Book: Watching the Door: Drinking Up, Getting Down, and Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast Published 2009, by Kevin Myers.
Destination: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Watching the Door, a memoir of a journalist drawn to the unrelenting tragedy of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, is as much about a young man’s coming of age as it is about the battles (more commonly murders) he was covering in Belfast.
I’m warning you right now that despite the skillful writing and terrific wit of Kevin Myers, you may find this book hard to take with its unrelenting drumbeat of death after death after death.
On the other hand, if you want to understand the struggle between the Irish and the British and the inextricable parallel struggle between Protestants and Catholics, I doubt you could find a better guide.
Myers describes the young man that he was with an unflinching eye. The same devotion to being totally honest applies to his portraits of the many Irish that he ran into as a young reporter. At the end of the book, he clarifies which ones have their actual names, and which have fictitious names–even though they are real people. Because of his supposed neutrality as a reporter, he gained access to people in all the various factions, and paints their portraits with ironic clarity. Although the young Kevin was a liberal and sympathetic to rebels and nonconformists, he has grown out of his youthful fascination and verbally skewers all sides with the kind of deadly aim they once took on each other with guns.
Once you’ve read this book, it will be hard to forget some of those characters like the young waitress who blandly described how she aided IRA murders by holding up a mail slot flap so the sniper could shoot through the hole undetected, but didn’t understand at all how she was culpable; or the young assassin who could not tolerate swear words. And then there was his good friend who did not believe in war or killing, but did believe in getting even–a fine distinction.
Myers clearly demonstrates how muddled the question of right and wrong and cause and effect become in such a struggle. This is particularly clear when he talks about how the British, being kindly, provided health care for people who were damaged in any way by the unrest. Therefore people piled into an ambulance that showed up and began claiming trauma–although their fellow Irishmen may have lain bleeding from actual wounds from a bombing. And people whose homes were destroyed could apply to the government for a new home, thus providing a massive building industry and jobs for thousands of men from Northern Ireland who were compelled to contribute part of their wages to the local military. In this way the British were funding the insurrection against the British.
The numbing recital of murders turns into suspense when the reporter himself becomes the prey for some imagined wrong against some group or other. More than once he is warned by a friendly person that this or that leader has assigned assassins to hunt him down. Thus he, like most people who live in Belfast, lies awake waiting for the door to open and gunfire to spray the room, or an explosion that will destroy the building he is in. He survives several of these threats–presumably because the thugs have found easier or more deserving targets.
The parade of death is also interrupted by his recital of sexual affairs and even a love affair or two. Not to mention LOTS of alcohol. The setting for the book is as much bars as the street.
Like so many war correspondents, he frequently reaches the point where he thinks he should leave (he has Irish heritage but was raised in Britain) but he always thinks that it is all going to end soon, and there is a terrible fascination in living in such danger.
The truth was that the only people who really knew what they wanted were the leaders of the insurgency; one of the singular characteristics of almost any terrorist war.
Not that I was engaged in any such useful speculation. Unsuspectingly, I had passed a moral and psychological Rubicon. War had become a natural condition of my life now, as the city closed in on itself, tribal village by tribal village, each withdrawing to its clearly defined boundaries; and when they were not clearly defined, they were redefined by ruthless expulsion and intimidation.
Because Myers was not tied to any particular group, he has no “side of the story” and thus gives a clear-eyed view of what insurrection is like, that reminds me of the Kenya I saw in my review of The Boy is Gone.
Life in Belfast was now defined by murder, indignation, accusation and counter-accusation. Historical forces were at work here, and like flotsam in a raging sea, people found themselves being hurled against the implacable rocks of fatal injustice.
His Belfast in the 60s is a terrible, soul-less place. Terrifying at worst, gloomy at best. I am assured that this bears no resemblance to the present Belfast, and the book should only inform travelers of the past, not persuade them to stay away in the present. Kerry Dexter, writing at Perceptive Travels, suggests some things to see, cautions, and music for your trip.
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