Sunday, 24 July 2011

A true journalist

Having written not long ago about my difficulties with non-fiction, it’s only fair to point out that I recently read a factual book all the way through, and was riveted throughout. Matt Potter’s Outlaws Inc. tells the story of the former Soviet airmen who make a perilous living flying cargo around the world in giant, but rickety, superplanes – everything from humanitarian aid to illegal drugs, often at the same time. It’s unlike any story I’ve ever read, and throws a whole new light on the way the world works.

I should say that I only knew about it at all because Matt is a friend. A few years ago we worked together at a publishing company, and I’d always assumed he was just another desk-bound hack like me. Little did I know that in his spare time he was hitching rides on these cargo planes, gathering material for this book – and risking death and disease in some of the world’s most dangerous cities, places like Kabul and Mogadishu.

Years ago, when I was studying journalism, one of my tutors made a useful distinction between writers and journalists. A journalist, she said, was someone for whom the story came first: they lived for the next lead, loved chasing down the details, and regarded writing it all up afterwards as a bit of a nuisance, frankly. Whereas a writer was someone who loved words above all, and it didn’t much matter what they were writing about as long as they could indulge in the art of composing sentences, paragraphs and pages that flowed in a pleasing manner.

I’ve always known that I’m a writer. In my professional life, I’ve never had the slightest desire to chase stories, let alone don a flak jacket and report from a war zone. Fiction is the natural home for whatever talents I possess. But Matt is a true journalist, and I salute him.

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