Tuesday, 12 May 2009

A book in the post - when was the last time this happened? Frightened as I was of the TV licensing agency, who charge for simple ownership of a radio, the temptation to leave the door closed when anyone rings is a large one. Given that no-one visits me where I am - this is certainly no thoroughfare - I could quite easily spend all day entombed within these four walls and never seek human company. And I certainly would never have received the book this way. But, as it was, I was caught off guard, brewing coffee. Opening the door, still night-weary, I was greeted by someone unhealthily chirpy dressed all in yellow with a beautiful, tight perm and parcel in hand.

Inside the parcel; postcards, small chocolates, earplugs (for reasons as yet undetermined) and A Dirty War by Anna Politkovskaya. Politkovskaya's story is now well known throughout the world. A stunning and fearless advocator of human rights, she came to notice whilst reporting on Chechnya. Having endured mock executions, poisonings and endless attempts to silence her, she was eventually shot dead in the lift of her apartment block in October 2006. Beyond the initial reporting of her death, I encountered her work almost a year later at a literary festival in Wales, where Roman Shleinov of Novaya Gazeta, the Russian newspaper for which Anna Politkovskaya was working when she was murdered, was speaking about her death and political freedoms within modern Russia.

Shleinov's talk was inspirational, not just in the way he and his press organisation sought to expose corruptions and abuses at great personal risk, but in the frankness he talked about journalists' relationships' with the Russian authorities. His claims were that Politkovskaya's murder would not have been sanctioned within central Russian government, but from the Chechen authorities. Politkovskaya herself, in a post-humous published article, also raised amazing points about the level of collusion that occurs at the higher echelons of politics and journalism.

I am a pariah. That is the main result of my journalism throughout the years of the second Chechen war, and of publishing abroad a number of books about life in Russia and the Chechen war. In Moscow I am not invited to press conferences or gatherings that officials of the Kremlin administration might attend, in case the organisers are suspected of harbouring sympathies towards me. Despite this, all the top officials talk to me, at my request, when I am writing articles or conducting investigations - but only in secret, where they can't be observed, in the open air, in squares, in secret houses that we approach by different routes, like spies.

There were times during that literary festival (watching Fergal Keene speak too), where I vowed to move towards political writing, towards a journalism that could change something. Politkovskaya herself had spoken at the festival in 2005. What better form to pursue than writing, but with direct purpose? That ambition arrives to me today once more with this book through the post. I have not the connections nor the intuition for investigative journalism, but writing, I know, is where my only satisfaction lies.

Whilst drinking with friends the other day, a good friend, musician and screenwriter launched into an offensive about what I am working on at the moment, demanding evidence of research, loglines, backstories. With vodkas passed, I could not respond as lucidly as I wished. In the morning with the evening gone I realised that, vodkas or not, I could not have responded. I had no answers. It has been a long year or so of writing that has led me to the place where I realise that the project I am still enjoying is entirely without foundation, but at the same time I am able to quietly convince myself that somehow I know the next one will be built on something.

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