Kevin Myers’ Watching The Door

The title of Kevin Myers’ memoir of life in Northern Ireland during the period we now know, euphemistically, as “the Troubles,” won’t make much sense to readers until they’ve almost turned the final page, but that’s what subtitles are for, and here Myers – or his publishers – dispensed with all ambiguity: “Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast.” Most men can claim to have had a misspent youth, but how many can claim to have done their drinking and swiving amidst assassinations, car bombs, double agents and an all-consuming tribalism that pitted families and friends against each other? “I saw murder face to face,” he tells us in his Preface, “and heard the keen of bereaved and broken hearts. I witnessed the bloody chaos that results when the tribe is exalted over the individual, and when personal morality is abandoned to the autonomous ethos of some imagined community, independent of God and law.” Myers arrives in Belfast almost by accident, a naive and purposeless young man looking for regular employment and adventure, and while the job of a reporter hardly satisfies the first of his concerns, his immersion in the daily mayhem generated by the struggle between Unionists and Nationalists, Protestants and Catholics, proves to be far more than he had bargained for.

Watching The Door gives readers a first-hand glimpse into what happens when the norms of civilization collapse and men and women revert to more primitive allegiances: family, religion, tribe. Belfast, in 1972, is the epicentre of this conflict, and almost from the moment Myers steps foot in it, he can sense, despite all his naivety, the vacuum where its heart ought to be:

For Belfast is a lie. It is unreal. The consensual agreement that shapes and cements other urban communities is absent from this city. At best, people agree not to disagree, matter and anti-matter mingling and yet declining to eliminate one another; at worst, they agree to disagree, with all the predictably deplorable consequences you do not need to come to these pages to learn about. But they do not define themselves or their city in a common language, with common feelings and common meanings.

The space, in other words, is shared, but it means dramatically different things to each faction, and when they retreat to their separate enclaves, having completed the day’s work or the day’s shopping, the truth emerges:

While in the commercial heart of the city, they administered a sedative to their facial muscles; yet these pursed lips, these unseeing eyes, came truly alive within the tiny, warring sanctuaries where they lived, and where they alone felt truly free. Here, their faces could be liberated from the tyranny of city-centre tolerance; here they could exult in the triumphs of their tribe; and here they could freely indulge in Belfast’s most powerful indigenous art form, the sculpting of ancient grievance into a dynamic life-force.

The violence astonished me. I had heard of car bombs and casual shootings, but the callousness of the killing beggars belief. Bombs are placed in pubs frequented by one or another faction, not targeting any one person – a known gunman, a leader – but all persons, any persons, who fit the description of other. Children die frequently, sometimes inadvertently – because a gunman didn’t care enough to hold his fire on a crowded street – and sometimes deliberately, because their parents were targeted and the children were a bonus. At one point, a priest arrives at the scene of a killing to administer the last rites, and he too is killed.

As Myers comes to learn, morality is malleable, as is history: both are only worthwhile in service of the cause. One example: the IRA frequently killed civilians, either out of incompetence or malice, but when the news of these deaths reached their ears, they were disclaimed on the most improbable of reasoning: it was the Unionists, of course, impersonating their men to ruin their reputations, or else the bungling English military. “Myth enabled; myth empowered; myth permitted, myth forgave, and most of all, myth forgot. Is not any sin possible in such circumstances?” Accountability was a standard for the enemy, never for the self.

Belfast had become clinically insane, and no documentary details can convey the spirit of the times. Those simple bonds of faith and trust of broader communities – attenuated enough in Belfast – were now finally severed. It was possible to believe almost anything of the other side, wherever that other side lay. Any fantasy could drive policy, any paranoia could shape doctrine.

As a study in tribalism, Watching The Door is magnificent, a frightening premonition of where much of the West is headed if we cannot arrest the centrifugal forces currently running rampant in our political culture, but this is also a personal memoir, a coming-of-age tale about “a naive young man in pursuit of the adrenaline of war and that cocktail of hormones accompanying love and sex,” and here, too, the book is brilliant. Alcohol played a large part in the Troubles, inuring both sides to the human toll of the conflict and steeling gunmen – usually naive young men themselves – for their grim business. Part of this book’s attraction comes from watching Myers grow more and more at ease in an environment so obviously inhospitable to human flourishing, his nonchalance in the face of death and destruction rivalling veterans of both factions, before he manages to pull back and recover some of his own humanity. It’s an engaging, enlightening and entertaining performance, conveyed in a prose style equal to the emotions of the time: frequently funny, often sombre, and always slightly absurd.