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Rare Earth

A Novel

PAUL MASON

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About the Book

A washed up TV reporter stumbles onto a corruption scandal in Western China. Pursued through the desert by a psychotic spin-doctor and a world-weary cop, he discovers the real China: illegal metal mines, a fashion-crazed gang of girl bikers, a whole commune of Tiananmen Square survivors and the up-market sleaze-joints of Beijing.

En route, he clashes with a stellar cast of people-traffickers, prostitutes and TV execs. But then the unquiet dead begin to intervene: ghosts from his own past and the past of Chinese Communism; the “spirits that hover three feet above our heads” of Chinese folklore.

Rare Earth is a story about love, journalism, ghosts, metallurgy, vintage militaria and large motorcycles set in the badlands of Inner Mongolia and Ningxia. It is about the west’s inability to understand the East; one man’s epic journey across a dying landscape, where “thousands of pairs of eyes peer beyond grimy windowpanes into the moonless sky, looking for something better.”

Publication January 19th 2012 • 358 pages
paperback ISBN 978-1-935928-24-9 • ebook ISBN 978-1-935928-67-6

About the Author

Paul Mason is the award winning economics editor of the BBC current affairs show Newsnight and author of Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed, an account of the 2008 financial crisis. This is his first novel.

In the Media

Morning Star, December 23rd 2012

The Daily Telegraph, November 20th 2012

Warren Ellis, June 6th 2012

Red Pepper, April 2012

That’s Shanghai, April 2012

Labour Briefing, April 18th 2012

Full Stop, March 16th 2012

The Daily Mail, March 15th 2012

The Guardian, February 22nd 2012

Counterfire, February 9th 2012

The New Statesman, February 2nd 2012

The Guardian, February 3rd 2012

The Guardian – Media Monkey, January 23rd 2012

Socialist Worker, January 17th 2012

The Guardian, January 5th 2012

Morning Star, January 3rd 2012

The Guardian, December 31st 2011

London Evening Standard, December 7th 2011

Read an Excerpt

This is what they see on the tape when they finally get to view it:

Vertical spectrum-bars with a high-pitched whine, the word CARSTAIRS in a digital font, and timecode in the corner of the screen beginning 03.00.00. That means the start of tape three.

The opening shot shows the inside door of a Ruifeng van. The cameraman has hit the record button to run the camera up to speed as he mikes-up the reporter. Now the sound channels kick into life, jolting the graphic equalizer.

“Hold on David, I’m not really sure we have time for this;” it is Georgina’s voice, querulous but resigned.

“Maybe I get out first,” Chun-Li suggests, off camera. “Pollution very sensitive issue in towns like this.”

“I’m not surprised!” It is Carstairs, his voice betraying that alert distraction that takes hold of cameramen as they begin checking their levels, their battery power, stashing extras of everything into the pockets of their trousers.

“I think I’d better stay with the van,” Georgina suggests.

“Yeah, no worries. Just me and Chun-Li.” It is Brough’s voice, calm and languid like it was when US Marines pointed a .50 cal machine gun at him from a Blackhawk, deep to his groin in water, one humid afternoon in New Orleans.

The camera swings up as they bail out of the vehicle. Brough smoothing his sandy hair, his jacket crumpled; Chun-Li wobbling around in the dirt on her unsuitable heels.

It’s the very last light of the day: the colours are the warm rust of a traditional Chinese hutong. Low brick shacks topped with curved, medieval roof-tiles; an unpaved road where shaven-headed kids play stone-throwing games in bright yellow cardigans and acid blue T-shirts.

Chun-li leaves the frame and heads up the street but the camera stays on Brough, who keeps squinting at something in the distance, nervously, and whispering to himself: “Shit!”

There is, in the picture, a strange haze to do with more than just the fading light. The camera swings upwards; Carstairs’ cockney grimace blocks the sky out and is in turn blocked out by a chamois leather as he tries to wipe dust off the lens.

“Yes they will talk,” says Chun-Li, at 03.02.27.

“Did you explain we are a Western documentary team?” says Brough.

“Yes they say no problem. They very angry.”

The camera follows Brough and Chun-Li up the street. Carstairs pulls a nice slow pan off them to a dirty kid, its smile revealing only half the normally allocated number of teeth.

Now Brough walks up to a group of local people who are looking a mixture of puzzled and wary:

“David Brough, Channel Ninety-Nine News.”

Brough shakes a few hands while Chun-li does rapid-fire introductions, and then clears his throat:

“Is the air always as bad as this?”

Pause, translation.

They all start shouting at once. There is a woman in a Qing-dynasty silk jacket, an old man with a face the colour of lead, two middle-aged men and a yappy housewife. Kids skip around them to get into shot. Carstairs goes in tight, the lens out to its full wide-angle making the faces loom, distorted, at the edges. The camera mic picks up the sound of what they’re saying and Chinese listeners will, later on, go pale once they make it out.

Man with grey face: “It’s like this every night. During the day they switch it off so the sky looks blue. But every night at seven o’clock it comes over here. You can tell the time by it.”

Woman with silk jacket: “We have to shut our doors and windows. Every night.”

Yappy housewife: “You journalists should launch an investigation into it!”

Brough tells Chun-li to tell them to slow down and speak one at a time, then he has three goes at asking the same question, his voice tight with adrenaline:

“Have you not complained?”

Man, grey face: “We complained but nobody gives a shit! My chest is tight!”

Chun-Li translates: “We have contacted the authorities but nobody seems to care.” You can tell from the tremor in her voice she knows how close they are to saying something bad about local officials on camera.

Silk-jacket woman: “If you breathe this stuff you feel like vomiting and if its windy, your eyes burn.”

And she clears a small space around herself and acts out the final agonies of her dead mother, coughing into her hands and struggling for breath.

Chun-Li explains that it’s a battery factory that’s the problem.

“Where?” says Brough.

Everybody points into the distance. The camera – Carstairs is a genius – swings slowly round in a very useable one-eighty degree pan and pushes in, holding steady, to the flaring gas pipes that had made them stop the van in the first place.

It is a modern plant, big slabs of concrete wall and gross, concrete chimneys painted red and yellow, the whole base of the complex shrouded in white vapour.

Offcamera there is more uproar, the crowd shoving each other aside to present their case: “My kids are choking on this shit!” “My son is a dwarf!” “I ran the marathon once but look…”

“Chun-Li what are you doing?” Brough asks.

“Just wait a minute. I need to type word into translator,”

The camera goes tight on the small translation machine in her hands. Her nail job catches the last of the natural light.

“Chlor-,” she says, then after a long pause: “ine”. “Pollution contains chlorine.”

Brough says:

“How do we know it’s chlorine? It could be just steam.”

Chun-li translates and the crowd – it has grown to a small crowd now – goes slightly wild. They shout at him in a cacophony of anger.

“This factory very notorious polluting factory owned by brother of local city mayor; whole cemetery is full of residents dying below age of 50,” Chun-li translates.

Carstairs is getting cutaways now, of kids, dogs, crumble-walled shacks. A two-shot of Brough and the grey-faced man:

“What do you want the authorities to do?”

“They should move us like they promised,” the man begins, but Carstairs whip-pans off him to a woman standing at the edge of the crowd who is staring coldly at Brough, barking questions at him that he is not hearing.

“This lady want to know who you are,” Chun-li’s voice conveys the clear subtext: “let’s leave”.

“Good evening madam: David Brough, Channel Ninety-Nine News – and whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

“Do you have permission to be here?” the woman asks.

It’s Busybody Guo, head of the district management office. She’s been watching the 7 o’clock news bulletin, but luckily with the sound turned down or she would not have heard the commotion.

“Yes of course, we are here with the full permission of the Ningxia Province wai-ban,” says Brough, using a supercilious form of English both he and Carstairs know they will cut out in the edit, especially when he adds: “We have been personally invited by Premier Wen Jia-bao to tell the story of the fine efforts of the Communist Party in the sphere of environmental protection.”

Busybody Guo spins on her heel, flipping her mobile open as she stamps back into the alleyway.

“Ignore the bitch,” somebody shouts.

“Piece to camera,” Brough mutters and breaks away from the group, taking up position with his back to the factory, which is now spewing vapour, thick and greenish, towards them. It’s already started to obscure some of the roofs and reduce the flames from the chimneys to a sickly yellow glow.

“Here in Western China, the official story is…”

“Wait ten seconds,” says Carstairs.

Brough checks his reflection in the camera lens, sees the approaching cloud behind him and understands. He takes a breath, drops his shoulders and smiles wearily.

“Go.” says Carstairs.

“Here in Western China the official line is that pollution’s been outlawed. But the residents tell a different story. Every night, they say, a cloud like this comes over the fence and makes the air impossible to breathe. They say it contains chlorine. In the west they’d be able to call in scientists to test the air. Here all they’ve got is the Communist Party, and the local leadership seems more worried about our presence, than about this…”

He turns, with only mild theatricality, to the tsunami of vapour that is now a few yards away and then turns back to face the camera as the cloud engulfs him.

“David Brough, Channel Ninety-Nine, Western China.”

“Wrap,” says Carstairs. The camera drops to knee level and they walk quickly up the smog-wreathed alleyway towards a van with a blonde woman gesturing at them out of the side-door.

“What the fuck?” she is saying: “I’m choking to death here!”

The camera goes back to its starting position, the lens wedged up against the door. Slamming sounds are heard and the engine revs.

“What did you get?” Georgina’s voice is a mixture of annoyance and excitement.

“The fucking works. This cloud is full of chlorine.” says Brough.

“Is that dangerous?”

“No idea. Wait till you see the tape. Do you think that woman was pissed off enough to phone the pigs, Chun-li – I mean the police?”

“Pollution very sensitive in this part of China. Maybe she will not want trouble for herself. Better get away from area. Also switch tapes.”

The screen goes blank. The timecode says 03.23.34: that’s twenty-three and half minutes on tape. Two gigabytes on disc, max.