Friday, September 9, 2011

Matt Potter

Matt Potter is a journalist, editor and broadcaster.

His first internationally published book, Outlaws Inc draws on his first-hand experience of the biggest, most secretive smuggling and trafficking network in history – all the way from the collapse of the Soviet Union, through the last, gun-running, money-laundering days of Slobodan Milosevic’s mafia-held Serbia, through opium-woozy Afghanistan and the contraband-thick waters of South America’s "Cocaine Coast." Perhaps best described as a non-fiction thriller, the story it tells is also an alternate history of the times we live in.

Recently, I asked Potter what he was reading. His reply:
I love to read for research – a good thing too, being a journalist. Luckily, it doesn’t feel like work to me. While I was writing Outlaws Inc, though – and specifically while tracking mercenaries through East Africa or dodging rocket fire over Afghanistan – a few books kept me sane. Among them were what might be called ‘mission-critical’ books with a bearing on my research, my quarry or my predicament of the day. Others just reminded me what I do this for in the first place. Four of the latter are chosen here.

The Crisis Caravan, Linda Polman

That Linda Polman is fearless, as both a woman and a journalist, is beyond doubt. Her previous book, We Did Nothing, an account of the impotence, and at times complicity, of UN peacekeepers and aid workers in the field, from Rwanda and Bosnia to Haiti and Somalia. The Crisis Caravan, though, is something braver still: a calling to account of the global industry of aid. While there are truly shocking revelations – at least, to anyone who hasn’t seen the aid caravan’s failings with their own eyes in the world’s worst trouble spots – this is more than an exposé: Polman is at pains to point out that this is an industry notoriously bad at reforming itself, whether purging bad apples in its ranks (such as those who prey on the very people they are sent to help) or choosing its local partners (who often include the warlords and apparatchiks causing the humanitarian disaster). The Crisis Caravan is rich in anecdote, humanity – even humour – and memorable characters, guerrilla leaders, blundering Western politicians, fire-and-brimstone missionaries and dangerously blasé aid CEOs; but it’s also a hard-hitting indictment of how the road to perdition can be paved with noble intentions. Without her example, especially in the way she brings the bigger picture to bear on her encounters, rendering them rich with significance and background – Outlaws Inc would have been a very different beast indeed.

Life, Keith Richards
Back Bay

The big surprise here is just how completely Life defies expectations. Those expectations, naturally, were of a rake’s progress of drugs, debauchery and damn fine rock’n’roll; raconteurism bordering on voyeurism, stuffed with memorable one-liners and feats of bio-chemical endurance. Well, there’s some of that – how can there not be. But the fascinating heart of the book, and it takes up at least the first quarter, is Richards’ formative years in bombed-out, post-war South London. There’s a good reason for the way Richards’ memories shine brighter here, I suspect; for the luminous detail and the life in every sentence. It’s because this, really is the only part of the book that’s genuinely unrehearsed. He’s given a million interviews, been asked about riffs and gigs and heroin and girls so much that by the time we hit the Stones in their prime, Richards’ accounts seem oddly second-hand. (He even cedes the page to extracts from others’ memoirs at some crucial moments.) But when he’s recalling the abandoned WWII pillboxes that littered the Home Counties, the shortages, the tiny rituals of life for an English lower middle class slowly coming round to the fact that they were the post-empire British and the post-war poor, but never letting go of their grace, even under pressure, I’m reminded of my own (much later) childhood. At those moments in the book, I can taste the fog around the gasworks and feel the broken earth and brick of the bombsites beneath my shoes again, and I wouldn’t swap it for fame or fortune. Finishing Life, one can’t help but feel that somewhere deep down, Richards wonders whether he would make the same choices.

The Cloud of Unknowing, author unknown
Penguin Classics

A wild card this one, especially for an atheist like me. Even among the flightiest Hollywood spiritual tourists, the strain of medieval European mystical thought has been pretty much left alone; too obscure, too close to one’s own doorstep to be anything like as enlightening as orientalism and incense. And that’s our luck, because there are some incredible writings to be found that, when we read them today, carry a charge of genuine surprise. Medieval Europe had mystical writers whose books are worth reading for their sheer linguistic invention and philosophical insight as for anything like the closer apprehension of godhead they sought. The meditations of Germany’s Richard Rolle and England’s Julian (a woman, pronounced Julie-Anne) of Norwich weave a sensual, almost sexual, spell around their encounters with the divine; their books reason, relate, and seduce. But my favourite is the (appropriately, unknown) author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Likely a hermit, he followed the via negativa – the “negative way” – which is to say, he believed God could only be apprehended by knowing that he was unknowable; an emptying out of the world, revealing that which can never be known. The book’s prose is simply incredible; again and again, he attempts to describe the indescribable, to make language do what the intellect cannot – hence the downright strange ‘unknowing’ of the title – only to come up, again and again, against the certainty of that which cannot be expressed. For a deeper understanding of everything from medieval thought to the mores of modern Islam, and even ‘60s psychedelia, The Cloud of Unknowing is something of a Rosetta Stone.

The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB, Andrei Soldatov
Public Affairs Press

Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov is a braver man than I’ll ever be. Born with an uncanny knack for being present during hostage crises, Chechen terrorist sieges, border shootouts and secret police SNAFUs, he’s been arrested, mock-imprisoned, harassed and surveilled enough to have become pretty comfortable with it. This book is something of a primer for the Western reader on the subject for which he’s become most famous: monitoring the resurgence and consolidation of a secret police state – now named the FSB, but in effect the KGB with a rebrand – in former KGB man Vladimir Putin’s “new Russia”. The strength of this book is its matter-of-fact understatement, even when delivering humdingers like the FSB’s role in “taking out” those considered undesirable, even on neutral territory; the parcelling up of the country’s and, sports clubs, business concerns and resources to FSB top brass; and the workaday reality of the career FSB man’s existence. He wears his erudition and his experience lightly, and the result is a book packed with insight and information that leaves the reader feeling he’s been in never less than fascinating, lugubrious company.
Visit Matt Potter's website.

--Marshal Zeringue