WATCHING THE DOOR- Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast by Kevin Myers

I stumbled across this book in the bargain basket of my local bookshop. I bought it because its author’s face was fresh in my mind from “The Troubles I’ve Seen”, U.T.V’s excellent series on Northern Ireland’s recent history, and also because I was familiar with his writings in various newspapers over the years.
Today, November 21st, 2014 is the 40th anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings, an atrocity in which 21 people died and scores were mutilated, for which nobody has ever been convicted and for which innocent people served prison sentences. It behoves us all to remember what living in these islands was once like. The pages of Kevin Myers book is a good place to look for a picture of those days.
The book didn’t deserve to be found where I found it …but what a bargain! This is a book that should be read by anyone in Ireland who is under the age of fifty. And especially by anyone under the age of thirty. It examines why The North is the way it is, strives to understand why Northern Ireland’s disparate peoples are how they are and shows why we, in The South, haven’t a clue about The Troubles. It is by far the best book I have come across to give some insight into those terrible times.
It is a book that should be on every seventeen year old’s book shelf. It should be a Leaving Certificate and an A Level History set text. It should be required reading for every southern Irish person who lived unconcernedly through a time when Bad Things happened but, conveniently, they happened Up North.
“The Troubles”, as we so usefully sanitised the barbarity of Northern Ireland, provided a vague backdrop to my childhood and teenage years. I was always aware, from the television news mostly, that The North was a violent and dangerous place. So I simply resolved not to go there. Problem solved. And although my life later presented me with opportunities to venture Up North and I now have many friends from that place, I am aware that there are people from the twenty six counties who stuck with their childhood resolve and never did travel beyond the border.
Not so, Mr. Kevin Myers.
Myers graduated from U.C.D. with an honours degree in History. Without any journalistic skills or experience whatever he found himself appointed a junior reporter in the Belfast bureau of R.T.E. News in 1971. He was full of youthful arrogance and bravado and, as he tells us, he had “an amazing nose for danger”. Luckily for him, people on both sides of the political divide liked him well enough to trust him and tell him things. And thus began a defining decade in Myers’ life.
Kevin Myers spent from 1971 to 1978 working as a journalist in Belfast. The book’s title is more or less self explanatory and inside the pages we are brought on an eye opening tour of 1970s Belfast and we quickly learn why it was wise to sit watching the door. Part documentary of the horrors of the times and part personal memoir, Myers manages to mix total barbarity with his own very human, at times brave, at times foolhardy, experiences in Belfast. There are moments of hilarity as well as deep reflections on the situations he finds and the characters he encounters.
Myers writes with great honesty. He often flails himself for what he regards are his mistakes. He treats his twenty something naivety with irony whilst also crediting his earlier self with trying to be objective in his views and balanced in his reporting. He paints his earlier self as being a somewhat less than likable, cocky man- about- town, full of his own sense of purpose and confident in his abilities. But he is able now, from his current vantage point of age and experience, to look back and wonder at the people he met, people whose “soul knew no pity”, whose “ conscience no sin” or men who were so deluded in their thinking that it was almost impossible to communicate with them. He describes, for instance, an attempted conversation with a character and declares that it was “like talking to a man who thinks that Martians run the post office and are stopping his mail”. We see the young man with his sense of invincibility, who could find gun battles “intoxicating”, being able to thread a clever way through all the murder and mayhem and remaining journalistically even handed, being judged now, not unkindly, by his mature self. This is the attraction of the writing.
The book is filled with shootings, bombings, maimings, stabbings and many described in hellish detail. But running parallel to the over arching terror screaming from the pages is the story Myers’ own private life in the city of Belfast.
In his twenties, largely, throughout the book and a “handsome” young man to boot, Myers lives a life of personal liberty despite the physical limitations that surround him. He manages to drink with alcoholic abandon, make friends and acquaintances on both sides of the social divide and his sexual adventures can only be viewed with a mixture of incredulity and envy. There are many laugh out loud moments at the young Myers’ antics which, almost guiltily for the reader, manage to make bearable some of the black horror at the heart of this work. All of his exploits are told frankly and he is often harsh in his judgments of his past behaviour. And all of the writing is laced with a wry humour and a sardonic wit that keeps the reader willing to continue the journey despite all the sadness and the misery along the way.
Myers brings his jaundiced wit to his presentations of many of the characters he introduces us to and he has the ability to recreate their “dialogue” with a very believable accuracy. He seems to relive moments at a deep level and can bring the characters alive on the page so that many of the movers and shakers of terrorism appear as cretins and buffoons as well as dangerous, their outlandish affectations and life views almost comical as well as deadly, as they clearly were. The affect of the writing is to make such people human for the reader as well as easier to meet on the page and Myers’ reflections mitigate, though never excuse, their evil. While he brings a balance to his presenting of such characters and his understanding of them in their Belfast surroundings is objective throughout, we are nevertheless left in no doubt that he was certainly afraid of some of these people and was under no illusions about the seriousness of their threats to his life.
Among the many unforgettable characters in the book, Belfast itself is one of the most disturbing. The reader is constantly aware of the city as a brooding, dismal, damp, dark and threatening being. It is a hostile, uncertain place where the stranger is always suspected by the natives as being of The Other Side. It offers little to recommend it as a suitable place to spend the days of one’s youth. A holiday which Myers takes in West Cork shines out as a comparison for how other folk were living then. That Belfast and its depredations had completely infested his soul then is appreciated now by the mature Myers. He wonders now at his youthful self who actually felt sorry for his friends in west Cork who, “were enduring the boring and predictable world of utter eventlessness, in which each day would end with them going to bed without ever facing the possibility of death”. He states that the two parts of the island of Ireland “knew virtually nothing whatever about one another” and that Northern Ireland is “not another version of Ireland, it is simply a place apart”. How right he is.
Much of the writing is lyrically beautiful and his metaphors and similes are almost always so good that you wish you had thought of them yourself. But there are also times when words jar on the ear and spoil the reading. We come across “to all extents and purposes”, for instance. Bernadette Devlin is a strangely attractive “women”. And does a telegram boy really do a little “mistral” dance? Nothing very major but the carelessness of the editing also permits sentences, not uncommonly, to drop out a word altogether. These are slippages that cause an uncomfortable read and the book is let down by them. Mr. Myers makes sure to thank his editor at The Lilliput Press at the start of his work but the book deserves much better.
Myers is the best kind of observer. He is not one of Them nor one of Them. He is a journalist but he manages to be also humanly involved. While he has a sympathy for all sides he still remains journalistically aloof, distant yet present, and above all, balanced.
There is no human being with a heart who could fail to be moved by the pictures painted in these pages. Myers writes too well. The detail is too stark. He has seen too much of bombings where human tissue is reduced to a confetti of “pink smears” or where human skin “crackles” in flames; too much of the tit-for-tat killings where, “Each morning brought a harvest of bodies of the stupid, the unlucky and the gullible who had died terribly”. Myers must, of course, have been personally affected by his experiences. He speaks of his nightly “visitors”, whom he christened “Jimmy and Seamus”, who regularly brought terror to his dreams.
I take my hat off to Myers and to all his colleagues of that time.
Should anyone have to see what Myers and his journalist colleagues saw? Should any society have to live through such horrors? How does a People come back from such a place? What scars remain?
I hope that today’s twenty something year olds never have to witness what the young Kevin Myers and his contemporaries witnessed. I hope that young people in every corner of these islands remain innocent.
The Birmingham pub bombings occurred on November 21st 1974. I saw that on the news at the time. I was barely a teenager.
The Dublin/ Monaghan bombings happened in May 1974. That was the only time that any aspect of “The Troubles” impinged even remotely on my life. I feared that my beloved piano teacher might have been hurt in Dublin. (She wasn’t).
How lucky was I to have known so little of the strife of 1970’s Ireland which was happening only a couple of hours’ drive away. Reading Kevin Myers’ book brings this starkly home to me. It also underlines for me how lucky we all are on this island that, despite continuous rumblings, we are in a very much better place now. But, lest we become complacent (think Syria, for instance), it is worth reminding ourselves how quickly things can spiral into chaos.
Read this book people. And appreciate.
(Reviewer : Rosemary Daly, B.Ed. Hons.)

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About consistentclarity

I have been involved in education all my working life. I am trained as a teacher and have taught both children and adults. I am fascinated by how people and animals learn and all that they have in common. Music and literature have been central in my life.
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