The Umbrella Men
by Keith Carter Genre: Contemporary Fiction
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.
Jolene’s Apartment, Mount Hood, Oregon, August 2008
Jolene heard them on the stairs, stamping their nasty booted feet as they laboured up, foreclosure papers in hand. She knew they would come, these heavy, mean men, red-faced and breathless from the three flights to her front door. She had received enough threatening letters, horrid impersonal things signed by a computer, warning her of the consequences if she remained in default, calling her “delinquent”. She had looked it up. She was not a delinquent, she wanted to pay, but how could she when the bank was asking for $1,100 a month and her gross take-home pay, even in a good month when tips were plentiful, amounted to less than $1,300? She wanted to pay, she wanted to keep her apartment, her furniture, her independent life. Her dream.
She had tried calling Brad, but he never answered his cellphone and the woman at the number on his card seemed unable to decide whether Brad had been promoted out of the area or Millennium had gone out of business. Or both. Jolene had always known, deep down, that as soon as her mortgage was arranged Brad would be back out of her life again, and so it had been. She had always known, but still it was another disappointment added to the accumulating catalogue of disappointments that weighed down her spirit and subtracted from her previously sunny disposition. She sadly concluded that Brad saw her only as a piece of business like any other. Stupid of her to dream anything else. Stupid.
But she remembered his reassuring words in answer to her worries about what would happen once the two-year “introductory period” was over. He was so convincing, so clever. He always had been. Surely he would not let her down, he would help her now that they were threatening to come to her apartment and evict her, warning her she should not attempt to detach any fixtures or fitments, “properly the property of the mortgagee”? She looked that up too. It was the bank, although she did not recognise its name at the head of the threatening letter. Did they mean that she could not unscrew the scales from the kitchen wall? Her mom had given her those as a housewarming present, visiting soon after she moved in, her dad proudly closing the front door with a flourish saying, “Who would have thought it, our little Jolene, a place of her own! Man, ya gotta love America.”
Brad did let her down though. He was gone. He had sold his house, fearfully cashing in when prices looked like they were softening. Unlike Jolene, Brad got out at a nice profit, before his own mortgage exceeded the declining value of the house. As the red-faced, heavy, out-of-breath men with their foreclosure papers were banging angrily on Jolene’s Oregon door, Brad was sitting on his father-in-law’s sunlit Florida porch drinking beer and telling his teenaged brother-in-law how he had become a dollar millionaire before he was 30, had made the most of it whilst the party lasted.
Jolene had been sold a dream and it was beyond her means. She was not a delinquent, she wanted to pay. But she couldn’t. Not in money. She paid in shame, in bitter tears, in sleepless nights. She paid in stress, in worry. She paid a heavy price but it was not enough for them. The mean, meaty red-faced men evicted her.
Her failed mortgage joined the stream down the river network to the reservoirs of Wall Street, where her delinquency mingled with thousands more, apparently surprising all sorts of people even cleverer than Brad.
Keith Iain Carter was born in Scotland in March 1959, second son of Marian van Westendorp and Ralph Carter. He attended a variety of bog standard state schools in northern England and in 1978 went up to Cambridge to read Economics, taking a First in 1981 when he was elected a Scholar – too late to enjoy the privilege of walking on the grass.
Other than corporate annual reports, he has not previously been published, unless you count a letter printed in Business Week deploring the widespread use of the word ‘wannabe’ and this quote in Investors Chronicle: “I used to be a banker, then I went straight”.
As an investment banker Keith worked for three now-disgraced institutions - he denies that any causation is associated with this correlation - Lloyds, Drexel Burnham Lambert and NatWest (RBS). A corporate financier, he ended up by specialising in pharmaceuticals and, in 1998, was part of a team acquiring a small vaccine business from GSK. As CEO he took the company public in 2004. Since 2010 Keith has worked as a business consultant to healthcare companies and as a writer, which he prefers.
Keith lives in London, Yorkshire and aboard a boat currently in Greece. He is a French-speaking Europhile who also loves America, travel, politics and economics, reading and writing, music, sailing of all kinds and food and drink.