Comment: The best writer I know

 

While I was in New York, running around promoting the book and doing things I thought were all terribly important, something else happened.

 

Jetlagged and excited, I sat on a step outside a Starbucks close to 5th Avenue to check my emails. There was a cheery, round-robin, letting-you-know email from a good friend and fellow journalist – I’ll call her X here, because though her news is now more or less public, I’m guessing it would only embarrass her if people knew who she was from reading this. It started in the way she always starts important news – the chatty, importance-deflating opener, the joke or two just to settle you in, then (wallop) the Big News, always with the same casual, pick-that-out-of-the-net delivery. I love the way she does news.

 

As I began to read it, I remembered the last time I’d seen such an off-hand opener to a piece of amazing gossip from her. That one had said something like, “So whaddyaknow. I got a book deal.” I’d loved that. I read on.

 

So whaddyaknow (…the jokes…) the big news is (…and the casual netside smash…) she’s got cancer.

 

I read it back again.

 

X has got cancer. Actually, she’s got cancer back. And this time it means business in a way that makes even her previous brush – aged 28, breast, stage four, double removal and reconstruction, more major surgery, chemo – look like it was just messing her about. Three years on, it’s in her bones. And while it can be treated, it cannot be cured.

 

Then the jokes again, and the Bossy X thing, telling recipients to get a damn grip, put it in perspective and look out for her husband, brother and family. It was a hell of an email. I sat there and looked at the email, while 5th Avenue did its fast-motion thing around me and my inbox.

 

Then something weird happened. Something that was almost as surprising as the news itself.

 

But for me to tell you what, there are three things you now have to know about X.

 

1. She’s the best writer I know. This is something I said, both to her face (OK, Twitter face) and others (everywhere) before this note. A good thing too: if I told her now, such is her aw-shucks modesty she’d assume I was “just saying it”.

 

2. When I say the best writer, I actually don’t mean just the best writer. Her tweets, her journalism, her blog, her book, her conversation – especially, her conversation – all have something that make people want to be a part of them. I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s a sort of empathy. There’s this thing when you’re at the pub or work or wherever and chewing the fat with X, where you see her absolutely rapt in the narrative (joke, tall tale, laugh, polemic, whatever) of the moment. You tell a story, and you notice she’s primed, ready for the laugh. Essentially, I believe this is what informs her writing. She’s up for the story in a way that a lot of journalists aren’t, and will follow a line of humour for the reward, where other writers might pull back. It’s a sort of nose for the good bit. An instinct for entering into the spirit of things. It makes her writing fun, and true, but it also makes it really human. A lot of journalists don’t necessarily do things like human, warm, empathy. I love slipping into them, but for her, they aren’t fancy dress; they’re like housetrousers.

 

In fact, I think that’s what makes her a great writer: the same thing that makes her such fun to have as a mate. And if you’ve read her books, her articles, but don’t know her, here’s the news: you do know her. Because she really is the person you hope she’ll be when you laugh and tut and generally hang out with her page-self.

 

3. That’s what I think. And I’m not even one of X’s super-close friends. We’ve worked together, jabber over social media quite a bit, meet for a drink occasionally. I’ve met her man and he’s a great guy too. I guess/hope they both know I’ve got their backs if it comes to it. But in that oh-so-London way, I still don’t know her home address.

 

So why do you have to know all this? What comes next that’s so surprising, so hard to understand?

 

For X, I felt (feel) pissed off, powerless, sad, guilty (Woah! Where did that come from?), and lots more. But something in what she wrote, or how she wrote it, made me weirdly hopeful. Or maybe inspired. Something. I didn’t know why. It wasn’t hopeful or inspiring news. So that messed with my mind for a few days. And (a week on) I think I’ve figured it out.

 

There’s been a fair bit of cancer flying about in my family recently, and there’s nothing good about it. It’s a mean-spirited thing. It doesn’t just take your health, or your loved ones’ health; it tries to mess with your mind. It puts things off limits – not just activities but whole subjects of discussion, even feelings. It puts up barriers between people. It stops them doing, saying, even thinking what they really want (need) to do, say, and think.

 

People become prisoners to it.

 

They want to talk to their families like they did before, freely and with love, and without baggage.

 

Cancer says No.

 

They want to say ‘I love you’ without the other person thinking they’re only saying it because they have cancer.

 

They want to be told they are loved without thinking, “This person is only saying this because I have cancer”.

 

Cancer says No to that.

 

They want people to see them, argue with them, say hello and goodbye to them, hug them, catch up with them, share a joke with them, without the other person seeing a cancer-sufferer instead of a mum, a brother, a sister, a wife, a dad, a grandma, a son, a husband, a daughter, a friend.

 

They want to talk to people without cancer subtitles appearing at the bottom of the screen.

 

They want to watch TV, listen to some music, read a magazine, have a conversation, without half-expecting that awful moment when innocent turn, chance remark, supporting character (something they would have skated over a million times before, something innocuous or coincidental) brings them out of the moment and back to their cancer, and its shadow.

 

Cancer says No.

 

Cancer says No to a lot of things. It tries to close us down. It can be very isolating. X knew this, because in the book she wrote about the last time, she even thanked the friends “who just didn’t know what to say”. At different times, that’s been me.

 

I’ve never had cancer. But like I say, more than one member of my close family has had it, this past couple of years. And while they had it, they got further away. And that always seemed to me the cruellest thing.

 

The No is always the same. It’s a shake of the head, something filled with doubt and isolation. But everything X does, everything she says, and everything she writes in response – even in the email that informed her friends of its return – is a far more powerful affirmation of her closeness to people. Humour beats doubt and awkwardness every time; humanity, openness and generosity of spirit will always kick the black dogs of depression and helplessness out.

 

And then there’s love.

 

That – sheer bloody love of life, of the people around her, of the ongoing story, of the moment before the laugh, of her husband, family, friends, of people at large – is what comes through in her writing and conversation. It’s in that email, her ongoing blog, her book, and her journalism on damn near any subject; it’s in her tweets and status updates, and (especially) it’s in the times in pubs and offices and on Twitter that she’s made me laugh and think how much I’d like to be her when I grow up.

 

And those things combine in her to make a great big fucking YES, about million times louder than anything the cancer can muster up.

 

YES to friends, yes to humour, yes to honesty, yes to closeness, yes to all the precious stuff cancer tries to deny. Yes to still loving life, yes to seeing the world wide open. Yes to the moment before the laugh. Yes to the continuing story, whatever it holds.

 

That word. Somehow she managed to sneak it inside every single one of the other words on that email. You couldn’t see it at first, you couldn’t read it, but you could sure feel it. Like I say: the best writer I know.

 

 Update, 29th September: So the cat is out of the bag regarding the person identified as ‘X’ in this post. And since it is, I’m adding it here, so readers can chase Lisa Lynch’s work down – and her blog entry on the subject, which contained much of the text from the just-letting-you-know email – and see what I mean for themselves. And as for her book, The C-Word, just buy it. 

 

Report: Smuggling, security & the power of cheap – speaking at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs

On 22nd September, I was honoured to be invited to discuss the links between big business, mercenary airmen and terrorist groups at a special event presented by the Transnational Security Committee of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. The conversation that followed, moderated by CGA Academic Chair Dr Mark Galeotti, took in the disintegrating Soviet Union, the forces and motives directing policy in Afghanistan, Central America and increasingly, East Africa.

 

The high point for me personally was Dr Galeotti’s killer question – one I haven’t been asked before, and when I think about it, I wish I had, because it’s an incredibly fertile way to look at how our world works. He posited a hypothetical set of conditions where it was possible to shut down all rogue air operators and stem the flow of invisible cargo overnight. He then asked, what would our world look like then?

Well, war would get bigger again, for a start. Not just in the sense that smaller groups would find it harder to access plentiful weapons without a superpower ‘backer’ – much as they did in Cold War days – but in that moves like invasions, regime change and reconstruction would come with a far higher tax bill attached, since the grunt work could no longer be outsourced to cost-effective partners-for-hire, but would demand the presence of a far larger standing force.Prices for other things would rise, too. Not just contraband – though the plentiful supply of cheap movers helps keep prices artificially low there too – but everything from bouquets to chickenburgers and parcel post to washing machines.

 

Humanitarian aid, too, would come with a heftier bill attached – again, it would require bodies like the UN to run a far larger standing transport resource – and would be slower in its deployment, since the perma-circling flocks of cheap Russian cargo planes operating in and around the world’s troublespots would have disappeared. Smaller aid outfits would likely be squeezed out of the emergency-response market, since they would not have access to cheap capacity in planes that were already going to Somalia, Pakistan or Haiti, and could neither afford to charter nor run their own plane.

 

No wonder the Q&A with the audience was described as “spirited”! You can read more about the event, and the CGA’s upcoming lecture programme, here.

Extract: Colombia, cocaine and the coastal paradise on a US blacklist

Today, the US finally blacklisted Belize and El Salvador for being major narcotics transhipment hubs – mainly for Colombian cocaine. Anyone who’s been to the former British Honduras, a tiny little country on the Central American coastline, will already know very well how much of it goes down there. Indeed, most are probably wondering, like me, what took the US so long.

For those who don’t – and for everyone interested in the cocaine trade – I’ve decided to post a free extract of my book below, in which I witnessed the workings of the Belize cocaine transhipment trade at close quarters. Read it and weep…

– From the chapter
High Times on the Costa Coca

“It’s just the start of another lazy, sun-kissed day on Ambergris, one of the tiny, sandspit-and-swamp cayes—pronounced keys, like the Florida archipelago they resemble—off the mainland of this Mayan-Caribbean state. Belize is a tiny coastal country nestled between Guatemala and Mexico on the Central American coastline. Accordingly, the former British Honduras is part coastal paradise, part Mayan hill-and-jungle backwater, and projects the kind of quaint, slow-paced charm we all remember from childhood visits to elderly aunts by the seaside. The waters this side of a long coastal reef glow bright blue, and farther out, where the peasant fishermen ply their trade and the occasional launch zips by on its way up the Central American seaboard toward Florida, they are calm and reassuringly hushed. It genuinely is the last place I’d ever expected, quite literally, to fall over the slit and dissolving remains of a twelve-kilo sack of uncut cocaine someone had left lying on the sandspit beach of the long caye during a dawn walk.

If I’d been able to read the local papers for the couple of months before my arrival in March 2003, I might have had an inkling. On a cloudy Wednesday morning in February 2003, Belizean drug-enforcement agents on a tip-off stormed a field on the Mexico-Belize border and stumbled upon a still-smoldering torched aircraft. But if that was genuinely their first clue that all was not entirely as it should be on the sunny shores of this tiny Central American paradise, perhaps it shouldn’t have been. For years, fishermen and farmers up and down the Mosquito Coast have been doubling up as cocaine salvage men, pushing out early in the morning to see what they can rescue from the fields and waters of Belize and neighboring countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Locals here earn a matter of pennies a day—yet a handful or those industrious or well-informed enough have long been living a Central American rewrite of Whisky Galore (Compton Mackenzie’s book and subsequent film about a small Scottish island community onto whose beach fifty thousand cases of scotch from a wrecked World War II cargo vessel are washed). Only here, the flotsam comes in the form of shrink-wrapped bales of 100 percent pure cocaine, not bottles of booze.

On a sandy, shark-encircled caye a few kilometers along the Costa Coca just weeks later, I was a passenger on a local fishing boat whose skipper explained to me as he sped right past his fishing waters and into the deeper ocean that it was always worth his while scouting around for the “taped-up plastic sacks of cocaine that the narcotraficantes drop into the water at night.” Sometimes, he explains, the narcos whose job it is to deliver the drugs to the planes come round the coast at night and attempt to rendezvous with the plane’s crew. If they are disturbed, chased by law enforcement, or just paranoid, the easiest thing for them to do is push the cargo over the side, carefully wrapped so that it floats discreetly, in the hope of doubling back and retrieving it when the danger has passed—the big-money equivalent of throwing your joint from the car window. The air trapped in the sacks makes them float, semi-submerged or just below the surface, glinting as the light bounces off the plastic. Often they do return and retrieve their cargo, but there are often stragglers, bales washed away from the rest. These are, says the skipper, “the bales the fishing boats find, mostly. Sometimes from a plane too, though, I think.”

By now it was late morning and my skipper and I were no longer alone: A handful of small dinghies could be seen combing the reef waters and the deeper sea beyond, packed with fishermen hoping to land their own twelve-kilo, plastic-wrapped golden ticket. Up and down the beach, meanwhile, were the sacks that hadn’t made it—punctured on impact with the ground, swept out, torn, and washed up again, their precious contents either a dissolving bubbly residue or gone forever.

Back on land, the caye is awash with the stuff, young teenagers selling cocaine—or a hurriedly home-cut version of what the boats or 4x4s brought in—for as little as ten dollars a gram on jetties, beach bars, and up and down the sand in a way you’d normally be offered cheap souvenir beach towels or hair braids. One can’t help but notice how, among the rows of hovels, rusting pickups, and wooden boats, the occasional spanking-new, tinted-glass Humvee sits incongruously; or the odd rococo home extension with pool among a cluster of poor-but-proud shacks at the end of a dirt road. This is just one of the bizarre local economic glitches—along with a series of microbooms to the cash economy whenever a shipment falls—that attends this particular delivery method to the local arms-for-drugs traders.

The idea of spiriting large quantities of Colombian-grown drugs out of rural Belize by cargo plane is not new. In July 2000, British paratrooper Ken Lukowiak wrote a best-selling account of a successful marijuana-smuggling operation he masterminded from his British garrison in Belize in 1983, using military-transport aircraft to spirit large quantities of grass to Europe. Successful until he was caught by the army and jailed, that is.

Yet the Belizean police do seem incredibly unlucky to keep narrowly missing an arrest despite the tip-offs they receive from local witnesses. Just months later in August 2003, enforcement authorities in Blue Creek, a mile and a half from Quintana Roo, Mexico, arrived just too late once more and found another ditched Antonov. This time the gun was smoking: On landing, the An-12’s wheels had become stuck in the thick mud of the field, crippling it. Just like the Candid team who left their junk plane to rust in Afghanistan after having dropped their generator for the U.S. military, this crew knew what to do. The plane itself had cost just $1.5 million; it was expendable. The cargo wasn’t. Witnesses reported seeing men arrive at the plane by car, pick up the crew and a suspected ten bales of cocaine, and speed off in the direction of the Mexican border . . . where they vanished forever.”

Analysis: Chewbacca, Kurt Cobain & cheap thrills, or life in a post-Soviet West

What if…? is a popular parlour game among historians. How would the world look had World War Two ended differently? What would a Confederate-won Civil War have meant in a parallel 21st-century USA? What if the DDR’s army hadn’t wavered, and the Berlin Wall had never fallen?

 

This week brought a chance to play a different, even more tantalizing game. Truthdig Radio and the KPFK network in Los Angeles devoted a half-hour segment of their weekend show to discussion with Matt this week, talking Outlaws Inc., the 20th anniversary of the Soviet collapse, and its continuing aftermath.

 

Titled ‘Dodging Missiles With Russian Smugglers‘, the segment looked at the way in which everything from free trade to terrorism, our own governments’ foreign and fiscal policy, and even our own view of democracy, society and the world continues to be affected by what Soviets called the Cataclysm of 1991. While we in the West were all obsessing about a Reagan/Lucasfilm showdown with the Evil Empire and its Politburo of Darth Vaders that never materialized, should we have been watching instead for the thousands upon thousands of demobbed, unaccountable and nigh-untraceable Han Solos and Chewbaccas in their rusty old Millennium Falcons that suddenly swamped the skies? And what, from Afghanistan to Iraq and Colombia to Haiti, might have been different if we had?

 

Were we distracted by our own propaganda into believing a Cold War could be won outright, to the point of ignoring the aftermath of cheap AK-47s and Strela rocket launchers flooding the market? Is the War on Terror floundering precisely because it’s based on the fatal assumption that the War on Communism ended nice and neatly? Where would Rumsfeld and co have found all the ‘non-state actors’ to fly materiel to Iraq and Afghanistan without all the cheap ex-military Russian labour? How did we not predict the USSR’s military-assisted heroin pipelines suddenly redirecting through Europe and America as its newly freelance – and impoverished – ex-servicemen strove to make a buck out of their old infrastructure?

 

Could it be that, as well as arming a rash of conflicts from Somalia to Afghanistan and Armenia to Liberia and creating the generation of highly educated software dabblers who more or less invented the DDOS and spawned the download and piracy industry, the suddenness of the Soviet collapse was what killed Kurt Cobain and that guy from Alice In Chains?

 

So, how much of all our lives in the West 20 years on is secretly, subtly, Soviet-influenced? Are we ourselves living inside one of those ‘What if…?’ games after all? You can listen to the interview here, read the book if you want to, and make your own mind up…

Free audio download: Matt talks 9/11’s unreported aftermath on the Rick & Donna Martinez Show

Listen to Matt on WPTF with Rick and Donna Martinez:
Matt’s guest appearance on WPTF’s Rick and Donna Martinez show yesterday kicked off the show’s coverage of some of the more unheralded players in 9/11 and its global aftermath. Matt and Donna discussed the dirty deals our governments make with phantom carriers – in Iraq, Afghanistan, and closer to home. You can download the show as an iTunes-ready Mp3 here.

Comment: “A chilling indictment of worldwide regulatory failure” – or, the book beneath the book

Five newspapers in the UK have given a unanimous four-star thumbs-up to Outlaws Inc. – and with some hearteningly perceptive reviews that took me a little by surprise. The Liverpool Echo, Edinburgh Evening News and Yorkshire Post among others, and especially this review (below), from the Manchester Evening News, hit the nail on the head in a way that a lot of the gung-ho stuff misses.

Because for all the adventure, the anecdote and the fist-person element, I suppose I think what I might have ended up writing, without trying to really, was a book about what happens when governments take their hands off the wheel.

I trace the journey of Mickey and the rest of the now-stateless ‘outlaws’ whose country – along with all its certainties and the future it offered them – was snatched away by economic crisis. But somewhere deep down I know, as does the guy from the MEN – that it’s also a book about everything that’s happening now, to us. Read the review below, read the first chapter for free here, and let me know what you think.

News: Outlaws Inc is out in the USA, & the first (great) reviews are coming in…

Good morning America! Just a quick update on the eve of my US publication date to thank the American media for the great response so far, and especially the quality papers for reviews like this one from the Baltimore Sun calling Outlaws Inc. “a nonfiction tale more suspenseful and compelling than any espionage novel” and picking it out as it one of its “international thrillers of the autumn”, and the Waco Herald Tribune nailing it as “exciting and disturbing” – and hope that you all enjoy the book. I’ll be over in the third week of September to meet, interview and film, so if you’d like to talk while I’m there (or at any other time), just get in touch with me. Details on the ‘Contact’ page. Meanwhile, you can read a free extract of Outlaws Inc. in this month’s edition of top-selling proper men’s mag Men’s Journal.

Outlaws Inc is Maxim magazine’s big adventure

Maxim magazine has made Outlaws Inc. its adventure of the month for August, with a three-page feature interview on some of the key locations featured in the book. From mafia-run Belgrade to the bootleggers’ paradise of Kabul and war-torn Africa, the feature takes a long, hard look at just how the guns, drugs and gold gets in and out. Thanks, guys!