The Institute (2019)- Stephen King- Book Review

An Institute (of sorts) in the North Sea

King’s latest is a good 700 pages shorter than my last read of his The Stand but it is no lesser work. It is part ode to conspiracy theories, comment on small town American and the growing role of big government in 2020. He really has distilled a gem of a novel laced with the tension which builds right up to the thrilling denouement.

Night Knocking

The narrative arc takes us into the Main woods but first we are thrust into the small town (probably an overstatement) of DuPray, South Carolina. Tim Jamieson’s story takes off (not literally) as he decides to disembark a scheduled Delta flight which would have taken him safely back to New York. Instead of history turning on a dime this time- Great events turn on small hinges. Hitch-hiking up the eastern seaboard brings him to the quaint town where he takes up the comfortably mundane task of Night knocker. (It sounds sexier than it is- from what we gather it involves checking the businesses and homes are locked away safely for the night)

The Smart Kid

Meanwhile, the story’s other hero Luke is kidnapped and taken to The Institute. It is there we spend the bulk of the novel. I found myself longing to find out what was going on with Tim but in classic King style the suspense is ratcheted up and before long the various threads start to be woven together. The action accelerates and soon the two are enmeshed in a nightmarish scenario; Luke battling to escape the Institute and its network which has tentacles everywhere while Tim comes to his aid.

There are many well-worn King themes at play here: Each of the resisdents inmates has either TP-telepathic or TK- telekinetic powers some through a series of horrifying experiments at the hands of the Institutes staff will develop both. King cut his teeth on this topic in Firestarter (1980) which I enjoyed during the night shift offshore it really is a primer for the action here and well worth getting hold of.

Shots for Dots

The gang of children taking on the world is back (see IT) Keisha, Nicky, Helen, Luke and of course little Avery who has the biggest allocation of powers. There are similarities here with the Bill, Georgie, Beverly, Eddie who band together in that to take down the clown Pennywise. In the Institute that evil is wider-the systematic kidnapping of gifted children to train and use them to target people who the state see as legitimate targets.

Amid the Tumble Weeds

DuPray is vividly imagined. We can almost smell the mildew in Norberts dilapidated motel; hear the 19:40 transcontinental bound for Philadelphia rumble by. We may even scratch a little at the thought of Tim resting his head amid the bedbugs while his sleep is disturbed by the black rowing sailors. He ponders why such a place would event exist. King is reflecting here on a wider point about small town America. There are plenty of places in 2020 that only exist because they happen to be home to an Amazon fulfilment centre or a John Deere tractor storage yard.

All the Pieces Matter

The main character pairing of Tim and Luke are right up there (at least for me) with Stu Redman (The Stand) and Bill Denbrough (IT). We empathise with Tim from the get go as he explores DuPray. Even though he has a valid reason for leaving his former post we are left wondering what exactly will he uncover? Surely it can’t just be a case of picking up where his grandfather left off and night knocking his life away. In classic King the incident at the Mall which resulted in Tim handing in his badge and gun foreshadows the gun battle to come. We feel for Tim because of his compassion, he takes to small town life with ease and quickly wins friends. He looks out for each of them whether it be the two young kids looking to escape (more foreshadowing), helping vagrant Annie score her favourite snack or pondering whether one older resident might be down in the dumps enough for suicide. Each character has a role to play, there is no filler here.

Special School

Luke is smart but not in your typical know it all-class swot way. He is up there with the best- a real prodigy destined in another life to head to MIT and Emerson not one after another but at the same time. At the start his TK powers are small time- flipping over pizza boxes at a restaurant- no great shakes.

We follow through his eyes into The Institute and scramble along with him as he attempts to figure out a) what is going on and b) how to escape. He soon comes to grips with daily life locked up with the tokenised economy (good behaviour is rewarded (like Pavlovian dogs or rats) with tokens. Like a stretch in Shawshank candy and in Back Half real cigarettes and even alcohol are available all to kids barely out of their short trousers. We watch with horror as the experiments proceed from Vaseline greased thermometers up the backside, to tissue biopsies and worst of all a good long dunk in the immersion tank. King draws pointed comparisons with the same heinous crimes perpetrated at the concentration camps or more recently at Abu Ghraib. 

Throughout we root for Luke. He even has his own Andy Dufresne moment squeezing not through a tunnel but under the playground fence and to the sanctuary of the Maine pine forest. Slaking his thirst in the babbling river.

Back Half

Like all the best King the supporting cast his equally strong:

Mrs Sigsby serves as your evil headmistress e.g Miss Trunchbull (Matilda 1988). She flounders as the site and system she has built begins to fall apart at the seams. The other staff are drawn in rough sketches save the domestic Maureen who partners with Luke to help him reach safety. Her final words… Hell is waiting. I’ll be here to meet you echo throughout the latter third.

Sheriff Ashworth/ John is all you would expect from a jolly plump chief with the FBI Quantico course credentials to boot. ‘You don’t get that for mailing in cereal box-tops’. Tim notes.

There are some blemishes – Tim’s love interest Wendy feels thinly carved. A complaint shared by some critics of The Stand who argue there is a lack of strong female characters there too. For me this is splitting hairs and is more than made up with by the merry band of kids. They quickly realise how dire their situation and instead of squabbling they set about escape through co-operation.

After the thrilling climax subsides we are left wondering: How much power do government agencies have? What schemes like the MK-Ultra days of 50’s are still around today? And lastly what price are we willing to pay to keep America and the world safe?

The grass grows. The sheep feed. The Looms spin. – Second Sleep- Book Review

“All civilisations consider themselves invulnerable; history warns us that none is.”

I am a massive Robert Harris fan. Having enjoyed the Cicero trilogy, Munich, Fatherland, the Officer and the Spy and most recently Conclave. Second Sleep it is a return to the church vs science battle as an intriguing mystery develops in the post-apocalyptic British countryside.

The 400 or so page reinforce Harris’ reputation as the master of the page-turning thriller. The landscape created reminds me a good deal of GMB’s His Bloody Project.  Our protagonist here is Christopher Fairfax. He is thrust into village life against his wishes and spends the early chapters trying to extricate himself. There is a strong sense of inevitability as if the gods themselves have conspired to make him see the mystery through to its conclusion. (Bishop Pole the orchestrator of this trip remains noticeably absent until the denouement.

Characters

In my view four main characters are fully developed. Captain John Handcock (perhaps named after the signature or the prominent American merchant). Is a man of considerable size and considerable means. Initially cast as the villain of the piece he forms an unlikely alliance with Fairfax.

It is Fairfax through which we explore the village of Addicott St George as he grapples with his role a man of the cloth set against his uncertain future. He is still young enough to make the change and avoid the fate of father Lacy whose death haunts the novel. We feel an immediate empathy with Fairfax. Many of us have been sent on lonely missions often completing routine and rather dull tasks.

As he is dragged further into the mire so too is the reader. We witness his internal battle between universal desires- his fondness for the maid Rose and later in his pursuit of Lady Durston (Sarah). It is the latter who becomes the main love interest as she seeks to re-establish the faded glory of her tumbled down manor. I’d say she is one of the weaker characters- we never really get a full sense of her motives. Who knows this may have been due to publisher page constraints?

The supporting cast brings depth to the narrative, Keefer the bothersome clerk brings reminders of church bureaucracy. Miss Hancock -John’s sister who learns of Fairfax’s dalliance with Sarah- and later threatens the young father. The silent maid Rose is something of a red herring I felt she was going to be more of a central feature instead her thread is cut short and tied up quickly in the latter third.  

The grass grows. The sheep feed. The Looms spin. This is Harris at his finest conjuring a vivid landscape which the reader is eager to explore. Some would say more eager than our reluctant hero Fairfax. It is he who follows the archetypal journey. He leaves behind the ordinary by responding to call to action where he is posted to the remote village way out in the boonies. He soon meets a mentor, perhaps three- Hancock, Sarah (Lady Durston) and Shadwell the Howard Carter of the piece all lead him deeper into the mystery. He meets with a test of faith- will he leave the world of god and instead embrace the scientific method.

Themes

Church vs Science. Harris leaves the church towers standing firm across the country while the trappings of modern life- heated car windscreens, iPhones and iPads decay. Our unlikely team of archaeologists led by Hancock is baffled by these relics. Leaving the reader to ponder- what will our current society be remembered for in the centuries ahead?

Death. Lacy’s funeral haunts the early chapters- do we fully understand if his death was a tragic accident or cold-blooded murder? Shadwell appears close to death throughout often heard to be hacking bloody catarrh into a tissue.

TL;Dr

Where the book really excells is its description of scenery. We can smell the woodsmoke emanating from the millers’ cottages, feel the pickaxes striking the damp cold earth, and hear the looms humming throughout the village. Second Sleep in the ideal novel to settle into a comfortable chair next to the fire as the cool autumn nights lengthen.

Next up- V2 which is released later this month.

Money Making Scheme # 5 -Airbnb

‘You talkin’ crazy taking a stranger into your own home?’ 

‘You’ll end up with a crazy guy using your carcass like a sled down Union St.’

‘Airbnb- isn’t that all over now cos Covid-19’

Sharing is caring

We are taught as young children to share. That philosophy seems to evaporate in our teenage years and twenties to be replaced with a Keep up with the Jones arms race. Essentially who can be the Big Swinging Dick (BSD) and Uber around in a Matt Black Bentley? But during the Airbnb battle, it is who has the most spare-rooms that matters.

MySpace

You don’t need a McMansion with an acre of orchard or even a condo in the hottest part of town. I have a pokey small two up two downconverted 70’s bungalow. No way Airbnb can pay your mortgage? Here is the proof in spreadsheet-o-vision:

I rest my case…

During the peak, I was making an extra £4-5k a year which equates to extra 80 squid a week. More than enough to buy a few bevies on a Friday night at The Bobbin.

Other justification for inaction –

  1. I’m worried about being robbed. To be fair this is a legitimate challenge every day we step out the front door. The reality is that your next guest is incentivised not to steal your beanie baby collection. The review system cuts both ways. Plenty of people said the same thing about eBay and that turned out ok. At the heart of it, people are as a rule good and honest.
  2. Insurance- ‘If this random guy I met on the internet burns place burns down- who do I call?’. Ok, again fair point that’s why I encourage you to occupy the house. Hell you might find they chip in with chores or as a guest from Chennai did- make me authentic curry with authentic masalas (not that canned pish) he’d brought over.
  3. The Bank. What they don’t know can’t hurt them 😉 and with £36Bn in revenue last year- do you think they will go-under if take your balls out for the banker’s jar 5 years early?

Remember Jim Rohn kids ‘ if you don’t have enough reasons you’ll find an excuse’:

House Hacking

All this is to say – If you are still in your twenties the memories/nightmares of sharing at uni are fresh. If you can survive living with a lass or laddie who licks their cheese then you can manage to share with a working professional Mon-Fri.

  1. Interesting folk come to stay. The people who want to avoid soulless Holiday Inn’s are the kind of people who you want to share a cup-of-chai with. Generally, they will seek out adventure and hunger for a (your) local take on a city- Airbnb has capitalised on this tendency and now offers Experiences
  2. Last time I checked George Osborne encouraged it- I think you can earn up to £4k a year tax-free from a spare room.
  3. You’ll find you start to appreciate having some peace and quiet when you don’t have guests. On the flip-side when you do have a booking it encourages you to clean out your closet and get your sh*it together. Anyone else have a tendency to clean up before the cleaner arrives?

2014, 2015,

They say its 7 years feast 7 years famine. It was more like two. ’14 ’15 were the prime years with large demand driven by $150/bbl oil every Tom-Dick n’Harry was going offshore. Supply was also restricted, not many had got into the Airbnb game in Aberdeen- many were forced to stay 60 miles away in Dundee to attend the BigOil conference. Basically, back then Airbnb in Aberdeen was a Blue Ocean!

Gym buddy

It tuned out that it was so early that a properly developer who I shared the local Spin Class with hadn’t heard about it. He was busy renting out via Booking.com (so 1995;). I did a double-take, this felt like taking Rishi Sunak out for a beer and him not being able to explain GDP! Airbnb most certainly should have been in his wheelhouse. In the end, I came out with a £70 referral fee and he walked away several thousand better off. In the final analysis, we both came out ahead…

Twas ever thus

All good things to an end and oil prices dried up faster than nuns’ ehem…as did the tenant inquiries. Cheaper hotels went up (next to the airport) – the old conference centre across from my house- is scheduled to be knocked down. This drove room prices down to unsustainable levels- £15 a night? Not much point changing the sheets for that is there…

It is a real shame because as well as missing out on an extra bit of diversified income we lost a human connection. You never know who will be staying next and just when I was at my lowest the manager of the university incubator hub came to stay. What goes around comes around.

That’s Airbnb Karma.

Up, Up and Away

Why you should NEVER go to work in a bank

There’s an old phrase in Texas

‘fool me once shame on you..’

‘all hat and no cattle’

‘Why do you rob banks? –‘Because that’s where the money is’

I love finance- one of my earliest memories is counting up 5 GBP in shrapnel and safely stowing it in my piggy bank. I felt like the richest man in Babylon. A few years later there was a popular children’s tv show- Matt’s Millions I remember a scene in the opening skit where coins were literally flowing out of his computer. To clarify this was well before, Pets.com, broadband or iPhone would change the world. We didn’t even have a janky dial-up modem at this point.

Fast forward to my 20s and I started reading investing blogs- my favourite is www.theescapeartist.me He’s got pretty popular. So popular that on my last psychiatric admission I discussed his latest blog post with one of the orderly who is about my age. Unfortunately, he was simply reading the likes of Monevator without acting. It’s a bit like going to a BBQ without bringing beer. You really just have to dive in and get started.

How did it come to this?

So then like a tidal wave the 2014-2016 recession hit the oil and gas world. I was left heading for the lifeboats- AKA being sh*tcanned. During the ensuing scramble for jobs, I applied for a position at one of the big banks. I won’t name names but they have just fired tonnes of people in Asia, originally from Hong Kong and got their start in opium- I’ll let you connect the dots.

So long story short I loved reading, talking, and learning about investing. When I am not typing into the computer I’m tuned in to Matt and Andrew at Listen Money Matters. So I figured I’d enjoy working at the world’s local Bank…BIG Mistake.

A brief laundry list of why it sucked:

  1. Customers are generally in the bank because they are a) stressed about their finances b) need to complete a form c) have locked out their online banking. The last thing they want to be told when turning up at the branch is ‘you know you could do this online at home’
  2. Paperwork- its no exaggeration to say you have to fill in a form to sneeze.
  3. Back to school. No way to sugar coat this – the managers treated us like children. During one memorable morning, I headed upstairs. I struggled with low blood sugar crashes –(until I fixed my diet (link) so back in the staff room I reached for my trusty banana only when my irate boss burst in. He explained I couldn’t take a break as everyone one of the rank and file drones in sector 7G would want one. It was a harrowing experience and one I will not forget in a hurry.
  4. Lunches were scheduled – you had an hour to grab a sandwich and not a minute more. Forget about meeting friends for lunch if it was 11am and you and that was your slot you’d have to go.
  5. Cold calling- we had this list of customers which was for some reason called ‘the golden basket.’ The process was as you would imagine- outbound calling to ‘check-in’ read – flog products to high net worth individuals. How would you take to being called by your bank?…chances are you would hang up thinking it was a scam.

Benefits

There were a few highlights. I got to meet one of the founders of Brewdog who turned out to be a very nice chap. Remember it takes risk to start a business and kudos is due James and Martin two seem to have done well by it. (link)

Looking back it was probably a good lesson and a pertinent reminder of why a job with autonomy, mastery and purpose is so important.

To be clear the folks I worked with are good people. It is a challenging job on many levels and I was simply not cut-out to do it. I sometimes wish I had more people to people jobs growing up. Instead I was insulated from waiting tables, pulling pints or serving burgers on match day (well actually did this). Instead, I was off working on web-design for local companies who couldn’t afford a professional! For the record, I still can’t code to save my life even the word MATLAB brings me out in cold sweats.

Sticky fingers

It was also clear that like the oil industry the future of retail banking ain’t so bright. The falls ‘bout to put a period on the summer, probably. The four horsemen of the apocalypse, Bitcoin, the Cash AppMonzo and Ethereum are all technologies that are now at scale. In the coming years, these could likely knock down brick and mortar banks or entirely remove the sticky finger middlemen from our financial lives. Without putting a finer point on it- when was the last time you went to your branch?

That process will bring its challenges. For now it seems that the only people who still send cheques are my Mum and HMRC. I can confirm you can still cash cheques through Monzo.

What do you think the future of banking will be in 5 years or so?

Let us know in the comments below.

LA 92 – (2017) Just a couple missed meals from chaos

Act I

I purposely went in blind steering clear of IMDB, Roger Ebert and other reviewers. Produced from the good folks at National Geographic was this going to be another 113 mins of talking heads? At least from the opening credits (or lack thereof) I knew it wasn’t going to be funded mouthpiece from The Pew Institute.

We begin in 1960’s America where the tale of black persecution first hit the television networks. The deep discrimination (as we are all acutely aware) has been going on for 400 years or so prior to the rise of The Suburbs and cable television. This film does not linger in Jim Crow’s America for those looking for more on that era check out….I Am Not Your Negro (2016), 13th (2016) and Broken on All Sides.

So into the City of Angels we plunge. Reflecting 28 years later what is the first word that comes to mind when we think on LA is it Hollywood?- the silver screen? and Rodeo Drive or is rioting. It is not the first and won’t be the last city to be forever tied to shocking events- take Oklahoma after the destruction wrought by Tim and Terry.

The initial act lays the stage for the chaos to come. We meet a smirking George Bush senior. The apple never falls far from the tree and it is hard to miss the parallels of the House of Bush’s 2003 misadventures in Iraq. 60 or so seconds of a brutal firefight during Desert Storm foreshadows the deployment of the National Guard onto the LA streets. The exhausted servicemen (fire, police and army) one of which explains to the camera ‘ at least in the Gulf we could shoot- ‘we just have to sit here and take it…’

Act II

Latasha Harlins a schoolgirl who was gunned down in cold blood while on a shopping trip ratchets up the tension further. The injustice of the subsequent trial of Soon Ja Du again primes the viewer for what is to come. There are broader themes that run through- the role of the media, the growing surveillance state are all eluded to. Sometimes a crime is so shocking that even grainy black and footage can haunt the viewer.

The ‘90’s were a time of the roll-out of many home video cameras –‘let me get the shot’ an onlooker announces as looters pillage another ‘try and save’ store. There were of course no – 20 mega-pixel camera iPhones on the streets. Could we cope with every rubbernecker recording live on TikTck. How would our reaction to 9/11 differ if everyone in the towers could live-stream their last moments?

A powerful score moves the action along and the outpouring of emotion post King’s trial is visceral. In one memorable scene on verdict day- a Koon, Powell, Wind and Briseno supporter bring the policemen’s favourite snack donuts. A brief exchange on a bench outside the courthouse follows- ‘those guys are keeping back the jungle’ Remember this is the early 90’s not 1965 nor is it the south. Nooses are tightened across all states.

Act III

Protests quickly escalate into riots which beget looting spreading like the fires which gut entire city blocks. The violence erupts initially in South Central LA and Compton before reaching pockets of ‘well to do’ areas- even Hollywood is not immune. In Korea Town, the lifeblood of much the city’s economy witness their business which took years if not generations to build- destroyed in just a few night of flames.

Throughout phrases echo-

A Korean shop owner repeats the mantra ‘This is America’ appalled that this could be happening in a supposed first world country. Another lady hysterical cries ‘this is not fair..this is not fair!’. Others do not have a voice and lie beaten in the street bleeding out awaiting ambulances that will not come. Their crime? Being white at the wrong stoplight. These scenes turn even the strongest stomach and will leave you truly appalled. Younger plays of Rockstar’s massively popular Grand Theft Auto V will see the Korean shop owners armed with automatic weapons as a poignant example of life imitating art.

Act IV

So do I recommend the film? Absolutely!

For those in their For those born after 92 and those like me who were only in diapers it is a crucial history lesson- begging the questions why did we not watch this in school? The film leaves as many questions hanging- there are no clear sides or righteous high ground to take. We recoil in despair at the looters but how many of us can truly say we wouldn’t take advantage and pilfer some houseplants! Across the pond, we have had our own (thankfully small) taste of the looting horror- through the 2011 riots sparked by the killing of Mark Duggan.

Hollywood and the media in general likes to paint a simple picture of dark vs light see- Star Wars and recently Game of Thrones. These narratives are straightforward for the audience to digest and go some way to shaping the zeitgeist. For a more nuanced take- check out David Simon’s The Wire. (I’m still amazed at how many have not watched this slow-burning masterpiece). In many ways, LA 92 poses more questions than it does answers- the stakes of which have only been heightened by recent events.

Thus the veneer of society is thin- we would be wise to remember Lenin’s words ‘every society is three meals away from chaos.

The final scene returns full circle to a statement that rang out at the start of the film.

”What shall it avail our nation if we can place a man on the moon, but cannot cure the sickness in our cities?” 

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