We are delighted to present an extract from Burning Heresies: A Memoir of a Life in Conflict 1979-2020, by award-winning journalist, Kevin Myers, published by Merrion Press.
Burning Heresies sees the author, fresh from the horrors of 1970's Belfast, taking a job in 1979 with The Irish Times. He brilliantly evokes the comical chaos of life in the smoky newsroom of Ireland's paper-of-record and the fascinating cast of characters that worked there. Having taken over An Irishman's Diary, Myers single-handedly pioneered the campaign to rehabilitate the memory of forgotten Irish soldiers of the Great War, and in the process fell foul of the paper's editor, the legendary Douglas Gageby. His reward was plane tickets to more perilous assignments as Myers was back on the frontline of European warzones, as communism collapsed and civil wars emerged.
I wandered around Hamra. Street cafés were open, and I sat down and ordered a coffee. A lorryload of Palestinian fighters went past the café and then stopped fifty yards away. I watched them deploy, left and right, around the café. Ah, it looked as if I might have a story. An officer with a sidearm on his hip came up to me. He unholstered his pistol and pointed it at me.
Ah. I was the story.
I begin to explain. He cocks his pistol, the slide of the Makarov 9mm putting a round in the chamber, a deed that invariably commands instant obedience. I rise, and the officer leads me out. I am motioned onto the back of the lorry, and I get up. Beside me is a boy aged about fourteen. He has a tiny holster on his hip, containing an even tinier gun. He smiles at me in welcome. I sit down beside him. He smiles at me again, and then, with his hand, imitates drawing the gun from its holster, putting it to my head, and says 'Kaput'.
The men around us laugh, and one of them speaks to the boy, who seems to obey by producing a real pistol from his holster. I am not an expert in these things, but it is, I think, a two-shot Derringer. It is not a battlefield weapon, and it has only one purpose.
We drive to a series of fine waterfront houses, and I am escorted up some steps into one, then downstairs to a basement, where groups of armed men are standing. They look at me coldly. I am ushered into another room, where I am made to sit at a table. The boy puts a chair next to mine. He places two fingers to his own temple, pulls an imaginary trigger, and says ‘Poof’. Everyone laughs. I look him up and down. He clearly has an erection. For him, this is sex.
I am in deep, deep trouble.
They empty my pockets of everything. One of my captors speaks English.
‘Why are you spying for Isra-el?’
Isra-el: not a diphthong, but two distinct vowel sounds, as in the Christmas carol of long, long ago, to rhyme with Emmanuel.
‘I am not spying for Israel. I’m an Irish journalist. I’m here to report on what the wicked Israelis are doing to the people of Lebanon.’
‘Of course. What else would you say?’
The boy beside me shifts keenly, his eyes wide and shining, the warm liquids of adolescent lust simmering: am I to be his murder-virginity? Making his bones is how the Sicilian mafia describe this dreadful rite of murderous passage. For the first time, I understand the full meaning of the phrase.
My interrogator stares at me coldly. His fellow judges do likewise: three sets of eyes, gazing implacably at me.
‘Have you ever been to Israel?’ ‘Never! Never! The Irish people hate Israel. They hate colonialism!’ ‘Really? But your passport says you were born in England. You’re English. And your name is Jewish. Myer,’ his lips shaping the final sound with fastidious distaste.
‘My family emigrated! Under penal laws,’ I improvised, ‘the Irish had to change their names from Irish names to English names. Our Irish name was Ó Midhir.’
All rubbish, of course.
He is holding my wallet, removing various receipts and pieces of paper and currencies. And suddenly, there in his hand, is the American Express counterfoil for my flight from Tel Aviv to Athens. He never takes his eyes off me as he fingers this potentially lethal piece of evidence, and neither do the two other judges. He puts the guilt- screaming receipt on the table, still without realising its significance. There, the folded piece of paper lazily uncoils to reveal the four cerulean letters, El Al, before rocking this way and that, silently urging my captors TO LOOK AT IT!
‘You seem nervous.’
‘I am nervous. I’ve been kidnapped. I’m being held by armed men and I’ve no idea who you are. I have this lunatic child beside me who clearly wants to kill me. Who wouldn’t be nervous?’
The judge translates, and everyone laughs except the boy, who says something and glares at me.
The main interrogator speaks sharply to him, then turns to me. ‘He is young and keen to kill the enemy, as is right.’?‘Good. But I am not the enemy.’
‘Maybe, maybe not.’
On the table, the El Al/Amex counterfoil still sways gently from the restless energy imparted into its molecules when I had folded it so carefully five days previously. Beside me is my teenage killer, apparently aroused by the prospect of an execution accompanied by ejaculation. I know these things can be related: William Manchester has described how he underwent the two experiences when he killed a Japanese soldier. But if the boy takes his eyes off me, he will surely see those four blue letters as the receipt slowly unfolds.
I am now as alert as a violin string, which is why I instantly know what is happening when the entire building and everything in it shifts minutely, whoosh, and I sense the downward arrival of a wall of compressed air. A bomb landing. A microsecond later ...
A shattering roar sweeps through the basement, upsetting the table. A man comes rushing in from outside and bellows something to my interrogator. The familiar din of an anti-aircraft cannonade begins to bark deafeningly from the back.
CLATTER CLATTER CLATTER ...
... BOOM BOOM BOOM as a line of bombs falls along the street above.
The men around me rise hastily, reaching for weapons, then begin to rush outside
‘You can go,’ barks my judge.
‘May I take my papers?’
He waves a dismissive hand.
I scoop up everything, the El Al receipt especially. Everyone else hurries out into the rear, while I run back the way we had entered, up the stairs to the hall. The front door has been blown in, and there’s rubble everywhere. Outside, a line of cars has been tossed upside down, and their scattered hulks are burning furiously. High overhead, the Israeli bombers are coming in for another pass. I screw up the El Al counter- foil and throw it into a burning car before sprinting away.
Burning Heresies: A Memoir of a Life in Conflict 1979-2020 (published by Merrion Press) is out now and available to purchase here.