Thursday, June 26, 2014

Flying low

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, June 21-22, 2014 

Common sense suggests that a book about Flight MH370 produced so soon after the plane’s disappearance is unlikely to be any good. One fears, too, that anything less than a good book will be an exercise in bad taste. There are people for whom the mystery is also a tragedy, of a terribly ongoing kind. Their distress does not oblige writers to fall silent, of course, but it commands respect. If you’re going to write a book about this case, you’d better do a decent job. 

Into this daunting terrain saunters the Anglo-American writer Nigel Cawthorne. I admit I’d never heard of Cawthorne before I took delivery of this book, but how bad could he be? The back cover says nothing about him except that he is “prolific” – a slightly ominous way of describing a writer. On the web, the signs get more ominous still. It turns out that Cawthorne’s oeuvre, which is indeed uncommonly large, contains such titles as Amorous Antics of Old England and Sex Lives of the Famous Gays. 

Still, one was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. One stopped bothering around the middle of page three, where Cawthorne offers his shambolic first account of the moment when MH370 lost contact with the ground – the key moment, that is to say, of the whole affair. We know that the flight made its final radio transmission to Malaysian air traffic control at 1.19am. Cawthorne gets that part right. From there, things get a bit garbled: 

Around a minute later, the transponder that identifies the aircraft to air traffic control via ground radar was switched off. It was last seen on radar at 1.30am (17.30 GMT) 140 miles (225km) northeast of Kota Bharu, at the northern tip of Malaysia, around the point where the South China Sea meets the Gulf of Thailand. Then MH370 lost contact with Subang air traffic control one minute before it entered airspace controlled by Vietnam. 

We’d all be prolific, if we let ourselves write paragraphs like that. The alert reader will wonder, for starters, how the plane showed up on air-traffic radar at 1.30 if the transponder ceased functioning at 1.20. Is 1.30 a misprint for 1.20? Or is Cawthorne suddenly talking about a different kind of radar? If he is, it would have been nice of him to say so, if not mandatory. “Then MH370 lost contact with Subang air traffic control …” Does “then” mean after 1.30? Yes, if the word is understood in its time-honoured sense. But Cawthorne has already indicated that the plane “lost contact” at either 1.19 or 1.20, depending on how one interprets that typically imprecise phrase. Or are we supposed to conclude that Subang air traffic control, which Cawthorne hasn’t previously mentioned, is somehow a different entity from Malaysian air traffic control? 

The facts of this case are baffling enough by themselves. We don’t need sloppy prose adding to the confusion. Cawthorne writes so poorly that it is simply beyond his powers to construct a coherent account of the ten minutes that make the case so intriguing. The truth, which has been carefully established by more scrupulous minds than his, is that the plane was last tracked by air-traffic radar at 1.21am, at which point the transponder was, by definition, still working. Then, almost at the very moment the plane entered Vietnamese airspace, the transponder stopped functioning. To say that it was “switched off”, as Cawthorne repeatedly does, is to assume too much. Conceivably it was knocked out by a fire or malfunction. But certainly the timing raises the suspicion that somebody on board disabled it for sinister reasons. About ten minutes later the plane made a sharp left turn, close to a U-turn, and flew back over Malaysia. We know this because various military radars tracked its course over the next several hours. 

Cawthorne declines to give you all this information in one place. Remarkably, he is still straightening out the basics almost a hundred pages later. “It seems that, after [its] last transmission, the plane had veered off to the west,” he reveals on page 93, on the off chance anyone is still reading. At such moments you could be forgiven for thinking his book has no structure at all. In fact it has one, but it’s the most harebrained structure imaginable for this kind of book. Roughly speaking, Cawthorne winds the clock back to day one and retells the story from the beginning, providing you with only the information available at the time, even when that information has since proved to be wrong. Because it took a while for the world to learn the plane turned around, Cawthorne takes a while to confirm it. He seems to have drafted his book in real time, as events unfolded, without bothering to go back and correct the early stuff in light of later developments. No doubt this made the book easy to write, but it makes it horrible to read. 

Thus Cawthorne reports, on page three, that the flight’s final radio transmission to Malaysia consisted of the words “All right, good night.” We then hear about all the “speculation” that this “somewhat casual” sign-off sparked. Not until page 206 does Cawthorne get around to mentioning what the world has known for a good while now: nobody ever uttered that phrase in the first place. “Curiously, it was now revealed that whoever on Flight MH370 signed off that night, they did not use the casual ‘All right, good night’ that had at first aroused suspicion, but the more formal ‘Good Night Malaysian Three Seven Zero.’” 

Cawthorne is the Agatha Christie of non-fiction. He likes a good red herring. Before he’s cleared up that one, he throws out this one: “Adding to the mystery came news that the pilot’s sign-off, ‘All right, good night,’ came after the automatic transmission equipment had been disabled.” This troubling news was indeed delivered by the Malaysian prime minister on March 15. But like a lot of announcements made in those early days, it turned out to be incorrect. You’d think Cawthorne, if he’s going to regurgitate such sensational misinformation, would have the courtesy to tell you straight away that it’s untrue. But he doesn’t seem to think that’s his job. 

Over the past three months, the world’s better journalists have painstakingly sharpened our understanding of the MH370 story. In May, Four Corners did an exemplary job of crafting the established facts into a clear narrative. On Wikipedia, the collective mind maintains a thorough and ongoing summary of things as they stand, complete with footnotes. Cawthorne undoes everybody’s good work by retrieving every obsolete and discredited non-fact from the trash, slapping the whole lot between covers, and letting you puzzle out the truth for yourself. You might as well go out to your garage, dig out the last three months’ worth of newspapers, and re-read all the MH370 stories in chronological order. 

At least the newspaper stories were largely to the point. Cawthorne endlessly digresses about any historical plane disaster that bears a passing resemblance, if that, to the case of MH370. No doubt much of this information would seem pertinent, if delivered by a better writer. But Cawthorne has a passion for useless detail. He has an excruciating habit of providing distance data in both miles and kilometres, and sometimes in nautical miles as well, at moments when even one measurement would seem superfluous. “At that point,” he writes about a plane whose fate may or may not have prefigured that of MH370, “the aircraft’s ground speed was 107 knots (124 mph or 198 km/h), and it was descending at 10,912ft (3,326m) per minute …” The lay reader does not require this many numerals – and who is this book for, if not for the lay reader? What we need is a writer who will digest the technical stuff on our behalf, then give us a lucid picture of what’s going on at any given moment. 

Instead Cawthorne clogs his pages with a blizzard of irrelevant integers. He quotes all monetary values in both Pounds and US dollars. He gives you Greenwich Mean Time as well as local time. When a quoted source makes mention of a mobile phone, Cawthorne handily informs you, in brackets, that this is the same thing as a cellphone. He writes like a desperate student who will throw in any detail or anecdote to flesh out the word-length of an essay. Any man who can call the MH370 mystery an “enduring” one doesn’t care about what he says – he is just using words to fill up space. 

In the information age, only a small portion of the information we’re strafed with turns out to be accurate. On the 24-hour news channels we get the unedifying spectacle of the news in its half-formed state, as if we’re backstage at a sausage factory. It becomes hard to get a proper grip on what’s happened, because we’re too busy being told what’s happening now, right this minute. In America, CNN’s incessant and fevered coverage of the MH370 mystery became notorious for its fatuity. It reached its nadir when one anchor wondered aloud, on air, why nobody had seriously considered the possibility that the “supernatural power of God” was responsible for the whole thing. 

Cawthorne doesn’t throw that scrap of tripe into his information gumbo, but he throws in just about everything else. What is the point of writing a book if you’re just going to reproduce the hectic, slapdash, on-the-fly atmosphere of the worst kind of 24-hour news show? Ah, but the point of a book like this is to be out, to be there – to have an eye-catching cover and be present in the stores. Next time you’re in one, buy any book other than this. I guarantee you it won’t be worse.