Kevin Myers is one of the finest writers of his generation. An exquisite prose stylist, he is the author of some of the most compelling and elegantly written journalism of the past 40 years.
He is also an arsehole of the first order: If the Oxford English Dictionary is considering a pictorial edition they would probably include a picture of Myers to illustrate the term “West Brit”. Since the events covered in this book Myers has transformed himself into a smart-arsed apologist of the establishment, frequently economical with the facts where they may conflict with his opinions. Indeed, if there is an entry for “Smart-Arsed Apologist of the Establishment” in the Oxford Pictionary, Myers photo would probably be there too.
Given all the aforementioned, I deliberately bought this book in a charity shop in the hope that this would deny Myers any financial benefit from my purchase. As Myers is a voluble opponent of international aid this purchase therefore represented something of a double-whammy.
Watching the Door is a memoir of Myers time as a young journalist in Belfast in the early 1970s. It displays a considerably higher degree of self-awareness than I expected. Myers, it seems, has always known he was an arsehole, and a foolhardy one at that.
A former housemate of mine once almost got himself very badly hurt by a frankly stupid disregard for the dangers posed by a Belfast city centre car bomb. This prompted a house meeting with one item only on the agenda: whether we should kick his shite out for being such a stupid fecker. (We didn’t… even though he was.)
Myers does not appear to have had any housemates to slap him around for his reckless behaviour. Even had he not been so reckless the daily grind of reporting one of the most brutal periods of the Troubles would have resulted in profound post-traumatic stress.
Myers now appears repelled by his youthful self, and the portrait he presents of himself as a youth is repellent. The 180 degree transformation that he has fashioned of himself is also repellent. So in that at least he is consistent.
But he is still an exquisite writer and this is an important subject as the horrors of the 1970s begin to be overlaid by romantic hues and preposterous myths: one article I read recently by an American journalist seriously reported the inspiration that Gerry Adams claimed to take from Martin Luther King, the same Adams whose first appearance in these pages relates to his instruction to an IRA minion on how to deal with a local thug: “Shoot him.” On another occasion, when questioned by a journalist about the disappearance and murder by the IRA of Jean McConville, a single mother, on the trumped up charge of informing, Adams glibly asserted “These things happen in wars.” Indeed they do. They are called war crimes.
Sean O’Callaghan, an Irish Police informer in the IRA, also alleges that Adams contemplated at one stage assassinating John Hume, the most passionate of King’s disciples ever to walk the island of Ireland. John Hume only makes a fleeting appearance in this book. The Peace People are mentioned a couple of times. Seamus Mallon not at all. It may be that they rarely encroached upon Myers consciousness in the midst of his alcoholic stupor from the considerable time spent in late night drinking dens with murderous Loyalist and so-called “Republican” paramilitaries. However their exclusion may be simply to bolster a dubious thesis in this book: that no matter how horrific the paramilitary actions became, and to his credit Myers details many atrocities the former paramilitaries would like to forget, they were never condemned or repudiated by their communities. Hume and Mallon became hoarse in their condemnations of the atrocities of all sides, including the British who Myers, to my mind, soft pedals on, and the SDLP consistently outpolled Sinn Fein by a ratio of 2 to 1 during the period that the Provos waged their illegal war.
The repudiation of sectarianism and violence by many ordinary people in the North was also illustrated in two of the most horrific incidents of the Troubles, which Myers choses to skate over in this book: the Miami Showband and the Kingsmills Massacres. To be fair after the litany of bloodshed which he has already recounted he may have felt exhausted at having to confront these atrocities as well. But there are important details.
The Miami Showband was non-sectarian and religiously mixed. According to Stephen Travers, the band’s bassist and one of the survivors, his best friend in the band, trumpeter Brian McCoy, a Protestant from a Unionist background in County Tyrone, understood the rest of the band’s concern at having been stopped by the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). McCoy whispered to Travers that he could stop worrying when a British officer showed up. That did not protect them unfortunately when the bomb the UDR was trying to plant in the band’s bus went off and killed two of these British armed and directed terrorists. The UDR soldiers, whose dual membership in the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force had not been a barrier to their entry into the British Army, then started butchering this group of defenceless musicians who represented the best of society of the whole island of Ireland.
The Protestant victims of the IRA’s Kingsmill massacre also showed a impressive anti-sectarian heroism as they tried to protect their Catholic colleagues from what they initially thought was a similar UDR/UVF attack, before the horrendous realisation that the war criminals in question on this occasion had come to butcher them.
So in spite of the author’s arseholeism, and the exaggerations, evasions and distortions that pepper this account of war and his, sometimes quite bizarre, sexual adventures, this book is an important one. As many of those who directed war crimes in the course of this illegal war attain high office in both parts of Ireland it reminds us just how horrendous and shameful the Troubles actually were.
For this reason I can only hope many more charity bookshops will benefit from the sale of this book in the years to come.