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December 14, 2006

Richard D. North looks at two lively memoirs from opposing "traditions" in the Troubles and finds them united in their hatred of the IRA - and their wildness: In Love With A Mad Dog - Jackie Robinson; Watching the Door - Kevin Myers

Posted by Richard D. North

In Love With A Mad Dog
by June Caldwell and Jackie "Legs" Robinson
Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2006
Paperback, £8.99

Watching the Door: A memoir, 1971-1978
by Kevin Myers
Dublin: Lilliput, 2006
Hardback, £14.99

You might not expect it, but these two books are equally likeable and - perhaps a larger surprise - equally picaresque. Put bluntly, the story by the tart-with-a-heart is more civilised than was likely, and the story by the famous broadsheet journalist, more wild.

Jackie "Legs" Robinson drifted into a love affair with Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair in the early 1990's and it lasted for most of that decade, and indeed for a good deal of the time he was in prison for terrorism offences. Johnny was the commander of C Company of the notorious Ulster Defence Association, a.k.a. the Ulster Freedom Fighters, until he was ousted in 2002 and exiled in 2005. Written with what looks like a good deal of help from a seasoned journalist, June Caldwell, the memoir is in part a rather good account of the realities of loyalist sentiment and action of the period, and even of the wider scene.

It makes no excuses for the nastiness of the paramilitaries and especially makes it clear how a ragbag of ex-skinheads and others took to gangster criminality with a will. The book suggests that the IRA skimmed the profits of drug-dealers, whilst the UDA leadership were not only big consumers of drugs, they enjoyed keeping the trade in their own hands. It is a recurrent theme in both these offerings that the IRA was a far more politically astute and accomplished organisation than the loyalist backlash it provoked. Thuggery and opportunism abounded on both sides, but they were nearly all the Protestant hard men had going for them.

It is testimony to her own story-telling that it is long quotations of Jackie herself which really hold the attention. One is left gasping at one of the oldest mysteries on earth: the love seemingly bright and good women will have for men who are many notches below them in the evolutionary scale. It is part of the quality of the book that we are interested in Adair because we have become interested in Jackie. Perhaps every moll could say something like this of their man:

…behind the combat façade was a soft-hearted fun man who was basically very lost. He was treasured by almost everyone at the time and he was addicted to the attention they gave him.
Johnny Adair is widely described as not being very intelligent, and even a bit squeamish. The latter is hard to credit: at the very least he has a sort of barmy, almost hysterical if patchy insouciance about violence. It must all add up to courage of a kind. It is not at all clear how he commanded his "troops" for as long as he did. That said, he is alive and living in Scotland (on benefit, says the Guardian), and has survived plenty of assassination attempts whilst many of his adversaries and competitors are dead. The impression remains: Adair was and is a prat: excitable - manic even - and a chronic prankster. He was also needy: he was loyal neither to his wife Gina nor to Jackie, but he was very demanding of attention from both.

But Adair is not the star of this book: Jackie is. Quite how culpable she is or ought to feel herself is clearly a mystery to her, as it more obviously is to us. At one point she says she was angry enough to offer to bomb the IRA herself, and she was involved in a failed gun-running attempt which may have been heading for exposure by her own family anyway. Mostly she implies that she was too busy hosting wild parties and offering sexual and emotional comfort to her man to be thinking straight about anything. I cannot judge the matter with anything like precision, but Jackie seems like a nice and rather thoughtful person. I fear I was vastly entertained by the descriptions of the good-timing madness of her world. It sounds like it was a mixture of the Soprano's and a Carry On movie.

Kevin Myers is a very different kettle of fish, as we knew already from his columns for the two Telegraph's in London. An Irish Catholic raised in Leicester and at Ratcliffe, the English Catholic boarding school, but something like an honorary Irishman after his undergraduate years in Dublin (a first in History), he admits to rattling with all the prejudices of the liberal elite of that day (the late 1960s) and ours. The IRA had to be sort of all right because they deployed the rhetoric of freedom fighters and socialists.

Much more by happenstance than scheming, he became an RTÉ radio reporter in Belfast in 1971, so his story is twenty years older than Jackie's: it is the much the same story shifted back a generation. He seems still to think the place is a dump, and he endured what seems to have been a decade of rain, the scene set with this sort of thing:

Waters washed in gutters made weary with their flow.
Against this damp and chilly backdrop, though, he was constantly struck by the "unbroken intrepidity" of Belfast people. His own life seems to have gone native: there is solid but desperate drinking, and a hopeless love affair interspersed with madcap adventures, not least with the wives and girlfriends of men whom it would have been terminally unwise to upset. No Casanova ever picked such unpropitious bedsprings to dive under. This is all if possible more entertaining than the account of Jackie's shenanigans. Myers' tone is sometimes heavily sarcastic (or is it ironic?), and these moments aren't good. Worse, really, Myers is sometimes portentous rather than insightful about the violence he has seen, and for which he is pleased to have had a prodigious nose.

There is plenty of sharp writing, though. A corpse (one of many we meet close-up) has a mouth set in the "undertakers' final moue". Violence "sets up a throne" in his mind and from there rules his furtive sleep. Besides, Myers is entitled to be enraged about the sheer awfulness of the Troubles. The loss of friends obviously got to him, and he admits to there being, in part, a therapeutic purpose to writing the book. Indeed, he is valuable because he has never claimed to be fluent or coherent. He freely cites the work of David McKittrick as far more organised: he is appalled, in fact, at how much he has forgotten.

Myers seems to be torn between pride at having been rather good at handling himself, and anxiety that he did not always manage himself well. It's not that he was partisan (though he admits to a silly anti-Establishmentism, long gone), but rather a feeling that he cultivated hard men of every stripe, and even maybe that he too much enjoyed his access to such people. He didn't maintain the distance which might have preserved his well-being. We also have some curious admissions: one concerns the occasion when Myers seems to have put some British officers at risk by publishing details about them. His behaviour - he admits how awful it was - seems amazingly casual if not cavalier, not least considering his own disdain for his profession.

One interesting and peculiar element in his makeup and career is that he positively despises the successful journalists who made their names in North Ireland. He feels them to have been careerist voyeurs, whilst he was living the horrors in a more fully human way. Quite how he squares that with his own later career as a reporter in the former Yugoslavia will have to be the subject of some future memoir. In this one, we have a very good account of a conventional pro-IRA intellectual stance maturing under pressure into a profound loathing of its posturing. He comes across British paratroopers whose behaviour is outrageously bad and must be taken to substantiate the likelihood of the worst things said of them. But he is also constantly amazed at the courage and forbearance of many - perhaps even the majority - of British troops.

Myers claims, and it is the burden of his case against the Republicans, that they were the only people in Northern Ireland who knew what they wanted and knew what they were doing. To that extent, they should have known the forces they were unleashing, whether from paramilitaries or paratroopers. That's why the pain of the Troubles really is their fault.

Myers does not discuss history and politics in quite these terms, but this is the argument which hangs unspoken in his descriptions of hold-ups, ambushes and teenage killers. Myers is writing a memoir, not a history, but his pages reinforce one's loathing of the IRA. Events have shown that not merely was their cause never worth the violence with which it was prosecuted, but the violence backfired. There is nothing on offer now to the Republican movement which could not have been achieved far more quickly without bloodshed.

Belfast has very nearly become a tourist destination, and it is peculiar now to take a taxi tour of the working class areas of the Protestant Shankill and the Catholic Falls estates. They are all quite modern (seeming testimony to the powerful welfare state hereabouts) but the Protestant neighbourhoods are scruffy and the Catholic ones rather smart. This overthrows an old stereotype of Northern Ireland, in which, as Myers notes:

"Protestant-looking" was synonymous with pristine order.
He describes, for instance, the amazing squalor of, say, the Ballymurphy estate (not helped, he says, by repeated Parachute Regiment thumpings), and at times seems almost to echo nineteenth century English commentators in his despair at the chaotic fecklessness of the Catholic peasantry.

Myers reminds us that Catholic boys were educated in Latin and Protestant boys in engineering. And yet it was Republicans who understood revolutionary politics and who became (courtesy, Myers says, of working in the telephone utility) very proficient bombers.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence. In January 2007 the Social Affairs Unit will be publishing his Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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