Paperback:

Published: Eye Books (March 2021)

ISBN: 9781785632242

What on Earth Can Go Wrong

Richard Fenning

£12.99

‘A funny and personal account of life in the risk business’

Financial Times

After spending three decades advising multinational companies on geopolitics and security crises, Richard Fenning knows all about danger and intrigue.

Kidnappings, terrorist attacks, coups d’état, corruption scandals, cyber attacks, earthquakes and hurricanes were all in a day’s work in a career that coincided with the rise of China, the tumult of the Middle East wars, the resurgence of populism and the digital revolution.

Amid chaos and upheaval, he also found humanity and humour. Often witty and always insightful, What on Earth Can Go Wrong takes us from the battlefields of Iraq to the back streets of Bogotá, from the steamy Niger Delta to the chill of Putin’s Moscow.

In a remarkable memoir of a life on the frazzled edge of globalisation, Fenning looks back with compassion and insight on the people and places he got to know, while offering some timely thoughts on the relationship between risk and fear in a profoundly volatile world.

Extracts

It is one o’clock in the morning in Tripoli. I am sharing a bed with a colleague. We are bedfellows out of logistical necessity rather than carnal choice. He is lying next to me wearing nothing but a pair of skimpy green underpants. He is deeply and blissfully fast asleep and snoring like Darth Vader eating broken glass. Outside, there is the near constant sound of automatic machinegun fire – the deadly, metallic tack-tack-tack of AK47s being fired with reckless abandon. Through the window I can see the night sky illuminated with terrible beauty by tracer rounds. Inside, the toilet in the bathroom is malfunctioning, flushing loudly and constantly. I am wide awake, edgy and nervous, sweating in the hot North African night. Listening to this extraordinary orchestral ensemble, a bizarre combination of the banal and the ballistic, I think to myself: how in the world did I get to be here?

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Extracts

It is one o’clock in the morning in Tripoli. I am sharing a bed with a colleague. We are bedfellows out of logistical necessity rather than carnal choice. He is lying next to me wearing nothing but a pair of skimpy green underpants. He is deeply and blissfully fast asleep and snoring like Darth Vader eating broken glass. Outside, there is the near constant sound of automatic machinegun fire – the deadly, metallic tack-tack-tack of AK47s being fired with reckless abandon. Through the window I can see the night sky illuminated with terrible beauty by tracer rounds. Inside, the toilet in the bathroom is malfunctioning, flushing loudly and constantly. I am wide awake, edgy and nervous, sweating in the hot North African night. Listening to this extraordinary orchestral ensemble, a bizarre combination of the banal and the ballistic, I think to myself: how in the world did I get to be here?

The reason was that I spent nearly thirty years consuming a daily diet of kidnappings, terrorist attacks, coups d’état, massive frauds, corruption scandals, cyber-attacks, data breaches, earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics and, in the case of Libya, promising revolutions that went horribly wrong. After a while, you start to think that this is all that happens in the world, that all we ever do is lurch from one major crisis to another. If your time is spent guiding people away from the rocks or helping rescue survivors, then you tend to see calm seas and sunny skies merely as the lull between storms.

My job was to help international companies stay safe, to peer around the corner and warn them of trouble ahead. When that was not possible or there was no room to dodge out of the way, then it was time to help them to gird their loins, stiffen their sinews, weather the storm and deploy all manner of mixed metaphors to keep the ship afloat and the show on the road.

For nearly three decades, I was on the move, living and working all around the world. I became adept at turning up somewhere strange, trying to figure out what had gone wrong, dispense some kind of solution and move on. It was a contrasting combination of feeling both energised and exhausted at the same time. Pepped up by the exhilaration and the challenge but drained by the jet lag and the tedium of near-constant travel.

It was an odd life on the frazzled edge of globalisation. I was a member of a peculiar species of weirdly evolved primates: laptop warriors who live their life in airplanes, airports and soulless beige hotels, for whom the notion of a work-life balance is an odd antiquated concept. Work was a way of living not just a way to earn your living, a notion largely unknown to previous generations of executives who were mostly spared the tyranny of twenty-four-hour global connectivity.

I have recorded here some of my observations, both of the many strange situations I found myself embroiled in and also my recollections of some of the places that I got to know. These are both the exotic and the familiar: places you may choose for a family vacation and those that you probably never want to visit if you can possibly avoid it. Many will be familiar territory to travellers and tourists; others are more off the beaten track.

This is a book about a nearly three-decade journey into the deep recesses of the risk and security industry. Along the way, we will meet some strange folks in the back streets of Rio and Delhi, some oddballs in Bogotá and Baghdad, be unnerved in Moscow and Nairobi, get lost in Lagos, become befuddled in Tokyo and Shanghai and stumped in Washington DC. We will see what happens when innocent people find themselves very much in the wrong place at the wrong time. But if you tire of the geo-drama and fancy having your prurience tickled, we will also have a close encounter with a retired porn star, hear a cautionary tale about the devasting consequences of toxic flatulence and have an uncomfortable brush with a penis enlargement operation that went sadly wrong.

This is not a book about greatness and heroism, nor is it a book about despair and dystopia. It is about setting forth and, on the way, becoming a tiny bit braver. It is about learning – through trial and error – to distinguish what to be scared of and what not. It is also a tale of becoming less sure, more uncertain and replacing simplicity with complexity, the paradox of learning more but understanding less. Or if that sounds a bit dispiriting and nihilistic, then it is about how the baffling kaleidoscope of humanity never fails to surprise and upend our preconceived notions of the world in ways that can frustrate, confound and delight us in equal measure.  

I hope you may be occasionally intrigued, perhaps have some of your views challenged and hopefully, at times, be amused. In places my misgivings about Britain’s historical self-image will come to the fore, yet I have unfathomable reserves of affection for and pride in the country that moulded me and set me loose in the world. I hope that comes through.

My travels took me around the world on an annual repetitive loop. I met politicians of honest good-standing, others of dubious repute and some who should not be allowed to use scissors unsupervised. I encountered business leaders of the highest calibre and others of eye-watering incompetence. And given the nature of the work, I also had my fair share of brushes with the shadowy demi-monde of espionage and intrigue. Many of these people I liked enormously. Some gave me the creeps. And others scared the living daylights out of me.

I have had a few encounters worthy of some gratuitous name-dropping, including a very grumpy Margaret Thatcher at a drinks party in Tokyo. She had just taken part in a live television debate with the Japanese prime minister during which the cameras had started rolling before she was ready. The Japanese viewing public had seen her snapping at the poor sound engineer who was trying to adjust her earpiece while she was taking off her earrings. She had shooed him away like a naughty spaniel.

‘Prime Minister, I think it gave people the chance to see your human side’, I offered, trying to be helpful. She stared back at me, puzzled. She had understood each word I had said but had never heard them all in the same sentence before. ‘Yes’, she suddenly announced, wagging her index figure at me, ‘my human side, my human side’. She turned to her pugnacious press secretary, Bernard Ingham, and told him to write that down in his notebook.

That evening, Mrs. Thatcher was distracted, tired and seemingly diminished as she tried unsuccessfully to stop her stiletto heels from sinking into the soft grass on the embassy lawn. Henry Kissinger, by contrast, was anything other than diminished when I met him a few years later in New York. It was raw power with a hint of menace. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, was spellbinding. All folksy phraseology and quicksilver intellect.

Mostly my world has been about trying to tip the scales for people who are not rich and famous, enabling them to be safe and successful where otherwise they may have been defeated. It has been a privilege to have followed in the shadow of some remarkable colleagues. Men and women better able than I to absorb other people’s stress and anxiety and help them navigate to safety across treacherous terrain.

I am a regular kind of person who has had the good luck to do an unusual job. A job that changed me. Not in any profound, fundamental sense – a Yorkshire childhood and a Methodist education took care of the hard-wiring – but in ways that only now am I able to slowly discern. There has been the occasional brush with danger. I say that from the perspective of someone with a low threshold for risk. Faced with obvious peril, my instincts are to scarper quickly in the opposite direction. The primeval software that our early hominoid ancestors relied on to prompt them to leg it back to the cave when they encountered a sabretooth tiger in the woods, is for me still in tip-top condition.

The chapters that follow start by looking at how the risk business has grown and developed over the years. There are then ten chapters looking at specific countries, each of which illustrates something of the world I have got to know over the past thirty years. The book concludes with chapters on the nature of risk, including how we are facing the global pandemic, and then a view on how risk and danger affects each of us individually.

I have tried my best to be fair, conscious that there are very few absolutely bad people and a similarly small number of the truly heroic. In places, my impartiality gives way to polemic. I make no apology for that. This is my personal response to the bizarre world I have experienced. The opinions are all mine and I take full responsibility for all the errors, of both fact and judgement. And while I have grown muddled and bewildered by what goes on out there and sceptical and cynical about power and those who wield it, I hope my faith in humanity and my optimism about the future are still alive and kicking.

quotes

‘A fascinating insight into the space where politics and business meet, filled with wit and wisdom. Highly recommended’

Lord Sedwill, former UK Cabinet Secretary and National Security Adviser

‘A must-read for every student of geopolitics, amateur or academic, professional or private. This beautifully written memoir is much more than that: a roller-coaster ride of risk, full of insights and implied advice, more relevant than ever in today’s uncertain world. Richard Fenning’s sense of humour, and of irony, and his golden pen, make even the most appalling experiences enjoyable. Strongly recommended’

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British Ambassador to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan

‘Take a spoonful of Evelyn Waugh, add a sprinkle of P.J. O’Rourke and garnish with a touch of Michael Palin. Fenning is not just wry, perceptive and informative: he is also laugh-out-loud funny way more often than any CEO has a right to be’

Boris Starling, author of The Official History of Britain

reviews

‘A funny and personal account of life in the risk business’

Gideon Rachman, Financial Times

‘A really fun and informative read. He’s not only got some great stories to tell, he does so in a very human and engaging way’

Christian Hunt, Human Risk

‘A fascinating, engaging and textured read – a trip around the world with a view towards why things work the way they do. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny in places. I advise against having a full mouth of coffee while you’re reading certain passages’

Charles Hecker, The Global Insight

extras

Richard Fenning talks to Charles Hecker on the Global Insight podcast about What on Earth Can Go Wrong.

Richard discusses the stories and insights in What on Earth Can Go Wrong on the Human Risk podcast.

ABOUT

Richard Fenning

Born and brought up in the north of England, Richard Fenning spent 14 years as CEO of Control Risks, the global consultancy that specialises in helping businesses out of tight spots in difficult countries.

He now works as a leadership coach and is a regular media commentator on world affairs. He lives in Sussex.

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