It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City? Malachi O’Doherty’s ‘The Telling Year’ and Kevin Myers’s ‘Watching the Door’ reviewed

Amidst all of the publicity surrounding recent political developments at Stormont and the promise of a bright new future for Northern Ireland, two journalistic accounts of the early years of the conflict in the province have emerged. Malachi O’Doherty’s The Telling Year and Kevin Myers’s Watching the Door are contextually overlapping autobiographies recounting the lives of two young men trying to carve out a reputation in the media during some of the most subterranean levels of violence that Belfast has witnessed. Although the most casual observer of Northern Irish politics will know to some extent how bad the early 1970s were in the city and beyond, these books still have the ability to shock and appal the reader with their anecdotes about poverty, violence and bigotry. Essentially Belfast plays a central role in both authors’ works and tellingly it is the way in which the city, then in terminal decay, manages to become a central protagonist in each memoir that makes the books personal and fresh, setting them apart from so many other journalistic takes on the ‘Troubles’.

O’Doherty’s book is subtitled Belfast 1972 and while elsewhere in that year West Germany and Poland were renewing diplomatic relations, the conflict in Northern Ireland was about to accelerate exponentially and once again divide communities whose previous polarisation was thawing, albeit incrementally, throughout the 1960s. Just as in The Trouble With Guns, O’Doherty’s nationalist west Belfast community plays an integral role in his writing. Moreover he gives the reader glimpses of how hailing from a political and military stronghold proved to be a double-edged sword. He was privy to first-hand experience of local IRA units but was working for the vehemently anti-Provo The Sunday News and describes the sense that, in the wake of Bloody Friday, the columnist Observer was almost writing directly to him when criticising the actions of the IRA through the residents of west Belfast’s nationalist communities’ need to “dissociate themselves from the men of violence”. It’s this peculiar dynamic of being caught between the worlds of the personal and professional that contributes to the appeal of O’Doherty’s account of 1972. While many journalists reporting on the conflict came to Belfast with little or no previous experience, O’Doherty is very much of the city and at the time was wrestling with perception and professionalism. As is often the case however it is the lesser-known details that make for intriguing reading such as how the city was affected in other ways by the violence. For example O’Doherty recounts the little-known fact that suicide rates decreased as the murder rate went up. Light relief comes at the end of chapter 25 where he describes a secret war being waged on the streets of Belfast: the war between rival factions of hippies – the “Freaks for Ulster had declared war on other freaks for their ‘apathy and indifference’ to the troubles” – well, at least according to soon-to-be local punk legend and music scene guru Terri Hooley who had tipped O’Doherty off about the war after receiving a threat from ‘Freaks for Ulster’!

Whereas O’Doherty’s book describes how Belfast lurched from near-normality into sectarian murder fields, the city in Kevin Myers book acts as an unrelentingly grim stage on which he plays out his professional rites of passage and personal mid-twenties angst. Intriguing nostalgia about the political events of the day, among them tales of accompanying Billy Mitchell and other UVF delegates to County Cavan chime melodically alongside bawdy retellings of his seemingly endless sexual conquests. Depressingly these conquests come across more as grim, meaningless encounters in a city where people had become objects rather than human beings. Myers solemnly recounts “picking up” a young art student in the Bank Bar and unburdening her of her virginity only to be accosted about his misogyny by the tearful student a couple of days later. Myers’s lyrical writing style is conducive to a convincing description of the inner and outer turmoil of living and working in Belfast through the 1970s. The tension hanging over the city played into the hands of Myers’s dystopia and the negativity in the air at the time feeds into his personal recollections – “Nightly I would wake up and hear the silence of the city – for unlike other cities at night, Belfast was almost noiseless. It was waiting. Nobody moved. People lay in their beds, listening to thousands of other people listening. A single noise, a snapping twig, would get an entire multitude of pulses hammering like protesting prisoners with their tin mugs in a cell block.” More than being a mere excavation of the social and political upheaval in Belfast in the 1970s, Myers’s description of his experiences of this time reads as a cathartic exorcising of inner demons, culminating in a positive line from the final chapter where he readily admits “Decades have passed since these events occurred, and I am only able to write this because I am now an extremely contented man…For in time I learnt that despair and unhappiness are mere seasons in your span, which will sooner or later pass.” Sadly for many readers of these books that contentment will never come and trawling through these rich accounts will only deepen pangs of loss and longing. In years to come it may be harder for today’s younger local journalists to produce such fine books without self-aggrandising, but hopefully their tales will include more ‘hippy wars’ and outweigh anecdotes about real war.

Source: The Other View Magazine, Summer 2007

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