‘Burning Heresies’: A Memoir of a Life in Conflict 1979 – 2020

Kevin’s Myers’  latest book is a memoir of a life dangerously and daringly lived both on and off the printed page. Despite the title, it is not a cascade of self defence against the signal injustice the author suffered when he was summarily dismissed by The Sunday Times in 2017 on the now thorougly debunked charge of anti-semitism. He recaps the incident at the beginning of this memoir, acknowledges again the careless insensitivity of his words while pointing out that they passed through the usual layers of editorial scrutiny without demur. In fact, the editorial office checked back with him to confirm that he was correct in describing the two BBC presenters he referenced as Jewish. No one at the newspaper detected any trace of anti-semistism.

He does not linger unduly on the subject until he weaves it back into the narrative again in the final chapters as the defining, determining injustice it was and still remains. The body of his story concerns his colourful career since joining The Irish Times in 1979 whether under the oversight of its bullish editor, Douglas Gageby, and his sub-editing minions, or on the many foreign assignments he covered around the world as the theatre of bloody conflict shifted from Belfast to Beirut to Bosnia.  His vivid descriptions of his death defying escapades which led to an abduction and mock execution and a variety of near misses and fortuitous escapes, in both Bosnia and Beirut, vibrate with never to be forgotten terror dampened by the ‘self-induced anaesthesia’ that kicks in when our destiny is catastrophically out of our own hands.  Lightened by self-deprecating witty asides and black humour, he displays the same ability to make words ping as he did in the peppery, punchy columns that made him a household name. He brings a novelist’s touch to the evocation of the moods of places, persons and situations in a globe spanning career.  But this is real life not fiction and many of the journalists he worked beside were killed on future assignments.

Danger was not confined to war coverage. As a guest of the aid agency, Gorta, he visited Kenya, Ethiopia and Panama. In both Africa and Panama he experienced the same ‘self-induced anaesthesia’ in small aircraft under the questionable control of hubristic pilots.  The accounts are hilarious from the perspective of an eventual safe landing in both cases.  In Panama, a blinding, deafening tropical downpour didn’t delay takeoff to the consternation of those on board. The plane’s struggle to ascend was aided by ‘a miraculous wave of upward turbulence which propelled us almost vertically into the sky, before a downward blast sent us plunging ninety feet. Net gain 10 feet. By such stomach churning increments, the plane hauled its way upwards’. A further spike to the drama was added by a hysterical passenger who tried to exit the plane at 5,000 ft. On landing ‘after only four bounces, each twenty feet high’, the bewildered passengers watched in incredulity as the intrepid pilot re-started his engine and charged back into the still ‘cacophonous downpour’. A trip to Japan with its plethora of cross culture clashes is another interlude of comic relief from the harrowing narrative of war.

Probably, his main journalistic interest centered on his dogged campaign to re-set Ireland’s historical narrative and secure fitting commemoration for the thousands of Irish soldiers who perished in two world wars.The campaigns were not popular with ‘Official Ireland’. Until Official Ireland came to see things differently. When that happened there was scant thanks to the man who opened the conversation and had been a lone voice for so long.

But many things have not fundamentally changed, just ‘mutated’. Official Ireland today is for Myers a continuum of the old because both are equally intolerant of those who do not fall into line with the approved currency of opinion. Today that can be characterized as political correctness. There is as much unchallenged hypocrisy,  as many ‘dogmatic pieties’, now as then. Kevin Myers remains an ongoing thorn in the side for the powers in place. His is the rationally contrarian voice that insists on turning over the stones. He offers an inventory of what he calls the ‘herd of elephants’ in the national living room during the early years of the Irish State. For official Ireland back then, they weren’t awkward elephants, more like sacred cows. Myers notes that the sacred cows were frequently beyond the reach not only of public criticism but of accountability before the law. He offers many startling examples like the sacking of a garda who had the temerity to press charges of drunken driving against the Education Minister of the time, Donogh O’ Malley.

As Kevin Myers’ own story reveals, you can still be sacked unjustly. The coalition governments that have now become the norm ensure that any publicly transgressing members will most likely be held to account because no party will waste electoral credit defending another’s misdemeanors. However, their shared and shameless profligacy, the bloated, cosseted public sector that benchmark their privileges, the mutated and institutionalised cronyism of quangos and advisory groups, the lack of accountability of public sector employees, the cancel culture that has replaced the old censorship, are the new herd of elephants and journalists like Kevin Myers are needed more than ever to make them visible. Most flagrant of all perhaps is the scandal of the cash strapped national broadcaster RTE brazenly using taxpayers money to defend well grounded defamation charges such as the ‘holocaust denier’ smear against Kevin Myers. Late last year they agreed a substantial settlement. As Myers observes, RTE put their art collection up for auction the same month that their settlement with him was announced but no one in the media saw fit ‘to join the dots’. The mean-spiritedness of choosing 8.54am on a Friday morning news broadcast to read the apology (later deleted from the podcast) which was a condition of the settlement, so as to bury the news as much as possible was another twist in the knife for the grossly traduced journalist and a contrast with the way the false allegations led every news bulletin three years previously, even pushing a North Korean missile launch into second place.

Does the book reveal the author had some hand in his own persecution ? The provocative, reader baiting headlines that  were used to fuel the fires of indignation against him were the work of sub-editors as is normal newspaper practice. Arguably, he did leave the occasional hostage to feminist outrage such as his ‘mother of bastards’ quip in one article. But verbal restraint would not have saved him as anyone who expresses his views with more caution will attest.  The feminists in the National Women’s Council of Ireland were apparently unperturbed when Dr Ali Selim of the Irish Islamic Culural Centre defended female genital mutilation on Prime Time while they ’roundly denounced’ Myers for his article.  Why wasn’t Dr Ali Selim fortrighy denounced for such blatant misogyny? One might speculate that his views didn’t pose any threat to the Women’s Council of Ireland while the latter are exactly the kind of self-promoting lobby that Kevin Myers was wont to have in his line of sight and fire.

We hear a lot about the silence of Official Ireland back in the bad old days of censorship and cover-up. Not a lot has changed when a fine writer and thinker like Kevin Myers can be falsely denounced by the great and good and when vindication makes no difference. Now as then, as he says, ‘cowardice is the main constituent of consensus’.

 

  •  Paperback | 304 pages
  •  153 x 226 x 27.94mm | 430.91g
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  •  Dublin 4, Ireland
  •  English
  •  1785372610

 


 

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