Camus, Wim Wenders and a philosophy of table football

 

About to throw this broken table football game out, I took one last look – this time, from the players’ point of view.

Table football

 

Everything can look confused, urgent, overwhelming and dramatic if you get sucked in too close to the action. Existentialist writer and philosopher Albert Camus once said, “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I know it from football.” Camus was also a goalkeeper. Look at this picture, taken from behind the goalkeeper; then picture the game from where you’d play it, holding the handles.

 

The tension between those two points of view drives Camus’ The Outsider (below): between the antihero Mersault’s killing of a man, and society’s judgement.

 

 

It’s no coincidence that the other great existentialist murder story (it’s the opposite of a mystery; you always know exactly whodunnit. It’s a whydunnit, maybe?) is called The Goalkeeper’s Fear Of The Penalty – famous as Wim Wenders’ 1972 film (below), adapted from Peter Handke’s 1970 book.

 

 

The moment of the shot, and what comes next. Look at it from that goalkeeper’s point of view.

 

That shot. The next second. Life coming at you, thick and fast, non-stop, in the shape of sudden, sometimes seemingly random, arbitrary or inexplicable events. Which way will you dive? Do you decide, or does it just happen? Is that part of the game – the penalty – something you can direct, or is it being done to you?

 

Knowing it’s both at the same time – knowing you are at all times both inside the goalmouth awaiting what comes and dealing with the shots, and viewing the game from above, holding the handles – is consciousness. It’s the goalkeeper’s terrible burden, like it’s all of ours. But it’s salvation too – if you can take that high view when it matters, learn to switch focus, and zoom in and out at the right moment.

 

 

DOWNLOAD: Cool fabricator: The strange and beautiful case of Tom Kummer

Bad Boy Kummer: The poster for the inevitable biopic

In the course of researching my new book on resignations, I’ve been wading through a lot of parting shots from journalists.

 

Well, they have the public forum. Most of us pass through our careers without leaving a trace. We speak as representatives. We curtail our language. We stick to the script. This makes workplaces strangely preliterate, at least in terms of studying them. In the absence of personal testimony, we need to turn anthropologist.

 

It’s not like that with journalists. Everything they write is a personal testimony. Their/our careers are (often, at least) all footprint. And sometimes, the testifying is all there is.

 

So I’ve been wading through the last flare-outs of Jonah Lehrer, Johann Hari, Jayson Blair and others. And those cases reminded me of another that I’d known more than a decade before. This case never got quite the fame in the English-speaking world; but then, if it hadn’t been for our anglophone insularity, perhaps it could never have happened in the first place.

 

It’s the strange, strange story of a Swiss-German Hollywood reporter called Tom Kummer. He was Germany’s man on the inside throughout the 1990s. Nobody – not the LA Times, not Vanity Fair – could get the access he got; or get the stars to open up like him. He interviewed Brad Pitt about his bogies; Courtney Love about dinosaurs; Sharon Stone about post-structuralism. The world asked: how did he do it? What was his secret?

 

Well, you can guess. But there was a twist to Tom Kummer’s story that nobody saw coming. I wrote a feature about him in Jack magazine back in 2003. So I dug it out. Here it is.

 

It’s not perfect. But it sure is weird.

 

Matt_Potter_Tom_Kummer_1Matt_Potter_Tom_Kummer_2

News: Reader’s Digest publishes ‘Outlaws Inc’ in 26 languages as its Autumn adventure read

International literary selection Reader’s Digest has published a condensed version of Outlaws Inc. in its Autumn edition… and brought its international detective story home.

 

The condensed extract is published in Norwegian, Swedish, Slovenian (a taster for the translation is here), Russian, French, Dutch, Hungarian, Finnish, Czech, Slovak, Polish, German, Italian, Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, and a host of other languages. In the New Year, it will see publication in Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese and other Far Eastern languages, as well as for parts of Africa.

 

The extracts come with some incredible, atmospheric new illustrations inspired by the action, supplied by Bryan Christie Design of New York – that’s one of Bryan’s illustrations at the head of this post, and more of his work is here.

 

It’s a big moment for me. While Outlaws Inc. has been translated into several languages as a full book, having it read by people in some of the countries central to its investigative trail through the secret world of international arms smuggling – from the Far East to Russia itself – is an honour. I guess I hope some of its findings hit home in the heartland of the operations I followed, as they have elsewhere. It’s undeniably thrilling, even a little strange, seeing the story printed in Cyrillic. I sort of feel like I need to wish it luck in there.

 

But it’s more personal than that too. My grandma was a lifetime subscriber to Reader’s Digest‘s condensed selection of books, and it loomed large throughout my childhood. She was its biggest fan. I remember cutting my reading teeth on some of the non-fiction adventure stories in the copies she always had at her house. Jaws was one extract I read, back when it was new. There was another called The Sea Shall Not Have Them, too. I don’t remember much about it, but I remember the story had the same kind of outer darkness that hung over Mickey and the pilots I tracked. that In a way, I think that more than my writing the book – and perhaps more than any good it has (or hasn’t) done in the battle against global weapons smuggling – I think this would have been the seal of approval that made her proud.

 

So thanks, Reader’s Digest. And thanks, Grandma.

 

 

Analysis: Auto destruct: the curious case of the flaming Mercedes (…not to mention the Audis BMWs, Porsches & VWs)

Who (or what) is behind Berlin’s bonfire of the coupés?

This time, it was Porsche lighting up the night with its flames. A high-spec Cayenne, freshly waxed with all the extras. Its owner had parked it outside his apartment around midnight on the 21st September. By ten to five in the morning, it was just another charred, smouldering shell on another Berlin sidestreet.

 

There are no sirens, no flashing lights in Friedrichshain, the gentrifying suburb on the firmer eastside. For the red-eyed Polizist blowing on his styrofoam coffee, it is all too familiar. On the front seat of his squadcar, his radio crackles. His colleague stretches the tape around the Cayenne and the blackened husk of what was once a VW Polo parked next to it. Another cop posts notices on neighbouring apartment lobbies and doors.

 

By now, the question of the early summer – who was the phantom arsonist, torching luxury cars on a nightly basis, sometimes by the dozen? – has become a shrug. These cases – and there’s another coming in on the radio from just across the ditch in Kreuzberg – take the figures close to 400 since June. Nobody I talk to on the street is quite sure how close, simply because they say they’ve lost track. They are almost always luxury models, almost always German-made.

 

As the first Autobrände (‘automotive firebombings’) filtered in, the Bullen – hard-bitten city cops – had figured it was business as usual. Germany is no stranger to automotive arson, and the past four years have seen its crime map becoming a pincushion of charred marques: VWs, BMWs, Audis, Mercedes take the brunt, but only because, well, that’s most of what you see in Germany. There’s even a special website, brennende-autos.de – or “Burning Cars” – where you can chart the latest car arson action. But though there have been waves before, mostly those cases were scattered, occasional, and varied in their methods: petrol on the backseat and a tossed match; rag in the fueltank.

 

Under pressure from a city hall anxious to see the incumbent mayor win a third term, investigators started out handling it like those cases: old-fashioned, low-key policework, pick up the clues, wait for a pattern, arrest the fraudster or pissed-off boyfriend. Nothing to see here.

 

But this summer, something unusual happened: the arsons multiplied, then multiplied again, spreading quickly out of control.

 

Not that there was no method, at least at first. The attacks were all concentrated around just a few square miles of central Berlin; they were all discovered in an advanced charred and smouldering state – there were no fireballs, no explosions, no smashed glass. They burned silently, from the inside. One local resident told me it reminded her of human spontaneous combustion.  It was the ultimate stealth method, nearly impossible to stop or detect, and most importantly of all, it buys the firebug time.

 

This is the method. A quiet street, the early hours – between 1am and 5am, when the city is emptiest. A wedge of barbecue firelighters inside the front wheel arch, by the kerbside tyre. By the time the flames are visible to the next dog-walker, cop or shiftworker to pass, it’s too late: the rubber tyre has gone up like reunifocation day firework, and the engine, exposed to the flames licking up the inside of the wings and causing the fuel tank to overheat and erupt, has exploded. Seconds later and the car is a fireball encased in metal: 1,000ºC on the insides, the frame smoking and collapsing in on itself. The arsonist is long gone – vanished on foot or bicycle while the firelighters were still just small bundle of white cubes wedged under the tyre of the mark.

 

Such was the speed with which the firebug spread that reports awaiting processing became backlogged. At one stage, police were reduced to modifying their theories and their list of suspects on the fly, as data entered into the computers forced on-duty officers to abandon searches midway through and head to new addresses.

 

By August, nine cars a night were being razed, with the weeknights 15-17th alone claiming 40 automotive arsons. Since the hot, dry Berlin summer kicked in, the total was 372, and creeping nightly towards 400.

 

There were now those within the department – and in Berlin – who argued that this was no longer a crime, but an epidemic; a kind of spreading madness or mass hysteria. They argued it could no longer possibly be a case of who was torching the cars, but why so many others had started torching them too.

 

Every time they thought they had a pattern, it would break. The most attractive blanket suspects for a long time were radical political factions. The rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Mitte seemed to draw most of the fire – the former West- and East-Berlin’s radical urban neighbourhoods whose long-standing inhabitants have a deep suspicion of the incoming hipsters, executives and media types whose arrival has brought lurching rent-rises, bulldozers and big, bad brands.

 

The authorities focused on the fact that many of the charred and burning wrecks lining these neighbourhoods each morning were luxury models. That was enough for them to make the left-wing radicals connection. And that meant they, the same cops who until a week or two ago had been prepared for the usual collaring of disgruntled ex-lovers and parking disputes – were now effectively running an anti-terror operation.

 

German terror cells have a history of fetishistic attachment to their cars that rivals that of the yuppies, businessmen and suburbanites they oppose. For a few heady years in the 70s, the BMW enjoyed the nickname “Baader-Meinhof-Wagen”, because of that group’s preference for the marque – and specifically its top-of-the-range models, capable of outrunning police pursuers. This time, initial suspicions settled on the car as economic symbol. The dark side of these automotive symbols – BMW’s terror-group adherents and mad owners, VW’s Nazi origins and slave-labour production lines, Mercedes’ staff-car iconography – still has a heavy voodoo that would make them magnets for fringe groups looking for a symbol.

 

They didn’t need to look far.

 

In these bohemian heartlands, shiny status rides attract flack every day. Locals had long been voicing the need for direct action, just like the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, when their running battles with the police who kept trying to break up their protests and raid their homes for drugs – tactics they saw as creactionary attempts to cleanse leftist communities – made headlines, with burning cars and water cannon staples of the nightly news. This time, the locals felt, the cleansing was being achieved economically, by stealth, with chain outlets replacing family businesses and tenants (nobody buys in Germany) forced out by property developers. As the arsonist or arsonists struck again and again, the police became convinced the local radicals were executing a risky homegrown terror campaign: a “bonfire of the brands”.

 

As the burnings overtook past years (until now, 2009 had been the arson epidemic everyone talked about) the authorities, having reclassed 155 of the 372 cases on record as ‘politically motivated’ crimes, responded with numbers. This too was just like the 1970s: 500 extra police would patrol the city suburbs, every night. Helicopters would keep watch from above. Chasing down suspects with searchlights.

 

They proved useless. The low-key nature of the detonation – all it took was a few seconds kneeling beside a car, pretending to tie your shoelace while you pushed the firelighters into the wheel arch – made the arsonists impossible to catch.

 

The mayor, Klaus Wowereit, was a worried man. His conservative challenger Frank Henkel was now campaigning on the issue, claiming he’d set up a Berliner Bürgerwehr, or Citizen’s Vigilante Militia, to combat the problem if he got elected. The police immediately hit back. “Bounty hunters belong in Westerns,” said their spokesman. “Vigilante justice is much more of a danger.”

 

Feeling the heat, Berlin Police began offering €5,000 for tipoffs, no questions asked. Rainer Wendt, head of the German Police Union, went on TV, making “a desperate appeal for tips from all citizens.”

 

In the meantime, they had another problem. No sooner had they begun to investigate the left-wing terror/direct action theory than the wave of fire spread, beginning to engulf rattletrap traders’ vehicles, scrapheap-dodgers and second-hand Fords and Opels parked across the city. By late September, the targets were more or less indiscriminate: a police spokeswoman read out the nightly toll to jaded press in a deadpan voice: “One Opel Corsa on Rigaer Strasse. Old registration, Time of burning around 1.40am. Another Opel, unidentified, parked next to the first. Old registration. One Audi, Bernkastelerstrasse, Weissensee district. Time reported, 6.30am.”

 

I asked the police who they thought they were dealing with now. Off the record, one businesslike Berlin cop told me the only possible explanation was a “coalition, just like the politicians… some people early on were certainly protesting. But that created a new condition and everybody who wanted to could burn something.”

 

The result was, if not a madness, a wave of oddly opportunistic bacchanalia. The normally buttoned-up people of Berlin, given the perfect cover, wanted to see what it would be like. Copycats – many, police believe, otherwise law-abiding people who had never entertained the thought of arson before – found the temptation too much to resist.

 

Then came the third wave. The disgruntled, the vengeful and the jilted could suddenly get even, Scott-free, courtesy of the epidemic. Fraudsters, anyone who fancied a new car. Underappreciated wardens, neighbourhood watchmen, even firemen. Only four suspects have been jailed, with seven more free but under investigation. Clearly, the police were desperate: one, a pretty 21-year-old identified only as Alexandra R, was arrested for being in the vicinity of a car on a dark street with a spraycan in her hand.

 

That morning, police announced a breakthrough. They had arrested someone they believed to be a key figure on the wave of automotive arson. Someone who had been arrested – and freed – on suspicion of torching cars once before, in that long hot summer of 2009. They could put him at the scene, apparently convincingly, of a handful of burnings.

 

They named him Tobias P, a 25-year-old Berlin resident. Tobias is a freelance crime snapper. Under the name ‘Andreas’, Tobias had been covering the burnings – often first on the scene, always great pictures – and selling his photographs of the cars police now suspect him of torching back to Berliner Zeitung city newspaper, other media, and the police themselves.

 

Meanwhile, the firebug has spread to Moscow, with the long, hot weeks of high summer claiming between four and nine cars every single night. The same methods. The same complex relationship between residents and the luxury cars that line their suburbs.
Perhaps, after all, we get the riots we deserve. This summer in the Middle East, long-standing dictators in military fatigues got bazooka-toting rebel armies. In London, Manchester and Birmingham, decades of mixed messaging about aspiration and cut throat competition begat locusts in branded clothing, devouring electronics and sportswear stores.

 

And in Germany – as ever – it all came down to das auto. The VWs, the Audis, the BMWs, the Mercedes, the Porsches. The post-war economic miracle, in moulded chrome, dirty secrets as standard. Berliners’ symbol of the fat years, once so comforting and lasting, now pouring black smoke from the hood as dawn breaks over another Kreuzberg sidestreet.

 

Upcoming: Spiegel, advertising and social media campaigns to spearhead German release

Outlaws Inc will be released on 30th September in Germany. The book’s German title is Tödliche Fracht – das heimliche Geschäft mit Waffen und Drogen (“Deadly Cargo – the secret trade in weapons and drugs”). German publisher Ullstein/Econ is supporting the launch with advertising, a social media campaign and campaigns in Spiegel Online. as well as traditional press activity, serialisation and review opportunities, and a German-language press tour by Matt in October. The title is Econ’s priority launch for the season, and takes up the first five pages (including the cover) of the season’s catalogue, viewable as a PDF here: Econ_2_2011_Vorschau, or downloadable as a page-turner here.

Translated into German by Christoph Bausum, and with photos by Matt himself, Canadian reporter Doug McKinlay and others, the book appears with a special metallic, embossed cover to resemble the grey, riveted metal sides of the smugglers’ Soviet-era Ilyushin planes.

For German interview, speaking or review opportunities, contact Caroline Kraft at Ullstein/Econ in Berlin. caroline.kraft@ullstein-buchverlage.de or telephone: +49 (0) 30 23456 432.

German edition is riveting. Literally.

The cover of Tödliche Fracht: Die heimliche Geschäft in Waffen und Drogen – the German title for Outlaws Inc., was finalised today, and a thing of rare beauty it is. The German publisher Econ/Ullstein, has gone to town with a grey-metal ‘special’ and embossed ‘rivets’ to replicate the sinister crates and plane fuselages that transport illicit arms, drugs and contraband across the world’s blank spaces. I love covers like this – they’s beautiful, they’re tactile, and they engender their own excitement for the feel, before you even think about the content. The German edition hits stores across Germany and Amazon on 30th September 2011.

What’s German for ‘Outlaws Inc’?

The answer, of course, is ‘Tödliche Fracht’. OK, lie. But the title of the book’s German edition, published in late summer by Econ/Ullstein Verlag (former home of the coolest politician ever, Willi Brandt) is Tödliche Fracht: Das heimliche Geschäft mit Waffen und Drogen… which translates back as the extremely cool ‘Deadly Cargo: The Secret Trade in Weapons and Drugs’. There’ll be some German press and a quick tour taking in interviews, broadcast media and maybe some speaking in Berlin, with more TBC as I write, around September. For more details, see the Contact page.

Brandt: Never knowingly outgrooved