of one small corporate client of RBS – and, of course, the workings of bankers. I told you; but I did go straight.
Bits of the book that are definitely not autobiographical (sadly) include Kiara, the friendly Milanese 28-year-old so beautiful that simply being seen with her in a bar can threaten your marriage. The peculiar entangled congruence of interests between a Wall Street banker, a native American environmentalist in Oregon and the Chinese State is also pure fiction, as is the sexual office politics at more than one bank.
The Umbrella Men is my first novel; I am now 60 – which must be some kind of record for getting around to a first novel. I must say that writing it was one of the most enjoyable things I have done. Why-oh-why did I spend so much of my life on corporate finance and pharmaceuticals? Probably something to do with the money… which so far appears to be absent in the authoring game.
One of the great things about writing fiction is that you can make things happen with a few strokes of your keyboard. The Umbrella Men is not a moralising book, but in it we do see some very deserving people financially ruined – satisfying, but perhaps not true to our smug élite-protectionist world. The Umbrella Men is not a violent book, but some very deserving legs do get broken. These parts are, also sadly, pure fiction.
Another thing about writing is the research you need to do. For this the internet is a Godsend. For example, in the course of writing The Umbrella Men I accessed, on my laptop from the
comfort of various locations, all manner of documents concerning rare-earth elements. I needed to do this as the fictional company in The Umbrella Men is a mining company in this sector.
Rare-earth elements are vital to the making of many things we hold dear – electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels – ‘green stuff’. As a metropolitan liberal type I was all in favour of green stuff but when I saw the localised devastation caused by rare-earth extraction in China – imagine a lake the size of Windermere, not of clear water but dark brown, radioactive, acidic sludge – more pouring in from open pipes, water table contaminated – I began to wonder if well-intentioned people in their electric vehicles were aware of the true environmental cost of their virtue.
The Umbrella Men is not a sceptical book, but woven in, I tried to raise some questions on the unconsidered side effects of what we do in the name of the environment; things I’m not sure of myself but certainly things we should be thinking through more carefully.
So, there you have it, The Umbrella Men – not autobiographical, not moralising, not violent and not sceptical. I think I wrote the sort of book I like to read – thought-provoking and a lot of fun! I hope you think the same.
Thank you, Keith Carter and Random Things Tours.
About the author
Born in Scotland, he read Economics at Cambridge, taking a First in 1981 when he was elected a Scholar. He worked as an investment banker before going straight and running a small pharmaceutical company. Now a writer and business consultant he enjoys travel, politics and economics, reading and writing, languages, music and meals with family and friends. Keith suffered a spinal cord injury in March 2018 and since rides a wheelchair.
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