Thursday, May 5, 2011

Kevin Myers' "Watching the Door": Book Review

This reads as if a mad picaresque tale. Myers as first a reporter for RTÉ (Irish state radio and television) and then as a freelance journalist with no real experience, finds himself wandering into savagery as he hastens north as the Troubles explode. A soldier dies next to him; he witnesses an IRA ambush; he sees children shot to death by snipers. The adjectives pile up: the conditions in 1970s Belfast lead to a life led as lies. Insane, vile, ludicrous, preposterous characterize what happens to everyday situations turned into hidden truths, revealed only behind one’s own doors, to one’s own tribe.

The prose takes one through barricades and checkpoints wittily if not to me always accurately. Perhaps as with Myers’ own encounters when he first ventured into the statelet, today’s intrepid tourists may find the “pathological hospitality” credited to Northerners but Ballymurphy, the admittedly dull housing estate in West Belfast, seemed overstated as “mesmerizingly hideous”. Myers, a mordant critic of nationalist pieties, heaps scorn on incoherent IRA Belfast one-time leader Seamus Twomey. Those for whom Twomey claimed to speak and fight, Myers insists, were rarely asked. “The vote for hostilities was unanimous among those people with guns: and those without were not consulted”. (89) 

Myers pinpoints the problem inherent in Irish republicanism as “an almost autonomous state with an internal folklore that embraces and indoctrinates those admitted to its mysteries. Suffering, either inflicted or endured, is a keynote to its ethos”. (14) He contrasts Twomey’s ravings with today’s republicans with a “telegenic veneer of suited respectability”. Twomey’s the “raw product: a man indoctrinated in the ways of death, who had repeatedly and casually caused men to be murdered. These deeds meant nothing to him: his eyes were not cold but angry, as if he lived his life in a permanently homicidal rage. His soul knew no pity, his conscience no sin”. (91) 

The IRA never wants to claim responsibility, as Myers argues it, for the Troubles; republicans blame a white Cortina’s disappearance before a bombing, or they blame the system. And even when blame’s justified, as with Bloody Sunday, why its fourteen sudden deaths garner far more publicity than the fifteen blown up by loyalist terrorists a month earlier at McGurk’s pub mystifies him as a reporter. But, such news ensures his own paycheck, and his pursuit of such horrors creates his own career. 

Not that the British troops, their commanders, the loyalist paramilitaries, the nutting squads escape opprobrium. “Everyone in Northern Ireland lied. Everyone, without exception: republicans, loyalists, soldiers, police—everyone. Lying is easy in such a place. It is the default mode to which everyone turns when there is no consensus about truth. In the absence of an agreed reality, truth is whatever you’re having yourself”. (117-8) Myers names the victims, and makes us watch as they die. He tallies forty people he knew who died in the North, and another eight he did not, but whom he watched die. We like him are forced to remember how statistics cloak murder, and how anguish shatters those left behind.

Myers rails against the warped Fenian perspective for those trapped there by their own stubbornness. “The Northern Irish nationalist ghetto experience” ensured that those “north of the drumlins concocted stereotypes, and then lived their lives surrounded by these people of their own imagination”. (145) As the son of Dubliners who left during WWII for work in Britain, his first name and his own English accent from his Leicester upbringing mark him as close enough to be suspected for his Catholic loyalties, foreign enough to stand out among the unionists. He’s also suspected as an undercover British officer spying on the paramilitaries. He judges himself one of the only men frequenting both the Falls and the Shankill Roads as he crosses sectarian lines to drink among those thugs who—as with the sinister UVF loyalist despot “Rab Brown”-- may plot his own demise from within the pub, if later that very night. 

As the decade and the Troubles grind on, Myers loses his bearings. He struggles to find work, to keep girlfriends (although he beds an impressive number), and to stay sane amidst the “exonerative moral machinery” which grinds down his resistance to republican rhetoric and unionist idiocy. As a “semi-hippy”, his loyalty to the factions supposedly fighting against imperialism turn tested as the Official IRA’s contorted justifications for capitalist gain in the service of a Marxist revolution confound even him. (See my Amazon US review of "The Lost Revolution" by Brian Hanley & Scott Millar; this cites Myers briefly.)

Everyone fighting against the Crown gets paid by it, for housing, rebuilding grants, the dole, and this turns the first war where both enemies benefit from a common benefactor and (sometimes) foe. The years wear him down, as he hears over and over how the IRA allows its members immunity for the most hideous outrages. The cant of its volunteers and the endlessly one-sided recital of their woes disgust him. “For immunity-to-consequence was both a by-product of the Troubles, and its fuel, rather as a nuclear reactor can run on its own waste”. (230) 

Still, Myers for all his acerbic contempt for all involved in taking a guerrilla war into a densely populated city manages to admit the “compulsive generosity” and unbroken gallantry of a resilient and kind resident who endures in the West Belfast ghettoes with admirable good will and innate decency. He fills the narrative with vivid reportage from his perspective, starting with the Shaws Road ambush he tape recorded after he stumbled upon its IRA setup, and continuing into Robert Bankier’s last breath as a British soldier, the final moments of Rose McCartney and Patrick O’Neill at the hands of loyalist killers, and a bomb attack Myers narrowly misses meant for that “deeply manipulative” republican apologist to “revolutionary tourists”, John McGuffin. Myers provides abundant tragedy, danger, and narrow escapes. 

Luckily, he intersperses happier tales. His best, such as Lady Henrietta Guinness meeting the consumers of her family’s stout in West Belfast’s pubs, combine a poignant moment with a satirical relish for the absurd that all too often became the ordinary. He loves relating his two escapades when the man of the house returned and Myers had to hide from the cuckold; his visit to his friend Barney’s brothel, surely the least successful in all of Ulster, represents a comic triumph. My favorite episode, near the end of this often dispiriting narrative, managed to lift my spirits. His hosting of Shannon, an utterly unspeakable American feminist, who befuddles Myers with her contradictions, as a splendid set piece succeeds. 

His memoir confronts his own complicity as a journalist who becomes too intimate with those who he meets, for Myers looks back upon his own compulsion to mix with the natives turned friends, lovers, and neighbors. Malachi O’Doherty’s The Telling Year: Belfast 1972 (see my Amazon or "Blogtrotter" review)  documents a similar experience by a fellow journalist, but a native who finds himself reporting on his own neighbors. As for Myers, he attempts to reduce the tension. He arranges a meeting across enemy lines.  This backfires. He flees to another district after loyalist brutes through whom he tried to broker a truce target him. Everyone talks to him, but Myers learns that half-truths fill their admissions. He is never trusted enough by any side.

Nobody’s innocent, at least those who he estimates provided fifty silent supporters in every community for the one among them who fired back. Certainly, his judgment of the IRA also stands for the recruits and activists whom the republicans fought. Loyalists and “security forces” indulged in their own equally lucrative, cynical, and repellent campaigns. While history often earned the appeal and politics the justification for violence and intimidation, Myers denies their ideological legitimacy. “The Provisional IRA did not consult the living, only the past and future: the present meant nothing to them”. (226) 

Of the catalyst for the deaths which sparked the doomed Peace People, Myers writes that the only sacrifices which mattered to the republicans were when the wrongs were committed by the other side. In this spiral of violence, it reminded me of Orwell’s 1984. As in Oceania, the IRA declared war against one if not always two of its opponents, as allies turned sudden enemies and friends were targeted as foes. This malignant maelstrom before decade’s end spun him out of the province, as he tried to escape the degradation that corroded his professional career and personal life. As I finished, I wondered what he learned, for the back cover tells us he went on to cover civil war in 1980s Lebanon and 1990s Bosnia. (Posted in slightly shorter and edited form to & Amazon US 4-26-11. In much shorter form to Slugger O'Toole, this popular Irish-British political-cultural portal, 11-3-11.)

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