The Beauty of Risk – GQ

On a bitter, bright September morning in 2006, I stood with my translator on the gravel outside Chita airport, in Siberia, considering my options. We were in a fix. Having already flown seven hours from Moscow on a Kruschev-era rustbucket, we were still half a day’s journey from our destination. Siberia is that kind of place.

Our problem was straightforward. We needed to get to a backwoods dump called Krasnokamensk, a town whose tourist brochure boasts a plutonium mine and a gulag. My newspaper had dispatched me to interview the family of Mikhail Khodorkovsky – who was, before his arrest in 2003, the richest oligarch in Russia, and who now serves at Mr Putin’s pleasure – as they made a family visit. The plan was to take the train from Chita to Krasnokamensk and back, but our original flight was cancelled, so we missed our connection. Had we waited for the next train, we would have missed the story. To get to our interview in time, we needed to take a car on a remote and notoriously perilous route, for somewhere between ten and 12 hours.

My anxiety was not alleviated by my young Muscovite companion, Marina – a woman with a love for Nabokov, and a talent for searing put-downs. Back in Moscow, as I dithered over how much hard currency I would need on our trip to the frozen east, she had compared me in unfavourable terms with her father, before asking: “what kind of a man are you?” By the time we arrived in Chita, the question still hung in the air.

We began to negotiate with the local taxi drivers. They all looked like extras from The Road – except, if anything, hungrier. Most shook their heads. Eventually, one man agreed to take us. He was drunk, indisputably. His Toyota was a battered wreck. He had scars in the back of his shaven head. I mentioned to Marina that it might be rather risky to get into a car with this person. She did not listen. “How else do you want to get there?” she asked, before hopping in. Our chauffeur started his engine. What choice did I have?

Ever since that day – because of what happened on that day – I have become obsessed with the idea of risk: how one calculates it, and how one reckons with it. My dilemma in that lonely spot has played itself out in my head many times. What did I risk by getting in the car? In the worst case, I could have lost my life, and my future wife could have lost her future husband. My family would have been, I hope, bereft. What did I risk by saying no? The temporary displeasure of my editor. On paper, there was no contest.

And yet, I got in the car.

When I did so, at the age of 26, it was not because I was feeling reckless, or brave (I am neither). I had already made a few important decisions in my life, but none – I thought – had explicitly concerned my future survival. It was an exhilarating feeling to break that duck. You might think that such a decision would leave you with a sense of powerlessness, but it did not. Quite the opposite. I had reckoned with my options, and made my choice. In that moment, I imagined, I had grown up.

In the ensuing four years, like scores of other journalists with an interest in foreign affairs, I have faced similar journeys, and similar decisions. Sometimes I get in the car, but often I make other arrangements. I’m better at thinking in advance. In every case, I try to understand how it is possible to complete the job, while mitigating the risk of harm. I don’t always make the right choice, but informing every decision is a contract I have with my wife – I can embark on any journey, as long as I come home.

However, as I learn more about the rest of the world – about what passes for safety in Tehran, or Brazzaville – the more I see how strangely many people in Britain view risk. In this country there is a widespread view that it is selfish, immoral even, to take a personal risk. When British climbers, or yachtsmen, or racing car drivers die, there is, rather than praise for a life lived well, audible grumbling. At the heart of our unease about high risk-takers is the idea that they are anti-social. Certainly, you will have noticed that their priorities work counter to some of the measures that our society, led by a cautious Labour government, has accepted since 9/11, in the name of security – safety at all costs, pre-emptive policing, the need for databases, CCTV in schools, identity cards, ASBOs, and the rest.

But you will have also noticed a backlash against these intrusions, from British people of almost every age. There is a reason why extreme sports have become more popular in the last decade. There is a reason why otherwise unfit insurance brokers decide to enter iron-man competitions. It cannot be coincidental that the rise in adventure tourism is twinned with the anaesthetising of our own public spaces. People need to breathe.

The politicians are now catching on. Back in January, for instance, Bill Rammell, then the Armed Forces Minister, complained that the general public had no way in which to comprehend military deaths, because of our “risk-averse” civilian lifestyles. The current Schools Secretary Michael Gove, meanwhile, suggests the “bubble wrap” atmosphere surrounding children actually harms development. But it is adults who need the advice as much as kids.

It should be said that this is not a rant about corporate safety culture. ‘Elf and safety, unsexy as it is, saves lives. There is a reason why there has not been a major disaster on an offshore oil or gas platform in British waters since Piper Alpha. In the wake of Lord Cullen’s report on the catastrophe, the Health and Safety Executive toughened up its act.  Neither is this a validation for the cavalier bankers who risked billions on the never-never because they did not understand their own products, and sent the economy into a tailspin. It’s easy to gamble other people’s money.

No, my point is simpler, and more obvious. Putting yourself in new, uncomfortable, or unsafe environments can enrich your life. Its benefits outweigh its costs. To do so is not irresponsible, but to acknowledge that risk is everywhere – even in comfortable, middle-class Britain. It flows around us, unseen, like a wireless network. As I write this, for instance, an otherwise healthy thirty-something friend of mine is recovering after initial surgery for testicular cancer – one of nearly 2000 British men who will be diagnosed with the disease this year, and, please God, one of the 95 per cent who survive. A rich couple from Roehampton have had worse news. They are mourning the death of their 11-year-old daughter, who died over the weekend in a speedboat accident. Meanwhile, today, around seven people in Britain will die in their cars.

These random examples reveal a stubborn truth: we cannot, however much we try to live healthily, or safely, eradicate personal risk from our lives. Chance, as Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, governs all. Is it, then, immoral or perverse to test our boundaries? I have a met a few BASE jumpers – people who parachute from fixed objects, like buildings – and very few struck me as idiotic. Indeed, on the whole, BASE jumpers are experts in the management of risk. All of them could say, with reasonable accuracy, how dangerous a certain descent might be. One jumper I know says he drives his car slower since he began his sport, because, like a radical actuary, he understands the physical world around him better. Now he knows about stopping distances and the relative performance of his brake pads, why would he exceed the speed limit?

On that bright Siberian day in September 2006, I realised soon enough that I had made a bad decision. The car’s engine sounded like a rattle-snake with asthma, and, sure enough, it broke down two hours into the journey. Our driver, now in the early stages of a hangover, gave up his vehicle, and wandered away to find help. We were stranded, with no mobile phone reception, and nobody to call even if we’d had a signal. Eventually, we flagged down a Russian army officer, who agreed, for a reasonable sum, to take us the rest of our journey. It was, he explained, only eight hours out of his way.

Some time later, as we drove at a stately pace through the plains, the sky grew so big you could see the curve of the earth. The driving surface also became peppered with potholes, and our soldier slowed to meet the new threat. We hit one, ripped a tyre, and skidded into some short grass. Having changed the wheel, we continued. 50 miles up the road, we saw another car that had hit a similar pothole at a higher speed. It had flipped completely. All the windows were smashed. There was smoke coming from the engine. We stopped to help. The driver’s hands, both of which were clutching a cigarette, were shaking. On the other side of the wreck was a dead man. His body lay by the passenger door, and blood crowned on his head like a newborn. We asked if there was anything we could do. There was not, and we drove on.

I imagined I had grown up by getting into the car in Chita. I was wrong, of course. But the newspaper printed a good story from that trip – one that changed my career – and I learned a few lessons. Principal among them was this: there are some risks worth taking, if only to teach you not to be so stupid next time. In any event, we all end up in a wooden box. How, as my Russian friend might have asked, do you want to get there?