War Stories from Belfast

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.

There are links here to Amazon.com. You need to know that I am an Amazon affiliate, and as such earn a few cents each time that you buy something through those links. Thank you for your support of A Traveler’s Library.

War Stories from Africa

Some people prefer something more meaty for their summer reading, so I’m slipping two non-fiction books about armed conflict in between beach, romance and mystery novels. The Boy Is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General , and an older book Watching the Door: Drinking Up, Getting Down, and Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast, about the Irish civil conflict.

I just happened to be reading both at the same time. One is new, one is old, and they take place in very different places. But I could not help thinking how similar people’s motivations were in both, and what the armed conflict around them did to the participants.

Book: The Boy is Gone, by Laura Lee P. Huttenbach, NEW published in 2015 as part of Ohio University’s “Africa in World History” series.

Destination: Kenya

Mt. Kenya
Mt. Kenya. Photo by OI IO, from Flckr.com

Through the introduction and the footnotes of this book, the reader can learn a great deal about Kenya, the various people who live there, and how the land is divided between forest, farms and cities. That makes this valuable to the traveler who is brave enough to venture into a still unstable country. Although the Mau Mau is gone, the struggles continue. Safaris are apparently safe, although I wouldn’t advise shooting a favorite lion. The BBC gave this excellent Kenya travel advice to President Obama for his recent visit.

In The Boy is Gone, Laura Lee Huttenbach lets the former Mau Mau general tell his own story, gleaned from her many, many hours of recorded conversations at his home in Kenya.  This lends the book an immediacy and a tone that is unique, if sometimes rather challenging at times, since his English vocabulary is somewhat limited.

The General himself points out that English has many more words than the Kenyan languages. That means that he condenses many meanings into one English word. For instance, as the author explains in an introductory chapter, “Serious, in the General’s usage, means severe, desperate, dangerous, or brutal.”

This technique of recorded personal narrative means that we are hearing the story of the Mau Mau from an insider’s point of view. I realized that my knowledge of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya was all based on  news coverage influenced by the British. I had never heard from the Mau Mau, and therefore, ironically, had strong opinions about them.  As the old saw goes, the victors write history.  Today, with more points of view represented on television, and more investigative journalism in print, we might have heard both sides of the story, but in the sixties, whatever Walter Cronkite said on the evening news was the basis for our understanding of events.

The biggest misconception that Huttenbach refutes early in the book, is how besieged the British planters in Kenya were.  We saw stories of them slaughtered in their beds, farms burned, being driven from the only home they had ever known.  A footnote quoting the book Histories of the Hanged, states that most of the casualties of the uprising were native Africans, not the Europeans.

…only thirty-two European settlers died in the rebellion, and there were fewer than two hundred casualties among the British regiments and police who served Kenya over these years.  Yet more than 1800 African civilians are known to have been murdered by Mau Mau, and many hundreds more to have disappeared…

Officially, the author of Histories, David Anderson, goes on to say, official numbers of Mau Mau rebels killed in combat is 12,000, but the real figure is likely to have been more than 20,000. I do not doubt that it was a terrifying time–the Mau Mau wanted the British to be terrified enough to leave, but when it comes to actual deaths, the Africans suffered more.

We learn from the General’s recollection that those African civilian casualties were not necessarily caused by the British.  Just as the Islamic State today is murdering Muslims who do not measure up to their own ideas of purity, the most radical Mau Maus eliminated anyone they suspected of being a collaborator with the Europeans.

At first I felt a sympathy toward General Japhet Thambu as he explained the ways in which the British missionaries and then settlers and businessmen had wronged the Kenyan natives.  It is easy to understand the simmering resentment that finally brought rebellion. The General clearly is intelligent and charismatic as he emerged as a leader not only in the military of the Mau Mau but later as a leader of the tea growers alliance.

However, there were aspects of his personality that were hard to swallow. For instance, when  in the opinion of the rebels someone needed to be killed,  he made sure that someone else did the killing and he was not present so that he would not be brought up on charges later.  He differentiates between the thugs who only wanted to raise undisciplined havoc and those who were seriously fighting for freedom (a fight he compares to the American Revolution). However, he clearly is proud as he rationalizes the techniques of the Mau Mau  to appear as uncivilized as possible in order to frighten the European population. If that isn’t a definition of terrorism, I’m not sure what is.

Thambu  frequently mentions people who were his enemy, and I couldn’t help wanting to hear their side of the story. It certainly is necessary to take someone’s self description with a bit of skepticism.

Because of the format of the The Boy is Gone, we hear a side of this conflict that we never heard before, learning their motivation and that not all of them were wild blood-thirsty natives.  But within the Mau Mau we only hear one side.  Since this book is meant for students of African history, one hopes that it will stimulate more researchers to delve into the many complexities that are simplified by hearing one man’s tale.

Meanwhile if you are interested in widening and deepening your view of Africa, this is an important book to read.

Page down to the next post to see the review of Watching the Door, for another conflict with similarities.

Note:  The publisher provided a review copy of this book, which is standard practice, and does not influence my opinion. There are links here to The Boy is Gone so that you can purchase it on Amazon. You should know that I am an Amazon affiliate, which means I make a few cents on each sale.  Thank you for supporting A Traveler’s Library.

Summer Read: Audrey Hepburn Cooks

Destination: Switzerland

Book: Audrey at Home: Memories of My Mother’s Kitchen (New June 2015) by Luca Dotti with Luigi Spinola




This is a most personal remembrance of a mother by her son.  Thus, there are a minimum of “inside Hollywood” stories and scarce mention of her other family–Mel Ferrer first husband and Sean Ferrer  first son.  For that other family, you can read a book by Sean Ferrer written in 2015, Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit. I wrote last year about a biography of Audrey Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn: A Charmed Life by Robyn Karney. That covers the rest of the story–including her professional life.

A Charmed Life took place mostly in Italy and America.  But according to Luca Dotti in Audrey at Home, her favorite place was Switzerland. To be specific, Tolochenaz,  a small town near Lausanne where she had a home surrounded by gardens.The name of her home was La Paisible–which means “Peaceful village.”

After her marriage to Mel Ferrer ended, she withdrew from film to be with her family. After her second marriage, to Andrea Dotti, an Italian psychiatrist ended, she spent the last decade of her life with Robert Wolders, her companion, but never husband.

She loved seeing things grow and cooking simple meals, and many of the books included recipes focus on pasta or vegetable dishes.  According to Dotti, she told Wolders that if the economy failed and they lost everything, they could always grow potatoes.

It may be a stretch to imagine Audrey Hepburn as a potato farmer, but in this perhaps idealized view of her life by her son, she was never happier than when living simply, surrounded by family and friends, shopping in the Swiss village and cooking in her own kitchen. It is  a shock to realize that her main film career only lasted 15 years, although between1968 and her death in 1993 she acted in three more films and a television  movie and provided the voice over for a musical composition of Diary of Anne Frank.

These career moves are not the focus of the book. Instead we learn things like her love of chocolate, that came from a period of near starvation when she was a young girl during World War II.  We learn that she was a chain smoker, and not only cooked sophisticated French or Italian dishes, but also liked penni with catsup or macaroni and cheese.

Her cooking included cooking for her dogs.  Of course the dogs in the family would make an impression on her young son, and it is delightful to hear about Hepburn’s favorite dogs–not a subject that generally gets covered in other biographies. She cooked rice with a little meat and a cooked carrot for the dogs, and added an egg once a week for a healthy coat.

Of course she had servants–long time retainers who traveled from Italy to Switzerland, from house to house, and of course those included a cook.  So it is impossible to know how much hands on cooking Hepburn did, but Dotti assures us that she was the one who did the shopping. And she did keep an extensive collection of hand-written recipes.

The book cover consists of a primitive-style painting of La Pasible, painted by Hepburn herself. That cover makes the best argument I could think of for shelling out the extra bucks to get the hard cover edition rather than settling for the Kindle digital version of this book. And Audrey at Home is impeccably produced–packed with wonderful, homy photographs, including images of cookbooks and her hand-written recipes.

It is fun to see a kind of insider’s view, not only of Hepburn’s life, but of life in a small Swiss village.  It is also interesting to see how she blends cultures, languages and food. Because of her multi-national life, she is not hide bound in sticking to the “right” way to construct a sentence, or a dish of pasta.  It is a phenomenon that may be recognized by fellow travelers. The more you travel, the more all cultures blend into one–the one created by you.

Audrey Hepburn worked with UNICEF from 1988 until 1982. The thing most people may not have recognized is that she credited an earlier International children’s charity with saving her life after World War II.  They pulled up in their big truck and unloaded food for the starving children of Holland. Audrey Hepburn, movie star and mother,  died in January 1983.

Whether you are a movie fan, a wanabee Audrey Hepburn, a cook, a reader of family memoirs, you will find a reason to like this book.

To see more about the book, including her recipe for pasta pomodoro, check out my article at Ancestors in Aprons.

Note: There are links here to Amazon.com.  You need to know that I am an Amazon affiliate, which means when you use my links to purchase something, although it costs you no more, I make a few cents to support A Traveler’s Library. Thanks for your support.

The publisher provided me with a copy of Audrey at Home for review.  This is common practice and does not affect my opinion.