It really doesn’t take much to slip from our Western certainties and comforts to unalloyed savagery. I’m not talking about psychoislamicism here (for example, the two Michaels, Adebolajo and Adebowale), but “our” own kind.
When The Knife was growing up, Northern Ireland was in the news, every day, relentlessly. When I finally visited Belfast, it was exceedingly hard to work out what all the fuss had been about. How did such a small, and fairly unappealing place (the weather is dreadful) cause so much aggro? I understand tribalsim and religious sectarianism reasonably well, being of English/Irish Catholic stock myself, but really, how come?
Actually, there are lots of similar examples of a rapid descent into extreme violence. Try reading the legendary Devil’s Guard and work out whether or not it’s true or not. Likewise the gripping Guy Sajer book, The Forgotten Soldier. Though to be fair, both of these books come from out-and-out warzones.
The real shocker is when it’s the same stuff, but in our own streets. An ex-soldier of my acquaintance told me how he never minded killing the IRA, but in Gulf 1 he and his buddies gave the Iraqi conscripts a chance to run away. He’d seen just how bad the IRA could get. Which brings me to Kevin Myers’ truly mesmerising Watching The Door: Cheating death in 1970’s Belfast.
Myers, now in comfortable middle age, is still a superb journalist and writer. Back then he cheerfully admits to entering the “Norn Iron” maelstrom without any real clue – at the outset – as to what was going on. It nearly destroyed him. The book is pretty graphic about the now cliched banality of evil. If you combine it with the NI stuff in Michael Burleigh’s Blood and Rage, you end up with the overriding impression that ordinary people in the UK – me and you – can become vicious killers with remarkable ease. Is there anyone in WW2 who behaved with more brutality than the Shankill Butchers, to take one example? None of this is new, it’s just history repeating itself.
Anyway, the point of this blogpost is only partly an unoriginal reflection on fallen man. Trusting people to behave well given the chance doesn’t necessarily work, a theme which stretches from Thomas Hobbes all the way to what happens when you topple a dictator. The other point is to promote Myers’ book. It’s a memoir of a time, rather than an autobiography, and aside from the unflinching crazed violence by people the author actually came to know very well, it’s funny, filthy, and evokes the grim 70’s with terrific authenticity.
It also contains one of the funniest jokes I’ve heard (page 133, hardback).
Typical bloody Irish.