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Henry Porter on the Power of Fear

Author of the heart-stopping international spy thriller, THE OLD ENEMY, Henry Porter talks to Crime Files about the powerful and often all-encompassing emotion, fear.


I remember the feeling that swept over me as the old Mercedes approached the hilltop fort in Lebanon and we saw arc lights and armed men run from the main gate of the enclosure. It was fear, of course, but mixed in was the realisation of my own folly.


My colleague David and I had flown into Beirut airport that night, and, having been given the once-over by Syrian Intelligence – much in evidence in 2001 in Lebanon – found our driver outside the airport and set off to a deserted spot in the hill, east of Beirut, where we were due to meet a car that would lead us to rendezvous a general defecting from Saddam Hussein’s army. With important knowledge of Iraq’s military and supposed stockpile of WMD, he had been smuggled out of Iraq and through Syria to Lebanon.


The arrangement was simple enough – we were to wait at a place on the road until a car approached ours and flashed its lights. The car came earlier than planned, flashed us, turned and moved off quickly. Our driver had difficulty keeping up. Already extremely doubtful about the people we were dealing with, I began to feel apprehensive. As we progressed up the track towards the fortress and saw the other car waved through the gates by the armed men, my pulse began to race.


The penny dropped with our driver that we’d followed the wrong vehicle.  With much cursing, he attempted to turn but didn’t have room and stalled the engine. Try as he might, it wouldn’t start again. The men were now seriously interested in who the heck we were and began moving towards us. This was just three months after 9.11 – a very jumpy time in the Middle East – and thoughts of Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and Lebanese drug lords flashed through my mind. After some heart stopping moments, he got the engine going and we careened backwards down the track, bouncing off boulders as we went.


What appears to have happened is that two groups acting in a clandestine manner – ours being one – had by chance made an arrangement to meet at the same spot that night. We eventually hooked up with the right car, but I reflected as we headed towards the midnight meeting with the general that this kind of screw up was exactly how people disappeared in the Middle East, and no one would have known what had happened.


That thought spooked me. I could have been at home having dinner with my wife, yet there I had been in the bandit country of Lebanon with a panicky driver heading towards another totally unnecessary brush with fear.


I say ‘another’ because I’ve been in this position quite a few times, which is due more to error of judgment and bad luck than any bravery. I’ve been swept out to sea twice, cut off in a firestorm during the LA riots, searched at border crossings, questioned in a case of accidental death – which the Egyptian police regarded as murder – spent two days in an ice-cold room with the most frightening man on earth, the quiet, patient and watchful head of Sudanese intelligence, and received a double cancer diagnosis (I am okay now, but can say it certainly measures up to other terrifying experiences in my life).


These experience have a different combination of emotions, which, if you’re going to draw on them for fiction, are important to get right.


Sometimes there’s nothing more than straightforward terror involved. When I was covering the LA riots in 1992, I hired a sports car to move quickly around South Central, the epicentre of the riots. On the second day of the trouble, I found a lanky, middle-aged man wandering and in great distress in a street surrounded by fires. I told him to get in the car. He shouted that he knew a way out of the inferno. He didn’t. We quickly found ourselves in much greater danger and the only thing to do was to drive very fast through a bank of smoke, absolutely blind. I was terrified but it was just a question of flight – nothing else entered my mind, and there was no time to consider the error of picking up the guy and listening to him.


Prolonged jeopardy is the hardest to deal with but easier to write. Quite apart from the immediate terror of losing your life, the emotions of regret, hopelessness, guilt and recognition of one’s own epic stupidity surface. A lot goes on in your mind over an extended episode like my two near drownings.


I was once blown out to sea in a rowing boat with my mother after one of our rowlocks broke. As dusk fell, a launch passed ahead of us but didn’t see us. Then quite by chance the launch’s skipper turned to untangle his red ensign at the stern of his vessel and spotted my white T shirt tied to the end of the oar. You lose your voice in these situations, like a nightmare when you can’t shout. I don’t think either of us spoke a word for several hours after our rescue.


That was true a couple of years later, when I spotted a seal in the surf off a Norfolk beach and decided to strip down and approach it in what I assumed was shallow water. The seal disappeared and within 30 seconds I was being dragged out to sea by a rip tide. I shouted and waved to my friends on the beach and they, of course, waved back. I remember a line of trees disappearing and the water getting very cold and my breath becoming shallow and rapid. Although my life didn’t pass before me in a flash, I had plenty of time to review the stupidity of getting into the water. I thought – this is how it’s going to end and it’s all your damned fault! Then the miracle happened. My right foot found a bank of moving shingle and I was able to get a kind of grip and over the next 20 minutes I felt my way back to the shore. I will never forget how time slowed down when I thought I would be drowned or the key emotion that begins to replace terror in the most desperate situations. That is resignation – in other words, the moment when you start giving up.


I find that thought terrifying and it is undoubtedly the reason why I have begun two novels, A Spy’s Life and Firefly, with drowning scenes in which the heroes Robert Harland and Naji Touma continue to fight for their survival when all hope seems lost.  Both Harland and Naji appear my new book in The Old Enemy, but it is Paul Samson who is twice confronted with mortal danger, by two separate assassins wielding knives. Of course, there’s no time to think in these situations – you just react – but the more I think about it, the more I understand that survival is about conquering this fatal resignation.