Anthony McIntyre 🔖 If I were to tell someone that this is not a book to be recommended, they might ask why I read it in two days. 


Since I have been reading Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East by Stephen G. Fritz for months on a commute to and from Dublin, I am not the type to rush my reading. On public transport, I switch off, bag the Kindle or hard copy, listen to podcasts or audio crime fiction, occasionally music, make calls, take calls. Completing Living With Ghosts so speedily was down to the irresistible pull of its pages.

My wife sometimes says to me that reading Barney Rowan is like watching the dance of the seven veils and she wishes he would get to the point. There is that element to his writing, but I wonder if it is writing style or a writing strategy. I think the latter. Rowan tends to circle the core before zooming in. This might be residual from the days when he had to meet dangerous characters in haunts he was not entirely comfortable with, all the while trying to ensure that other dangerous people were not tracking him to find out who he was meeting with. Walking in the shadows for so long can tend to lighten the tread, the soles of the feet become cat paws, caution the watchword.

Whatever the reason for the manner of writing, its furtiveness accentuates the grey atmosphere of the book. There are people who can tell a story for others to read and there are people who can tell a story for others to feel. Regarding Northern conflict literature, the pace setter for those who seek to be drawn into a book has been Patrick Radden Keefe with his hauntingly brilliant Say Nothing. Barney Rowan tells a different type of story, but it never fails to strike you, seeping through the outer barriers, much like persistent rain on a miserable day. You always feel it getting through.

Some books we read, and others read us. They seem to know how to hit the buttons that prompt shudders, shivers and flashbacks. Living With Ghosts is such a book.

It is not a tell all account of everything and everyone the author met as a security correspondent with the BBC. People in that business never feel comfortable enough to reveal all they know. Even if they think the public should know - which Barney Rowan clearly does - his working life has been so intermeshed in unwritten but inviolable understandings about confidentiality and source protection, that the full monty is just not going to happen.

Ceasefires, negotiations, informers, spooks, IRA, UVF, UDA, bits of paper, hurried phone calls, family holidays upended, corpses at the side of the road, broken bodies in the midst of rubble - all standard fare for the author.

Weaved throughout this book is a detectable humanitarian streak. Living With Ghosts is not the writing of a hard-nosed hack, but of one clearly shaken by the bloody water that has passed under the bridge and where the memories of such are still strong. The personal friendship established between the author and David Ervine, the pints swallowed, the lost phone in Ervine’s garden, illustrates a broader theme - that people matter above all else. 

The book perhaps will work most effectively on those who have buttons to be pressed. They, rather than those with no memory of the events, can experience the constant stream of flashbacks that assail the mind from one page to the next.

If I were to find something to gripe about – it wouldn’t be unlike me – it would be Rowan's take that the IRA fought its way to a stalemate, and realising such then moved to create a fair solution. The bitter truth is that the IRA fought its way to failure and a compromise that even amazed British hands-on diplomat Jonathan Powell, stunned at how little the Provisional leadership settled for given the war it had prosecuted. 

Barney Rowan’s closing argument for an amnesty for all conflict related actions places him firmly outside the box. While agreeing with him I am not sure his proposal will work. It requires the willingness of those with the knowledge to be amenable to sharing it. This is like trying to get an apple to float upwards once dropped from the hand. Truth will come in spite of many combatants on all sides, not because of them. Their self-interest and survival instinct renders them an immoveable object able to evade an unstoppable search for truth. Reputations, political careers and a sense of how they wish to be remembered have all become anchors to ensure truth will never spin out of their orbit and that in place there will only be spin.

The thing about war is just what Bertrand Russell said of it: "War does not determine who is right – only who is left”, a sentiment the author of this book is unlikely to resile from. Excellent read, but just not before you go to bed. The flashbacks that occur reading it are a warning to only pick it up early in the morning.

Brian Rowan, 2022, Living with Ghosts: The Inside Story from a Troubles Mind. Merrion Press. ISBN-13: ‎978-1785374036

🕮 Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.

Living With Ghosts

Anthony McIntyre 🔖 If I were to tell someone that this is not a book to be recommended, they might ask why I read it in two days. 


Since I have been reading Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East by Stephen G. Fritz for months on a commute to and from Dublin, I am not the type to rush my reading. On public transport, I switch off, bag the Kindle or hard copy, listen to podcasts or audio crime fiction, occasionally music, make calls, take calls. Completing Living With Ghosts so speedily was down to the irresistible pull of its pages.

My wife sometimes says to me that reading Barney Rowan is like watching the dance of the seven veils and she wishes he would get to the point. There is that element to his writing, but I wonder if it is writing style or a writing strategy. I think the latter. Rowan tends to circle the core before zooming in. This might be residual from the days when he had to meet dangerous characters in haunts he was not entirely comfortable with, all the while trying to ensure that other dangerous people were not tracking him to find out who he was meeting with. Walking in the shadows for so long can tend to lighten the tread, the soles of the feet become cat paws, caution the watchword.

Whatever the reason for the manner of writing, its furtiveness accentuates the grey atmosphere of the book. There are people who can tell a story for others to read and there are people who can tell a story for others to feel. Regarding Northern conflict literature, the pace setter for those who seek to be drawn into a book has been Patrick Radden Keefe with his hauntingly brilliant Say Nothing. Barney Rowan tells a different type of story, but it never fails to strike you, seeping through the outer barriers, much like persistent rain on a miserable day. You always feel it getting through.

Some books we read, and others read us. They seem to know how to hit the buttons that prompt shudders, shivers and flashbacks. Living With Ghosts is such a book.

It is not a tell all account of everything and everyone the author met as a security correspondent with the BBC. People in that business never feel comfortable enough to reveal all they know. Even if they think the public should know - which Barney Rowan clearly does - his working life has been so intermeshed in unwritten but inviolable understandings about confidentiality and source protection, that the full monty is just not going to happen.

Ceasefires, negotiations, informers, spooks, IRA, UVF, UDA, bits of paper, hurried phone calls, family holidays upended, corpses at the side of the road, broken bodies in the midst of rubble - all standard fare for the author.

Weaved throughout this book is a detectable humanitarian streak. Living With Ghosts is not the writing of a hard-nosed hack, but of one clearly shaken by the bloody water that has passed under the bridge and where the memories of such are still strong. The personal friendship established between the author and David Ervine, the pints swallowed, the lost phone in Ervine’s garden, illustrates a broader theme - that people matter above all else. 

The book perhaps will work most effectively on those who have buttons to be pressed. They, rather than those with no memory of the events, can experience the constant stream of flashbacks that assail the mind from one page to the next.

If I were to find something to gripe about – it wouldn’t be unlike me – it would be Rowan's take that the IRA fought its way to a stalemate, and realising such then moved to create a fair solution. The bitter truth is that the IRA fought its way to failure and a compromise that even amazed British hands-on diplomat Jonathan Powell, stunned at how little the Provisional leadership settled for given the war it had prosecuted. 

Barney Rowan’s closing argument for an amnesty for all conflict related actions places him firmly outside the box. While agreeing with him I am not sure his proposal will work. It requires the willingness of those with the knowledge to be amenable to sharing it. This is like trying to get an apple to float upwards once dropped from the hand. Truth will come in spite of many combatants on all sides, not because of them. Their self-interest and survival instinct renders them an immoveable object able to evade an unstoppable search for truth. Reputations, political careers and a sense of how they wish to be remembered have all become anchors to ensure truth will never spin out of their orbit and that in place there will only be spin.

The thing about war is just what Bertrand Russell said of it: "War does not determine who is right – only who is left”, a sentiment the author of this book is unlikely to resile from. Excellent read, but just not before you go to bed. The flashbacks that occur reading it are a warning to only pick it up early in the morning.

Brian Rowan, 2022, Living with Ghosts: The Inside Story from a Troubles Mind. Merrion Press. ISBN-13: ‎978-1785374036

🕮 Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks AM. Great review.
    However right now I think I'll take your advice ... and long finger it for when the days are brighter.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. it will be worth the effort for an effortless read - pardon the paradox!

      Delete
    2. Sure, I get/got that from the review.

      There's a copy of 'The Yank' awaiting collection in the local bookshop, maybe then.
      (As you know, I got the free-travel pass and pension a few months back and I've become rather judicious about what I watch, what I read and what I create for myself each day: a surprisingly pleasant phase).

      Delete
    3. When I watch The Old Man, I will think of you after that admission!!

      Delete