Napoleon defeated, God dead, confidence up: How one London church reveals our secret history

 

This is a short story about what really happens to the things we think are permanent and powerful. And how they may not be at all what they seem.

 

In 1818, the British Government announced a bonanza of one million pounds to be spent on celebrating victory over Napoleon. Buildings, events, whatever. But make it impressive.

 

One result was a rash of ‘Waterloo churches’ such as Holy Trinity Church in Marylebone – designed and built by Sir John Soane, and completed in 1826.

 

(The picture shows its second, outdoor pulpit: a ballsy move amid the noise and thoroughfare, like a rock band promoting a new album by playing loud from the back of a truck. Turn heads, stop traffic. Or perhaps it was a desperate move. More of that in a moment.)

 

London Marylebone church history

 

Yet once it was finished in 1826, the church saw service for barely100 years.

 

By the 1930s, it was derelict. By 1936, it had been retooled as a warehouse for Penguin Books, who figured they could store inventory for longer in its dry, dark crypt. The crypt was down some stairs, lower than delivery vehicles or wheeled trolleys could get. So they put a slide from a children’s playground going from the street down into the darkness below, and used that as a book chute.

 

Since the second world war, it’s been an art installation space (once exhibiting a piece involving a crucified ape), and a Christian publishing office. There are currently proposals to redevelop the building’s interior, and turn it into a shopping arcade.

 

The building itself is a blank page. Every age has written its own narrative of very different kinds of redemption and salvation on it.

 

First, relief at the defeat of Napoleon and the need to manifest the national feel-good factor. Then, with the addition of the street pulpit, the crisis of faith and the urgent need for 19th-century Anglicanism to attract new adherents out there – to propagandise against Darwin and Owen and the ebbing of the tide, to save the religion itself by street preaching to the masses.

 

It was a books warehouse for Penguin amid the great rise in literacy, with the boom of state education, and the pressing need to serve affordable books to this new, empowered readership, lifted from the slums.

 

Post-war, as attendance lapsed, it became offices – a manifestation of the property developer phenomenon that promised to take all that was old and make it new. The regeneration of space.

 

And finally, the new national mission: shopping. Lift yourself and benefit the nation through consumer spend. Retail therapy as patriotic duty. Self service, customer service and service industry as the new national service; religious service, even.

 

After all, the term for converting money and credit into goods has always been “redemption”.

 

 

Zombies, punks & immigrants: What J.G. Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ says about Britain in 2015

 

Tower blocks in Ladbroke Grove, London

 

It’s there if you look for it, snaking like mist around the tower blocks of West London, from Acton to Ladbroke Grove. An atmosphere. A message for us, maybe.

 

This part of London was the inspiration and setting for JG Ballard as he wrote his 1975 dystopian novel High Rise.

 

In the book, life for residents of a luxury high-rise development degenerates as they turn inwards, shutting off the world outside. Soon, the usual (1970s) assortment of malfunctioning elevators, power cuts, small annoyances, neighbourhood frictions, and petty tiffs spiral into terrifying violence along class and block floor lines. As factions develop and amplify, the block tumbles into savagery and eventually, cannibalism and total isolation.

 

So what? High Rise is a dystopian novel; one from 40 years ago. That’s what they were like. What has it got to do with reality? And more to the point, what does it have to do with us?

J G Ballard High Rise( 1st Edition)

The ’70s was a time of huge anxiety around social cohesion. In Britain, it was the heyday of Class War, Punk, the National Front, and heightened paranoia about immigration, domestic and international terrorism and Britain’s relationship with Europe. Fear of Armageddon was measured by the Doomsday Clock’s minutes-to-midnight time. The Left, with the Labour Party having seemed so powerful, with a charismatic, modernising leader (for Tony Blair, read Harold Wilson) until so recently, was fragmenting, running out of steam, and turning on itself.

 

Across the developed West, recession and stagnation combined with high rates of urbanisation and urban development (all those high rises) to put fear of urban crime at an all time high. Ballard’s Britain in the early 1970s was beset by power cuts, strikes, and shortages of everything from bread to water. Industrial action caused backlogs of refuse (striking binmen) and cadavers (striking cemetery workers). In 1975, New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy – so close that emergency services faced the prospect of paralysis. Public blocks went unrepaired, living conditions degenerated. The following year, West London saw the second wave of Notting Hill race riots. By 1977, New York had descended into lawlessness amid a blackout. The same summer saw the Battle of Lewisham, with National Front, locals and antifascists in pitched battles across South east London.

 

The social fabric, the contract we made with each other, seemed to be letting us down just when we needed it to protect and comfort us.

 

To those who remembered it a decade on, it must have seemed that Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” was less a credo than a statement of fact. The masses were fundamentally hostile; or at least, they were in competition with us, for whatever we wanted to take for ourselves and our family. They were everywhere, and they wanted to raid our pockets: communists pushing redistribution of wealth at home; criminals on our streets; strikers on the shop floor; immigrants at the gates; Europeans around the negotiating table.

 

In this context, the Conservatives’ famous Saatchi & Saatchi-produced 1979 General Election campaign poster, with its advancing, shuffling queue, looks very different.

 

 

Saatchi Labour isn't working 1979 general election

 

This fear of the hordes, the masses – the Other, who looks like us but means us harm – was also behind the high 1970s’ other big cultural explosion: the zombie movie.

 

A slow trickle had started a few years before against a backdrop of student riots, assassinations and impending anarchy with Night of the Living Dead (1968). But with the high ’70s, the flood broke. Zombies were everywhere. Suddenly, they were overrunning shopping malls, rural farms, homes, city streets. Unintelligible, irreducible, shambling and inelegant, ragged but unstoppable, they were the perfect metaphor for the invasive, alien masses Mr & Mrs Average saw moaning at the gates. In just under a century, those “poor… huddled masses” had gone from being beckoned by the Statue of Liberty to being decapitated by full-blood American heartlanders with shovels.

 

Tombs of the Blind Dead Zombie movie

 

(The zombie movie explosion arrived in perfect sync with its twin, the other great, quintessentially 1970s American cinema phenomenon. Blaxploitation movies attempted to deal with precisely the same anxieties of lone citizens standing alone against a rising tide of violent and degenerate Other, only from the other side. We can read in Shaft‘s urbanity and Superfly‘s threads an analogue to the British Mods’ emphasis on style as an outward expression of ‘clean living under difficult circumstances‘.)

 

No wonder politics got so beleaguered and panicky. No wonder Reagan’s winning 1980 manifesto was called ‘Morning In America’.

 

The mid-1970s was a dream from which it seemed we were trying to awake. A dystopia, narrowly averted. As Ballard wrote High Rise, he channeled this feeling. The block was a metaphor for society, its tribal split by floor – upper, middle and lower – mirroring the strata outside. But others were picking up on the mood too.

 

Think about that mood. Zombies – immigrants, the poor, the Other – were all over popular culture. Terror and immigration were all over the news. Urban high-density development was driving out residents. Atavism as politics, driven by a deep anxiety about the future, and about securing what we have. It was all very 1970s.

 

And in its own way, it’s all very 2010s, too. It’s no surprise that High Rise is being made into a film by Kill List director Ben Wheatley. So what does the rise of that old hysteria, those old anxieties mean? What do The Walking Dead, World War Z, I Am Legend and Zombie Apocalypse say about us? Who are our shambling, malevolent hordes, in ragged clothes, destroying the brains of young people and advancing on our gates?

 

And just as importantly, who are the people promising us easy answers, this time around? Answers that involve barricades, and turning inwards, and everyone for themselves? Or even turning our guns on these “unstoppable cockroaches” and crying “show me the dead bodies”?

 

And if we know that, then might we begin to change what happens next, in our very own luxury fortress-like High Rise?

 

 

 

Crime & corruption: Are you a terrorist? If Yes, please tick box below…

 

Ever get the creeping feeling that the fight against corruption, money laundering and tax avoidance are doomed? Well, you’d be right. And here – in one phone call – is why.

 

I had a conversation with my bank about money laundering today.

 

I denied everything, naturally. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? These are tough times for money-launderers. We know they are because the government tells us, the police tell us, and the news media tells us.

 

Somali remittance services like Dahabshiil are getting the third degree amid claims they are conduits of funds to Al Shabaab. David Cameron recently “pressed the EU” on tax evasion, and has committed to a public register of company owners. “Those who want to evade taxes,” he thundered after this year’s G8 summit, “have nowhere to hide”.

 

Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that the Prime Minister’s cherished City of London is one of the leading global hubs for money laundering licit and illicit (and if you haven’t read Nicholas Shaxson’s eye-opening book Treasure Islands: Tax Havens & The Men Who Stole The World, I would urge you to do so): the overall message is clear. Money laundering by the rest of us is a Very Bad Thing, and Inspector Cameron, HMRC and the G8 are totally on it.

 

So it was that, having announced I wished to make a deposit with my bank (actually switching some money from another account somewhere else), I was made to feel what it’s like to have nowhere to hide. Here’s how it went.

 

Me: “Hello, I’d like to make a deposit, please.”

 

Bank: “OK. Now, I do need to ask – in accordance with the new money-laundering regulations – where this money is from?”

 

Me: “It’s mine.”

 

Bank: “OK, that’s great, I’ll tick ‘savings’. Thanks.”

 

And that was it. That was the full extent of the change wrought by the new money laundering regulations.

 

So if you’re a Mexican drug lord, Al-Shabaab fighter or common-or-garden tax avoider from the UK, remember: you have nowhere to hide. Except, y’know, a mortgage or current account. So long as you don’t confess under thorough interrogations like this.

 

As the Monty Python sketch says: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…

 

 

 

 

Comment: Reign of Errors – The Merchant of Death story ends the way we all figured. Or does it?

 

The sentencing of Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout to 25 years in New York’s South District of Manhattan Federal Court this month has, to paraphrase the old smoking joke, become a major causes of statistics, comment and opinion.

 

NGOs and arms-control activists – including, I should say, a great many friends, and others for whom I have huge respect and admiration – have been quick to declare the world a safer place, despite news of huge movements of illicit arms in North Africa and North Korea’s rocket test, using embargo-busting hardware bought from China, in the same fortnight. On the other side of US politics, the National Rifle Association used the occasion to thunder against arms controls, and seemingly came very close to saying the US government had betrayed the country’s constitution by hosting arms treaty conferences in New York. Meanwhile a diffuse but vociferous core of bloggers, NatSec heads, investigative journalists, ex-military types and libertarians wasted no time in joining conspiracy theorists in declaring Bout to be a pawn in a bigger game being played out by the USA, and Bout’s prosecutors and the DEA hailed his conviction and tough sentence as a victory. Just as predictably, the Kremlin began anew the sabre-rattling about the case harming bilateral relations that it had initiated on Bout’s arrest in Thailand in 2008 (a move it claimed was illegal) but had rather conspicuously left off during the trial. You had to rub your eyes sometimes, and remind yourself sometimes that it was one trial, and one man we’re talking about.

 

Ah yes, that man. Who was he again? In the course of researching my book Outlaws Inc., which contains transcripts of the DEA’s wire on the day of his arrest and a blow-by-blow account of the trial and conviction, I met and spoke to many associates, acquaintances, allies and enemies of Viktor Bout, and no two people seemed to agree. Nor did their stance and their background always make for an easy fit: I spoke to as many former cohorts in the gun-running air trade who thought he was a mobster, a spy, a scoundrel or a liability as I did UN staff who believed him to be on the rough end of some rather arbitrary and heavy-handed US justice. There were plenty who broadly held the same essential view as I do – that he’s a highly intelligent, amoral businessman who made a living capitalizing on and helping perpetuate human misery – while at the same time disagreeing as to exactly what that made him. Worse than BAE Systems? Not as bad as Blackwater/Xe? A terrorist himself? As bad as [name your big Wall Street arms or software corporation of choice here]? George W Bush’s independent alter-ego? Putin’s puppet? The man John Bolton wishes he could be? In the end, you go crazy. Bout became a symbol for all-purpose avarice – a yardstick to gauge whatever point anyone wanted to make about something else.

 

And that’s what I suppose I found (find) most interesting about his case, and his story. He is the British parliament’s Merchant of Death, a foxtrot-loving family man, Hollywood’s Lord of War, a friend to dictators in Liberia and the Congo, a supplier to terrorists in Colombia and Africa, a zeitgeist-surfing private military contractor, a gunrunner, a mastermind, a small businessman, a kingpin, a Kremlin proxy, a shabby and rather naive salesman hopelessly out of his depth, a patsy, and, lest we forget, partner and supplier to US adventures abroad, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. But how is this possible?

 

One of the reasons Viktor Bout seems to split people in this way is his own weirdly ephemeral nature. Here’s what we know from the record. Ask him what he believes, and he’ll tell you he’s just a family man and entrepreneur, and that such questions are meaningless to him. Ask him why he ran guns, and the party line is that he’s just like a taxi driver, and you don’t ask them why they take passengers, some good and some not so much. And on the rare occasion you ask him, as Peter Landesman did, who’s helped him out of some of his previous jams (having his entire crew and plane held hostage by the Taliban while supplying the Northern Alliance, for example), he points to his forehead and says if he tells you he’ll “get the red dot right here”.

 

In my book, I argued that this “shimmering, insubstantial” quality was part and parcel of being an arms smuggler. It’s as true of personal traits and beliefs as it is of his documentation. (He possessed seven passports, carrying wildly different names, nationalities and details.) Whatever suits you best right now, that’s the one you’ll produce. Keep the rest sketchy, that way no-one can hold you to anything later.

 

I suppose for a while, I thought it was going badly for Bout in that courtroom. It seemed that there finally was a narrative for him, and he didn’t look good in it. The DEA had it all on tape: their undercover agents pretending to be FARC men, Bout promising to sell them weapons “to kill Americans with”. Indeed throughout the trial Bout’s defence attorney Albert Dayan had consistently flubbed the opportunity to put his client’s side of any story. He’d focused on alleged US hypocrisy, and that was more or less it. Well, I’m not saying he didn’t try, but Dayan’s flubs – spilling a pitcher of water over himself and the dais as he drew breath to start cross-questioning; forgetting what he was saying, let alone missing opportunities to put forward some solid arguments for his client – all seemed to the casual observer to have something of self-sabotage and unpreparedness about them. And as Dayan himself (an ambitious young American and, let it be noted, a last-minute replacement for the court-appointed lawyers Bout sacked just as proceedings commenced) would hardly have wanted to go before the world’s TV cameras and into the most high-profile trial of his career unprepared, one must assume part of the fault for his seeming unpreparedness lies with Bout himself.

 

Why would he do that? Post-sentencing, I’m not sure I really think he blew it at all. On the contrary, maybe – just maybe – he’s played his hand rather smartly. Maybe going down with a whimper to what was after all a very, very self-contained US sting operation, was the best of all his options. It meant he didn’t have to talk about any of the other work he’s done; it meant that he didn’t have to talk about Africa, or Afghanistan, or any of the covert deliveries he’s been making for either Russia, or (crucially) the United States. This was the one scenario everyone could afford. Except of course, Viktor. He’s in for 25 years. Or is he?

 

What made me think again about the trial, and about its part in the bigger game being played out, was an email exchange I had with Russian journalist Yulia Ponomareva of the Moscow News, written up here. The starting point for the exchange was Yulia’s question: “Will Viktor Bout serve his 25 years, or return to Russia? Which is more likely?”

 

The day Bout was convicted back in the autumn, I’d expressed the gut belief on Twitter that he would be repatriated fairly soon; though as that was a first reaction and sentence had not been passed at that stage, I’d left open what exactly I meant by “soon”. But preparing my answers for the Moscow News, I realized that – assuming my feeling about repatriation is correct – the hand Bout has played is careful indeed. It’s about the long game: talk in court in the US in an attempt to get off, or to cut a deal, and you might succeed; but you’ll probably fail anyway, and messily, having played all of your cards and sold out most of your contacts back home and around the world. Fail on purpose, however – brief your attorney poorly, insist he witters on about US hypocrisy, blithely miss all the hints a deal may be on the cards – and you’ll go down. But you’ll be repatriated, and that’s where the real trial will start. Like a mobster who keeps schtum in jail knowing he’ll be collected outside the gates by his old cohorts the day he gets parole, Bout played the long game.

 

So one question now is, how soon will that happen? And for that, I’m posting below and entire my answers to the questions on his repatriation from the Moscow News. (The other, of course, is whether the bust itself was, to some extent, theatre.)

 

Yulia Ponomareva: So there are two options so far, the first one being Bout’s serving his 25-year sentence in the US, the second one is his extradition to Russia. Which one is more likely?
MP:
I would guess that a return to Russia is highly likely – in the medium term, and perhaps even in the shorter term. The fact is that (from the point of view of successive American administrations) Viktor Bout became rather an embarrassment, and that made him the perfect ‘example’ case. What they wanted was to be seen to have stopped Viktor Bout, as they regarded him as the world’s most famous (note: I don’t say biggest, because he almost certainly was not that) international transporter of illicit small arms. However, they will now be keenly aware that Viktor Bout has not stopped being a problem for them, at least behind the scenes. And to this end I expect discussions to begin in earnest now that he has been sentenced and the media spotlight is off. (It is also interesting that right now, there seem to be more illicit arms floating around than there ever have been – so as far as public opinion is concerned, perhaps there is some amazement that stopping Viktor Bout did not lead to a sudden unavailability of illicit weapons…)
 

YP: Is there really anything the Russian Foreign Ministry can do to bring him back to Russia?
MP:
When I say that I expect diplomacy to increase in terms of finding a workable solution, I mean on both sides. This is true of both the USA and Russian Federation, whose public diplomatic campaigns during his incarceration have been sporadic, and mostly concentrated on the short periods of time when Bout was in the news (Thai extradition to USA, verdict/sentencing). I personally think that (again, for both sides) the biggest issues now is credibility: if a return to Russia under any circumstances is on the cards (so to speak) there has to be a way for the US to credibly communicate to its public and NGOs the fact that he will not simply be taking up his business where he left it – that their sentencing and enforcement actions (and associated costs) have been effective. From the point of view of Russian diplomacy, there are also clearly two audiences: the Americans and the Russian electorate. This is normal for any country, and explains the dual tone we’ve seen so far, of quiet pressure and public outcry. (In some ways, the change of position of Dmitry Rogozin from Nato Ambassador to Russian Deputy PM should have some effect here!)

YP: Do you think he could be swapped for someone? And should we expect arrests of alleged US spies in this case?
MP:
Excellent question. On one hand, that would be very transparent piece of political theatre. On the other, we are used to that, no? (Also, I think it would offer both sides the “credible way out” I talked about above, if I’m being honest…) So, without gambling money on it, I’ll just say pretty soon.

YP: If he has to be extradited, will he serve 25 years in Russian prison, or chances are he’ll be released here?
MP:
I believe the prospect of Viktor serving 25 years in either Russia or the USA to be very slight. Being realistic, there is almost no chance of him ever being able to go back to the business he had before (Would you do business with him if you were an arms dealer nowadays? Not me. Too notorious/hot to touch), so reoffending is not an issue. And from what I understand, he is a model prisoner in terms of behaviour. So serving the full term is unlikely, even in the US. The cynical voice in my head expects an appeal soon for repatriation, perhaps on grounds of ill health, though there is nothing currently to suggest his health or that of others is poor.

YP: If he remains in the US, could he be of any value to the U.S. intelligence?
MP:
I think, personally, that his value to US intelligence is less than most of the public thinks. After all, most of his deals are known about already; even those who spent 20 years shadowing him admitted the problem wasn’t that they couldn’t prove what he did; it was that what he did (up until the controversial 2008 FARC related arrest) was not actually illegal. I have no doubt that US intelligence will be romancing him at the moment, trying to get what info they can negotiate, with the prospect of a deal. However, on balance, if I were Viktor, I would probably be less worried about US intelligence than I would be about what would happen if I did reveal something. He’s always been very discreet.

YP: Why has he been the only one of his arms trafficking network to be put in jail?
MP:
Personally, I believe Viktor Bout’s big mistake was to allow himself to become a celebrity. There are bigger arms-transporting fish than him out there, and they are corporations doing the same thing illicitly as they do licitly. They are quite complex, faceless and therefore rather boring in terms of mobilizing opinion within government or law enforcement to act against them. Viktor Bout’s troubles really stem from his New Yorker photoshoots and his interviews in the early-mid-2000s, and from coming to the attention of politicians like Peter Hain who became angry at his seeming impudence and notoriety. When he was just a businessman, he was more or less safe. Once he was branded a ‘Merchant of Death’ and Nicholas Cage was acting film roles based on him, he was a living challenge to law enforcers, arms control NGOs and politicians everywhere.

YP: What about his accomplices? Do you think any of Russia’s high-ranking officials and the military have been involved and is it possible Bout will give their names away?
MP:
High-ranking Russian politicians were certainly involved: the transportation and sale of arms for cash was seen, in the early 1990s, as a way for the Russian (and Ukrainian/Belarusian) state and military to liquidate assets they no longer needed, and this was all quite openly done. This was how many of the businessmen in the same field as Viktor got started in air transportation. In my book
Outlaws Inc., in which I follow the former Red Army pilots who flew for Viktor and others, I interviewed former Defence minister and Commander of the Armed Forces Marshal Evgeny Shaposhnikov. I asked him the following question about one of Viktor Bout’s illicit transport operations in 1995 (on which the Russian film Kandaghar: Survive & Return” was based).
[Me to Shaposhnikov: “Later, in the mid-1990s, did you know about flights in Il-76 aircraft to supply the Mujaheddin of Afghanistan with weapons? Or rather, did these flights ever have official (or unofficial) government approval?” Shaposhnikov’s answer was: “No comment.” I make no accusation against Shaposhnikov, but clearly there was a tolerance for what needed to be done. He also said, when I asked about an order giving servicemen the right to sell military property, including weapons, back in 1992 when Bout began his business from an army base…

Shaposhnikov’s answer: “Certain steps had to be done officially in this direction: some firing and training grounds were leased to local collective farms; military trucks were used for fetching non-military goods;  our men were sent to help collective farmers with crops; and extra military property were given to local businessmen.”] This is all in my book. However, it’s crucially important to realize that although there was some cooperation, or at least non-intervention, from high up the Russian political establishment, the same is true in the US and many other countries, who were at the same time reading United Nations Security Council reports into Viktor’s (and others’) activities, and using Viktor (and those others) to transport their arms, equipment and men to Iraq and so on. The fact is that these ‘illicit’ airlines give governments all over the world a discreet, private transport method when they are dropping Private Military Contractors or sensitive personnel or material somewhere. You can bet that security forces from Africa, America or wherever else don’t get dropped off in Somalia by Lufthansa.

YP: That’s even greater than I expected, many thanks. This is really funny, btw: “The cynical voice in my head expects an appeal soon for repatriation, perhaps on grounds of ill health”. Many Russian convicts dream of serving a sentence in a ‘civilized’ country like the US. Still, there are just a couple of things that need clarifying, I think. [Your phrase] “I would guess that a return to Russia is highly likely – in the medium term, and perhaps even in the shorter term.” – I assume you’re taking about several months’ time here, right?
MP:
Yes. I would say we’re talking 50/50 within a year, 75% chance within 3, and I just cannot see Viktor Bout in a US prison in 5 years. Behind the scenes, I simply don’t think anyone wants him there. Out of the way/out of mischief, yes. But not there!

YP: [Your phrase] “What they wanted was to be seen to have stopped Viktor Bout, as they regarded him as the world’s most famous (note: I don’t say biggest, because he almost certainly was not that) international transporter of illicit small arms.” – Is it possible to specify how ‘big’ he was as an arms trafficker?
MP:
Viktor Bout was as big as you get being an independent, is perhaps a good way of putting it. He headed his company, did his deals himself, handled clients, ran around with the planes if he had to. Now, some of those deals look impressive, and some of the clients’ names are well-known. But as Peter Danssaert of the International Peace Information Service (IPIS) in Antwerp told me in the book, this does only makes him a big fish within that bracket – of independent owner-businessmen. There are far more significant shipments being made by the state-corporates on all sides. In Russian terms, this might equate to Rosoboronexport/Rozvooruzhenie (state-owned arms producer, recently suspected of selling arms to blacklisted regimes like Omar al Bashir’s Sudan – some of which, the MiG fighter planes, mysteriously turned up with bonus-extra mercenary pilots to fly them (on their papers, listed as instructors and mechanics of course, only some later turned up dead in battle against the rebels…). But I’m not picking Russia out as a particularly bad example in all this: UK’s equipment is flying all over the place, France ended up shipping tonnes upon tonnes of illicit small weapons to the Libyan rebels, and the US is arming Somali forces to the teeth using licit corporate means right now. So really, as Moises Naim (ex-World Bank) told me, the Viktor Bouts and Pablo Escobars are somehow relics. They had a purpose in the marketplace, and that was to do the things there was no infrastructure for. But now globalization has been properly established, the arms producers are not going to allow themselves to be cut out of a money-making situation by some middlemen running around selling second-hand goods, not when there’s really big money at stake. Russian film producer Ilya Neretin made that film Kandaghar a couple of years ago. It was his movie, and he used one of Bout’s planes for the re-enactment, and of course the story is of one of Bout’s operations gone wrong. Even he laughed about it to me (again, quoting from the book):  “Look Matt, I will tell you this. There are so many Mr X figures ruling this world. And Mr Bout is a prince. But there are kings.” Viktor Bout is the boss of a small business. Think of a car dealership. His name and his brand are important, which is why he did all he could do to build them up (his mistake, potentially). Against that, imagine the others. They are not independent car dealerships. They are more like General Motors or something, in size and reach. That’s how big Viktor was.

YP: And what do you mean by “not actually illegal” here? “Even those who spent 20 years shadowing him admitted the problem wasn’t that they couldn’t prove what he did; it was that what he did (up until the controversial 2008 FARC related arrest) was not actually illegal.”
MP:
Well, I meant just that – until Viktor Bout was caught in the sting operation having a conversation in which he said yes, he’d give [people he thought were] FARC missiles to shoot down US-piloted helicopters, he was not committing any crimes. There were a lot of things he did that were maybe reprehensible, but part of the reason he ran around for so long was that nobody knew what they could charge him with. This was one of the key frustrations of Douglas Farah & Stephen Braun’s 2007 book
Merchant of Death, a dossier from two American reporters who would later bear witness against Bout, as it was for Condoleezza Rice and the CIA. This was why it was so important for the undercover agents in the hotel room in Bangkok to get him saying the specific words into the tape about giving them ammo to kill Americans with. It was their only real weapon to go against him. And don’t forget, although there are questions as to whether (for instance) he supplied both the Taliban and Northern Alliance in Afghanistan with guns in the 1990s, well, so had the USA in the 1980s and then again (to the Northern Alliance) post-9/11. So the bust was a nice way to get him charged on a specific crime, right now in the present, with a start and a finish to it that could be captured on tape in one meeting. That meant nobody had to delve back into any uncomfortable questions about how many times they had also used this man to deliver weapons for them, and they could ignore all questions Bout’s defence might raise about their involvement and past history with him. Which they did.

 

So watch this space. These predictions may pan out, or they may not. But either way, in the limelight or behind the scenes, I’ve a feeling the Viktor Bout story’s got a way to run yet.

 

Comment: Duwayne Brooks and the London riot story that never got written

Some stories write themselves. Some never get written, though they’re better by far. There’s something irreducible about them, too many loose ends. They don’t have neat beginnings and endings. They don’t fit our (journalists’, readers’) idea of the arc. Sometimes they’re just collected impressions.

This one’s like that, and I’m setting it down here simply because I think someone should write the story that never got written. Maybe it isn’t a story after all, but a diary of sorts. You tell me.

It starts (though I didn’t know it at the time) nearly 20 years ago. As a newly arrived, young, white Londoner, I followed the Stephen Lawrence case through the 1990s, then the 2000s, if not avidly then certainly with an odd mixture of horror, casual compulsion, mounting disbelief at the catalogue of establishment errors or worse, and something… what was that other thing? I guess it was a bit like shame, only less easily pinned down. It was a vague, nagging, sticky discomfort that came and went. Something I didn’t like feeling, but knew it wasn’t to be shied away from. It was an itching unease about what might, for others, lurk beneath the surface of a society that I, white, lower-middle-class and male, may not always have liked, but had always, personally at least, experienced as fair and neutral in its justice.

I knew names, places, details from the news. I remember Martin Bashir’s documentary on the Dobson-Norris gang as a consensus TV moment: the one we all knew we’d all watched, whatever our age, background or colour. That photograph of the teenage Stephen Lawrence – striped top, grin, one arm folded upwards – was one of the defining images of 1990s Britain. Printed and reprinted, flickering on screens from electrical shops and pub TV sets, for a generation it became as ubiquitous, as powerful, as any shot of Neville Chamberlain, heavy-eyed, monochrome Myra Hindley or triangular, flag-topped Iwo Jima.

I knew the names of the gang members. Acourt, Acourt, Norris, Knight, Dobson. The first two sounding posh and French, then the three identikit English names. They took on a strange voodoo, these names. Bad luck to utter them. Creepily average. I looked at the faces, and tried to remember them too.

There was one name I did not know. The other person who’d been present – Stephen Lawrence’s friend, the boy who managed to escape. I’m not sure how I missed it, but somehow it never registered. Eventually, that boy faded from my memory altogether, and only the crime – the innocent victim, the actions of the mob – remained.

By 2011, I was living in south-east London. It’s a big, open, hilly place. A few train stops and two decades separated my neighbourhood from early-1990s Eltham. Still, some things bubble and blister beneath the surface, and occasionally they rise. The London riots, when they came that summer, tore through the High Street, smashing faces and homes and shops and trust, then slipped round quiet neighbourhood corners and into evacuated parks, until the following day.

I wasn’t watching it on TV this time. Walking home, passing groups of people heading the other way, I took it all in. There were fights, screams and the sound of car doors. There were chases, and mock-furtive, too-loud talk of where was next, which houses were marked for tonight, and who was doing what. Like everyone, I was on edge, cautious, rattled. But I was curious too. So sometimes I followed as close as I could, to see what happened next. I set up multiple TweetDeck feeds, to monitor the streets, neighbourhoods and tags I suspected would see action. I began examining coverage, mapping claim against reality.

And what I saw, on the streets, in the galloping updates on my Twitter feeds, and when I turned on the TV that night, was fear. Any journalist knows TV cameras can do that – point a camera at a burning car or smoking Tube station from enough angles, and that night it will look like the whole city is ablaze. But somehow, those flickering black-and-orange images leaped off the screens and captured the popular imagination.

Fear bowled along the streets of Lewisham, even when nobody else did. Rumours spread. More riots would be coming tonight. The freesheets ran with it. Offices buzzed with it. A group of 1,000 rioters had been spotted heading North along the next road. EDL members were marching now. A race riot was about to kick off. Shops were being looted.

There were no police. Senior members of the Government were all caught out, still on holiday, as was Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. Tracked down by broadcast news, they looked lost, floundering, and smaller somehow. So did London. I knew it wasn’t an apocalypse, and that cover of Time was just silly, but the speculation, more than any fires or smashed windows, quickly lay waste to a lot of the residual trust people there felt, not just in the police and government, but in fellow Londoners.

There was one public figure in the city who seemed to be playing a blinder, though. I’d never even heard of him before – or at least I didn’t think I had. He was a Lib Dem Councillor in Lewisham, and suddenly he was everywhere. He seems, at one point early on, to have made it his personal mission to take on the misinformation, the rumour-mongering, the panic and the suspicion. His tweets tell the story today if you care to look back over them. He went from place to place and tweeted what he saw. When even the normally reliable Alex Tomlinson of Channel 4 News repeated an unverified rumour about a brewing race riot near Eltham, the Councillor debunked it. He replied publicly to people who claimed they’d witnessed improbable acts of mass violence, and asked them for details over the 3G airwaves. Where was this? Had they seen it? Because he was there now and the shop window looked intact. He asked Londoners to refrain from indulging rumours and retweets of things they could not personally verify. One tweet said simply: “No fighting no riots no looting no NF in #lewisham. Please stop tweeting nonsense. This is not a game. People are scared. #fixup please.”

He went further. He put his personal mobile number on his site, and tweeted it, so people could call and ask him what was happening, anywhere in the area, when they had no reliable information. He became, briefly, the single most trustworthy medium for news on developments in South London’s melting pot turned bubbling cauldron. He replied to enquiries and appeals on Twitter – all of them, publicly or individually. Again and again, he damped wild speculation about the racial demographic of rioters, and quashed rumours about white racist vigilante groups.

His huge presence, his championing of perspective and truth, was quite a contrast to the vacuum the Met and the Cabinet had left us inhabiting those first few hot, suspicion-filled, dangerous days. I remember tweeting his details at the time, “[Councillor’s name] – he’s on fire. This is what politicians are for!”

And all the while, in the midst of the chaos, I had two images in my head. One was of something this local politician reminded me of, an image drawn from the book I had just finished. It was Boris Yeltsin clambering up on a tank in front of Moscow’s Parliament building during the attempted Russian coup of 1991, and facing down the crisis with sheer presence (and reportedly some vodka too). It made me laugh with its bathos even then, but on some level it was true too.

The other image?

That didn’t make me laugh, it made me tense. It was an image of the worst that can happen in South London. It was a picture of what the city had to avoid, at all costs. It was a picture from 1993, of what happens, of what is lost, when people let themselves hate and mistrust, blindly. It was that shot of Stephen Lawrence, and I kept it in mind every time something immoderate appeared on a front page, or crackled over the airwaves.

The riots ended with the run of hot weather, and with the late, slow arrival of the police. I meant to thank the Councillor. I’d heard phrases like ‘community leaders’ before, and I’d always sort of thought they referred to self-appointed spokesmen or religious elders among discrete, probably ethnically or culturally homogeneous communities. Muslim community leaders. Black community leaders. I suppose for the first time I saw leadership being shown, rather than claimed, and I realized that I was part of one of those communities experiencing a degree of leadership. So I thought about composing a quick email – maybe a tweet – just to say how much of a difference his work for those few days had made.

But I never did. I left it just too late. And by then, the man I wanted to thank was in the news again, for very different reasons, and probably receiving more emails than anybody could be expected to handle.

I saw the Councillor in the news during this winter’s trial of two of the men who had killed Stephen Lawrence. His name was Duwayne Brooks, and back on that evening in 1993, he’d been the friend who’d escaped from the gang. I felt stupid for not having remembered the name’s significance that summer. Then I thought: wow.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve read more about Duwayne Brooks – the terrible impact of the murder itself; the long campaign of intimidation, prejudice and smears against him by the Metropolitan Police; his treatment at the hands of the law and, often, the media; his transformation from frightened, suspicious virtual fugitive to politician; and his dignity and perseverance at the final reckoning for two of the murderers.

And here’s what impressed me most. If there was ever anyone who had the right to feel hate, or suspicion, or to welcome some form of blowback against the power structures of a city that had let him and his friend down so badly, it was Duwayne Brooks. If anyone could have been forgiven for succumbing to paranoia about a police vacuum and rumours of racial conflict in South London, it would have been him.

But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, for those long, hot days in South London, when those structures let everyone down and fear threatened to take over the streets, he was as a powerful force for tolerance, truth, reason, calm, and – more than anything – trust. He was markedly less speculative, panicky or paranoid than most of the better journalists I know.

What I started out wanting to say was this. I don’t usually write praise for politicians, but in this era of photo opps, press briefings and presubmitted questions, It’s worth remembering Duwayne Brooks was there for the people he represented. On his mobile, on the streets, and on the case.

And yet this is not really about politics either. It’s about how we let ourselves feel as people, as Londoners, and about how we react to what shapes us. Because if a city like this can’t learn more from Duwayne Brooks than how to survive a terrible ordeal and come through, then we miss the point. And if we can’t learn from his incredible presence during that week of madness how to help others through their troubles and suspicion and fear too, then we’ve got no-one to blame but ourselves.

So… So what? I don’t know the rest. Like I said at the start, it’s not really a story, and this is too messy to be an ending. But in the years to come, I hope we – Londoners, people, whatever – can give it an ending, and make it a proper story. And I really hope we make it a good one.

Update 16th January 2012: After receiving a copy of this piece for syndication, the London Evening Standard ran it, originally changing the byline to one of their staffers. That issue has now been rectified, and you can read their shorter edit of the piece here.

Video: “Cocaine coffee tables?!” CNN bosses, the craziest cop in Brazil, and me

 

It started perfectly innocently. I was out with a friend on Thursday, and the phone rang. I didn’t pick up – it was ten o’clock, and I’d worked my way through six large glasses of what I remember being an increasingly smooth Italian red, and a couple of bottles of Grolsch for good measure. I’m not a big drinker, and it’s not my usual style, but this guy was over from Sierra Leone, he’s an old friend, and, and… and it explains why I didn’t pick up.

It was a New York number.

The second time it rang, less than a minute later, I picked up. It was CNN. Could I make it to their London office? They had some story kick off with Brazilian smugglers in a plane, they’d been brought down by a cop using only his cujones and a Toyota corolla, and could I comment?

Not a chance. I’m a little tipsy. No way. Nope. Find someone else, someone who isn’t afraid, I mean really afraid, of making a lemon of himself on a prime-time network news show. I gave them my final ‘No’. Put the phone down. That was a close call.

 

 

Well, here’s the interview. I guess they got more than they bargained for, and the show’s bosses sent out a tweet within the hour hashtagged #justtobeclear, clarifying that they do not condone the use, possession, sale, purchase or production of “coffee tables made of cocaine”.

 

 

What can I say? They’re persuasive people.

 

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…

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.

What makes you think it’s not me, officer?

No, officer, I haven't been drinking

Just a small post today, happy memories of shopping for fake driving licences in the Urals while out there researching the book in 2007. Though it’s fair to say this one is not the best likeness of me, it certainly seemed to work whenever I flashed it at hotel reception check-ins. Serious question, though. This was a £5 readymade. I also bought Russian PM Vladimir Putin’s (clean licence, St Petersburg citizen, currently a Moscow resident – and Roman Abramovich’s. Others were bespoke, with the correct picture and whatever else ($10). If you really had a problem and needed to disappear – let’s even say you were someone like the guy on the licence – how hard would it be? It might cost more that $5… but not that much more.