Friday, August 14, 2015

Tagged under: ,

We Wrecked The Place & Southside Provisional

Simon Smyth reviews two books about the Northern conflict. Simon Smyth is an incurable book connoisseur.
I enjoy books analysing Irish history and in particular the Troubles.  So when I noticed a favourable mention of We Wrecked the Place by Jonathan Stevenson in a comment on The Pensive Quill.  I was impelled to hunt it down.  One book I avoided was Kieran Conway’s Southside Provisional as I was put off by what I assumed was arrogance and snobbery in the excerpts of the book I read online and in newspapers.  Luckily I read both works (the latter by chance rather than by planning).

The author of We Wrecked the Place, Jonathan Stevenson, wrote for The Times, Newsweek and The Economist.  However, I didn’t let this put me off.  The fact that it is obviously written for the North American market also didn’t put me off as that carries a risk that it has been written for the uninitiated.
We Wrecked the Place is an analysis of the Troubles and in particular a focus on the motivations of the protagonists by using interviews from both Loyalist and Republican sources.  Southside Provisional is a memoir of a middle class Dublin man who was a member of the PIRA from the 1970s onwards.
Stevenson’s book starts off as many intensely flawed books do by producing favourable moments as well as the odd flaw.  However, when in full pelt the author, who seems to be writing in the style of a waffling opinion piece for a badly resourced newspaper, throws caution to the wind littering the book with factual inaccuracy coupled with woeful analysis.  There are a number of excellent comments bordering profundity but they are very few and far between.  Added to that, Stevenson joyfully flaunts his unique ability of being able to know everything behind his interviewees’ thoughts to an extent bordering on clairvoyance.

Conway’s book is a poorly edited one but it is still hugely readable.   A bit like a ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure story in content and style.  It is littered with so many character references a superficial knowledge of the personalities involved is a necessity.  This isn’t a problem as the majority of those named are very well known public faces.  Although it suffers from the absence of a Loyalist point of view the good humoured, bantering writing method is much more revealing than Stevenson’s.  The interviewees’ messages are almost completely lost through Stevenson’s over-analysis and commentary.   Conway’s book is more personally revealing although it is almost akin to gossip.   
Stevenson describes Malcolm Sutton’s book Index of Deaths as ‘the authoritative source on troubles deaths’.   Yet in the same sentence goes on to describe Sutton as ‘taken in by Sinn Fein’s sanitization of the IRA’s modus operandi’.  Stevenson goes on to immediately and baselessly assume that the ‘142 civilians killed during attacks on British Forces or who were mistaken for British Forces’ as being, by definition,  sectarian (all deliberate killings of Protestants).  

One of the ways in which I warmed to Conway was in his no nonsense approach to sectarian killings by the PIRA.  He gives numerous examples of specific incidents and notes how the tendency produced much strain within Republicanism and brought inner conflict to him also.  He notes how with leadership changes, sectarianism was dramatically reduced.  I feel Republicans should be more honest about sectarian murder in the past as this is the first step towards avoiding it in the future. Obviously people were murdered because they were assumed to be Protestant but it wasn’t as widespread as Stevenson would have you believe. 
Throw-away phrases in speech are dissected unnecessarily in We Wrecked the Place without allowance for the fact that people tend to give less thought and care to the spoken word then to the written word:
“The Hunger Strikes literally changed all people’s lives” by Carol Cullen is described as ‘A telling manifestation of Cullen’s insularity. To her, “all people” means Belfast Catholics.’  
Another example is when Tommy Gorman says “At the end of the day, getting the Brits out of the country is wee buns…But it is hard to convince nine hundred thousand loyalists that their destiny lies in a united socialist republic.”  The author explains in a footnote ‘Gorman misspeaks. Like most republicans, he ascribes to all unionists the more militant mindset of the “Loyalist”. The New York Times makes the same error, but Gorman knows better.’
His use of the phrase ‘New Loyalism’ to describe and praise people like David Ervine, John White and Billy Hutchinson who were imprisoned in the 1970s in a patronising all-encompassing way is baffling.  His knowledge of subjective thinking is admirable, “Of all the new loyalists, Hutchinson is the one who has searched his soul the hardest and put it smack dab on the line for his community”.

Conway’s book is refreshing in a gossipy sort of way but he has an unencumbered first hand approach, unshackled by another’s commentary and the only analysis to be had is your own.

What surprised me most was a favourable blurb on the back cover of We Wrecked the Place from the writer J. Bowyer Bell.  If you want to find out for yourself if this book is as good as Bowyer Bell says then go ahead.   Or read Southside Provisional, which is a more enjoyable book which goes to the very heart of one man’s motivation rather than the thinly spread analysis of Stevenson’s.  Bell has a better critical eye than I do.  Just don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Jonathan Stevenson, 1996, We Wrecked The Place. Publisher ~ Free Press. 978-0684827452

Kieran Conway, 2015. Southside Provisional. Publisher ~ Open Press. ISBN: 978-1909895553.


AM said...

This is probably the most widely viewed book review TPQ has carried