Flashman and the Troubles
Watching the Door: Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast, Kevin Myers, Atlantic 2008
I mean, come on, consider the Set Special Menu: first, take the watertight jesuitisms of Leninism, that handily allow you to be a democrat and an elitist at the same time; add the only decent English-language rebel songs and permission to wallow in dubious folkish emotions wisely forbidden to White Yanks, Englishmen, Germans and suchlike… whisk in an atmosphere of guinnessy subculture, David ‘n’ Goliath plotting and street-fashion cred; garnish with lochs and rural idylls; finish with a dose of redhead revolutionary sexuality and serve piping hot to any impatient twenty-year-old in Channel 4 accents. What a Story!
– James Hawes, A White Merc with Fins
The preceding paragraph, taken from James Hawes’s mid-nineties crime caper, encapsulates the deadly romance of the Ireland conflict. The liberal-creative soul cannot resist this siren song of blood and soil, whether it comes from the republican IRA or the Islamist far right. The mind recognises terrorism as a road to hell – but something in the heart responds, and conjures evenings in smoky bars, your place by the campfire, the fall of stray hair across a woman’s eye.
Undoubtedly it was this romance that drew Kevin Myers, then a graduate in his early twenties, to spend the 1970s in the most dangerous era of the country of his birth. Then what David Toube would call a ‘struggle-junkie’ (Myers talks of “the whiff of cordite, the tang of testosterone, the roar of war”) he took a reporter’s job in Belfast – and walked straight into a gonzo nightmare.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we: the strange pub in the unknown part of town, the after-hours drinks, the warm and gregarious and terrible men, the fantastic time you all seem to be having – and then you snag some tripwire of etiquette, all conversation stops, and suddenly you are sober and realising that no one knows where you are. The way Myers writes it, all Belfast was like this: checkpoints everywhere, waitresses informing on their customers, every human being evaluated as he walked down the street, a city paved in eggshells. Drinking one night with the UDA, after a long, civil discussion with several loyalist big names, Myers is pulled over by a concerned friend: “They’re going to nut you… The guns have just arrived. Do as I say or you’re dead. Slip out the side door there.”
Throughout the book, Myers is forced to change from local to local as one bar after another loses its safety. He survives a bombing, witnesses the shooting of soldiers, jumps naked from bedrooms after cuckolding feared men on both sides of the divide, and somehow walks away unscathed from years of random death that takes many friends and enemies. His memoir’s title comes from a long-conditioned habit of sitting in view of the front entrance to a pub, so that he can see the gunmen coming.
This is gonzo journalism. Not just because of Myers’s heavy drinking and libertine sexuality – although parts of this book read like a contemporary George MacDonald Fraser novel: Flashman and the Troubles. Not because of his cavalier regard for objectivity and distance. It’s gonzo because he’s a sane man in an insane situation. That’s the recurring theme – the sheer clinical insanity of the whole thing. In the 1970s the Republican and loyalist terrorists ran great Stalinist fiefdoms complete with forced confessions, purges, showtrials. To keep the hate going, one side would attack its own community and blame the killings on the other side. A rumour spread that the British state had set up a team to infiltrate both the IRA and UDA. In response to this conspiracy theory both forces gratuitously tortured their own members until, naturally, the ‘spies’ confessed.
Myers has lots of information on the internal operations of the paramilitaries, which could have been modelled on the imperialist occupier, and showed the same callous stupidity. The IRA as well as the British army sent young men to kill and die. Myers meets people who had been bereaved by the Republicans yet, with idiot loyalty, still supported them. And there is shocking stuff on the degree of information sharing between the occupying army and loyalist bigots.
This is a relentlessly personal and beautifully written story of a young man who somehow, through luck and wit and talent, survived one of the deadliest contemporary conflicts without really trying. The Doctor himself would have recommended it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He blogs here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 20th, 2009.