Book Review

Then and now

It was my birthday yesterday. I remembered the second my three-year old burst into my room at 06:52 carrying a bag of presents she helpfully opened on my behalf. As well as the mobile digital radio that will help to make those interminable journeys to one of London’s terminals just that little bit more bearable, a giant Galaxy Easter egg and a ‘World’s Best Dad’’ mug, I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Brian Keenan’s book, “An Evil Cradling”.

I’m genetically incapable of delivering a book review that doesn’t read like a cliché-ridden, Reader’s Digest article. So I won’t even bother trying and settle instead for describing Keenan’s book as a real page-turner……

See what I mean?

I am a sucker for tales about prison, confinement and assaults on the human spirit. It was TheCount of Monte Cristo as a kid and Darkness at Noon during my adolescence (the only book I have ever read more than once, cover-to-cover). I’ve only made my way through the first 100 pages of Keenan’s account of his 4-and-a-half years in captivity, but his narrative grips as only Koestler did 20 years previously. The retelling of his descent into near madness is truly terrifying. His sense of personal despair leaps out from the pages, and I can only imagine how much worse this will become once he starts to share a radiator with that big, boring, bearded God botherer, Waite.

As if the Lebanon connection were not topical enough, Keenan uses the first couple of chapters to talk about the life he was leaving behind in his hometown of Belfast. Keenan is of working-class Protestant stock and he produces a handful of paragraphs of staggering clarity that shine a spotlight on the moral bankruptcy of armed struggle, and lay bare the absurdity of religious prejudice and sectarian strife. Given the current impasse in Northern Ireland, it ought to be required reading for politicians of all persuasions.

On the off-chance one of them happens by this blog, here’s what Keenan wrote 13 years ago, as he recalled his preparations to swap Belfast for Beirut:

For years I would not let the dark gods of religion and politics possess me. Unlike many of my age and background, I had made that mythic leap and crossed the Jordan. My Protestant working-class background and all its shibboleths would not contain me. I chose to ask questions and would not accept ready made answers. We discover our own answers if we have the will to do so; and if we are not afraid of the confrontation with ourselves that such a journey might entail.

I am grateful for my particular background. I will not call it Protestant or Loyalist or British, for they are terms barely adequate to describe my understanding or perspective. The oft-quoted adage comes to mind: ‘power concedes nothing without a struggle.’ There are those who ‘cross the Jordan’ and seek out truth through a different experience from the one they are born to, and theirs is the greatest struggle. To move from one cultural ethos into another, as I did, and emerge embracing them both demands more of a man than any armed struggle. For here is the real conflict by which we move into manhood and maturity. For unless we know how to embrace the other we are not men and our nationhood is willful and adolescent. Those who struggle through turbulent Jordan waters have gone beyond the glib definitions of politics or religion. The rest remain standing on either bank firing guns at one another. I had had enough of gun-fire, the rhetoric of hate and redundant ideologies.

If you have a long flight coming up, missed this book the first time around and have been feeling sorry for yourself recently, you could do a lot worse.