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Watching the Door, by Kevin Myers
Staying alive in Belfast's dark age
Friday 07 March 2008
Kevin Myers is a journalist skilled in generating controversy, and in presenting his case with logic and finesse. He is a strong opponent of what he calls the "sanitised narrative", particularly as it relates to Irish republicanism. Instead of viewing the murderous violence of the Troubles as a falling away from the high ideals of Easter 1916, he would place both within a spectrum of fanatacism and savagery.
He didn't start with this opinion. Born into a Southern Irish emigrant family in Leicester, Myers graduated from University College Dublin in 1969, and, in common with many of his generation, held mildly "Leftist" and Republican views until exposure to the badness of Belfast began a change of heart. This memoir deals with his experience of getting the naivety knocked out of him, in horrendous circumstances.
"How in the name of God," he wonders, "had I come to this?" He is asking how he could have come to think of himself as a hard man, inured to death. Put the blame on Radio Telefis Eireann, if you like, which employed him as a journalist and dispatched him north to cover the impending eruption. He lived in Belfast through the worst of the Troubles, the slaughterous Seventies. And his profession sent him hotfoot to the scene of every atrocity.
Belfast did not endear itself to him, despite the exhilaration its dangers carried, and its liberality in the matter of sex. But it's only gradually that it takes on the true terrain of nightmare, a city harbouring those without conscience or pity in whom every impulse of sanity or humanity has been eradicated. This is a place where shooting someone in the back of the head has come to seem an admonition of no more consequence than a rap over the knuckles.
At one level, Myers wants to expose this state of devastation and degradation; to show 1970s Belfast as a self-destructing hellhole. At the same time, he can't help making a sparky and pungent narrative out of his atrocious material. A lot of his book is cast in a mode of black comedy, terrorist imbroglio or bedroom farce. (His grasp of a Belfast vernacular is impressive.) Blundering from one set of maddened paramilitaries to the other, with his RUC and Army contacts and English accent, Myers sets himself up as a prime candidate for extermination from every quarter.
What we get is a catalogue of amours and contretemps and life-threatening predicaments. Cheating death, it seems that he can't go into a pub but someone promptly sends out for a gunman to shoot him. A word of warning is always whispered in the nick of time, enabling a getaway via a back exit. He proves as indestructible as Bulldog Drummond.
Myers's Belfast is a place of extremes. His terrorist acquaintances on both sides run the gamut from charismatic to cretinous. Prodigious drinking, swearing, fucking, killing, goes on the whole time. Is there, perhaps, an element of hyperbole in all this? Some details are not quite right. There were no "tenements" on the Falls Road, only terraces of red-brick houses whose interiors as a rule were as spotless and orderly as anything to be found in the city.
Many of the drinking clubs, were rough and dingy, but perhaps not often so unspeakably unhygienic as the one Myers was taken to. It's almost as if the horrors he witnessed have led him to present the whole city – "this evil place", he calls it more than once – as a literal as well as a moral cesspool, despite the fact that many people contrived to lead fairly normal, uncontaminated lives.
But the horrors were real, and it's to Myers's credit that, in the midst of the shambles, he keeps up for the most part an ironic and alacritous tone. His version of Belfast is not the whole picture; but he evokes a period when the city, not for the first time in its history, existed in people's minds as one of the dark places of the earth.
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