Kevin Myers, A Single Headstrong Heart – Review: A memoir of self-reproach
Carlo Gébler finds much to praise in the journalist’s second volume of autobiography
Kevin Myers at launch of his new book A Single Headstrong Heart at The Little Museum of Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
A Single Headstrong Heart
Kevin Myers is a journalist with a reputation as a combative contrarian. He was in Belfast in the 1970s and wrote a great bleak memoir about the experience, Watching the Door. He has now written a prequel to that memoir, an account of his early life, A Single Headstrong Heart.
The author’s father, William George, was the son of an RIC policeman. He was educated by the Christian Brothers in Synge Street, Dublin. He became a doctor. At the Royal College of Surgeons he met Harry, son of a Dr Teevan, and through Harry, Harry’s sister, Norah, who, as the daughter of a doctor was obviously perfect wife material for a would-be doctor.
William and Norah married in June 1936 and William found work “as the northside doctor to the Dublin Tramways & Bus Company”. Three children followed. Then came the war. Norah’s younger brother, Kevin, joined the British Army and died of polio awaiting embarkation for Burma. The death notice in The Irish Times gave William and Norah’s Dublin address as the dead man’s.
Shortly after this the Dublin Tramway Company was nationalised and Dr Myers, because of the death notice, lost his job. His position went to the newly graduated son-in-law of the minister for agriculture. He was, he realised, not just unemployed but unemployable and had no choice now but to decamp to England, mid-war, which he did. He eventually settled with Norah in Leicester, had three more children on top of the three he already had, including the author, Kevin, born Palm Sunday, March 30th, 1947, and was a well-regarded GP for the rest of his life.
Having covered the Myerses’ enforced emigration, the author’s focus thereafter is his Leicester and English life. His position, vis-à-vis his hosts, is largely positive. As he sees it, the English made room for the Myerses, treated them decently enough, and didn’t persecute them. He’s grateful for that.
However, what he does not forgive, and his rage in this respect is unstinting, is the awfulness of absolutely everything in England in the fifties and sixties including the toilet paper, the plumbing, the heating, the food, the clothes, the weather, the cars, the holidays, and so on and so forth.
None of Myers’ strictures are new. English writers from DH Lawrence to EM Foster to Philip Larkin have made similar complaints. The book’s USP of course is that the prosecutor here is the scion of an Irish middle-class family and an outsider. He’s not English. He sounds English but he isn’t and what’s more he knows he isn’t. He has another point of reference, another allegiance, albeit it’s well hidden: it’s Ireland and Irishness.
Given the family’s unhappy history, the author’s Hibernophilia comes as a surprise. Where did this come from? Well, despite everything, some came from his parents, augmented by input from his relatives in Ireland and osmosis. Most, however, came from his Catholicism. The Myerses, you see, were properly pious and the author’s schooling (other than two years at Wyggeston, a Protestant grammar school) was a proper hardcore Catholic education, culminating with Ratcliffe College, a minor English public school, which had a high percentage of children from Irish Catholic families.
Myers’ early experience of Catholicism, and this is another USP, was mostly positive. Until puberty, which came late, he was a believer. Then hormones and boy crushes began to undermine his faith. These, however, did not destroy it. That work was done by his Catholic school masters: their hypocrisy, sharp practice, double-dealing, shoddiness and conscious cruelty sundered Myers from the church when he was a sixth former, as he describes in painful detail.
Like Irish state cronyism, like English culture, the Church comes out of this book very badly and Myers argues the case for the prosecution against them, as he does the case against the previous two, with real gusto. However, his fiercest invective he reserves for the fourth culprit and principal offender in this story – himself.
According to his own account, and one believes him, young Myers was thoughtless, callous and heartless. As evidence he cites his wholly unsympathetic reaction to his father’s nervous breakdowns that occurred throughout his adolescence and which culminated with a final rupture between father and son, for which the author accepts total responsibility, shortly after which Dr William died without their ever speaking again.
It’s one thing to indict a new state, a national culture or a religion. It’s another to anatomise one’s deficiencies and, in addition, accept complete responsibility for them. But it’s quite something else (the book’s third USP by my reckoning) to combine these various elements in to one organic whole, as the author does.
And by combining his separate angers in the way he does, Myers gives his book more heft, of course. He also makes himself appear more reasonable by attacking all targets rather than just the one for the very simple reason that of course it wasn’t just one thing that was at fault (it never is) but everything.
The book, finally, is remarkable because of the surprise the author pulls off at the end – and it really is a surprise. He gets through the whole story of his hideous relationship with his father, his annihilating guilt on account of his treatment of his father, his gradual acceptance of his own malfeasance, and his eventual maturation into a half-bearable human being, and then, having reached what should be the natural end, he reveals something his father was involved in as a young man but about which he never spoke when he was alive, that Kevin Myers only rumbled years after his father’s death, and that as a reader you are completely unprepared for. The author then argues (and the argument seems plausible) that his father’s breakdowns more than likely were the result of this dark secret. The result of the final addition is to turn a pretty good book into a book that really is considerably more than the sum of its considerable parts, as well as being a book about which it can be said, with accuracy, it really does contain the completely unexpected.
Carlo Gébler teaches at the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing. His latest work is The Wing Orderly’s Tales (New Island)