Belfast Telegraph

Lost Lives book a decade-long labour of love for five authors

Lost Lives writers (from left) Brian Feeney, David McVea, David McKittrick, Chris Thornton and Seamus Kelters
Lost Lives writers (from left) Brian Feeney, David McVea, David McKittrick, Chris Thornton and Seamus Kelters
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

In a special display in a Belfast city centre book store, there are more publications about the Troubles for sale than even the most assiduous of readers could probably read in a lifetime.

Eason's has gathered the collection together to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the conflict.

But there's one rather hulking elephant which isn't in the room.

And that's one of the most impressive and comprehensive books ever written about the Troubles - Lost Lives.

It details, in over a million words, the stories behind every one of the 3,700 deaths during three decades of the horror.

The book is out of print now and with the firm that published it going out of business there's little likelihood that it will ever return to the retailers' shelves.

On the internet however a flourishing second-hand market has grown up around the book with copies on offer from anywhere between a few hundred pounds to over a thousand.

"We all regard that as a shame and a disgrace which goes against the spirit of the book," said David McKittrick, one of the five-strong team who produced Lost Lives.

"We all went into it with no expectations of making money. The intention was to do good so the idea that people are making money out of our book is horrendous to us."

At one point a new publisher expressed interest in a reprint but decided it wouldn't be feasible.

But now Lost Lives has found a new concept as a movie. A 'who's who' of 18 Northern Irish actors have recorded stories for a movie made by the Belfast based DoubleBand Films company.

David McKittrick found it a compelling but difficult watch.

But he said it has done justice to the book which was produced by him, David McVea, the late Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton, the producer of the new BBC NI series, Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History.

The seeds for the book were first sewn in the early 1990s when the writers started with a completely blank canvas, with no files, no publisher and basically no idea about where their journey might lead them.

They thought it might take them a couple of years to get their book into print but in the end the research and writing took over a decade, during which time the original team recruited dozens of people, including another 15 journalists, to help them.

David said the original plan had been to record just a line about each death.

"We became engrossed and we starting collecting more files and more information and it turned into one of the most worthwhile things that I have ever done, growing and growing all the time into a huge book," he said.

"There was nobody in charge and a great camaraderie developed between us. We were driven by a shared vision and desire."

Seamus Kelters, who worked for the BBC, is acknowledged as a major driving force behind the book, bolstering spirits if they were flagging. "Seamus was so funny, so dedicated," said David. "He set the tone for us all and he refused to give up on the search for a publisher."

No fewer than 50 companies were approached but the response was almost universally discouraging with some saying the book was "going to be like a Bible and was going to cost at least £30".

"They asked who was going to buy it and we said 'not many'," revealed David.

Eventually Mainstream Publishing in Edinburgh agreed to take a massive financial gamble to bring out the book.

David said sales were good north of the border but virtually non-existent in the south.

"I doubt if we have sold 100 copies in the Republic. People there don't seem to be interested at all, as in so many aspects of our lives," he said.

With the last update of the book in 2008, a number of killings have not been recorded for posterity in Lost Lives and probably never will be. Any lingering thoughts that the book could be revived were shattered by the death of Seamus Kelters two years ago.

But the new feature length film has ensured that Lost Lives will live on. DoubleBand Films had been keen to do something with the book but David McKittrick, who had worked as a consultant with them on a number of occasions, said he couldn't envisage how anyone could turn Lost Lives into a film or TV programme.

Eventually Dermot Lavery and Michael Hewitt came up with a proposal, concentrating on 18 deaths for their 90-minute production, utilising what David said are "powerful and sometimes quite shocking images" from the Troubles to accompany the narratives from actors such as Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt and Sir Kenneth Branagh.

The authors didn't have a direct say on which of their stories would be included, but when they saw a rough cut of the movie they were satisfied.

The writers' approach to compiling the stories for Lost Lives had been to keep them dispassionate and non-judgmental and they resolved not to use the word 'murder' but rather the word 'death'.

However David acknowledges that the film is "very passionate".

"It's coming from a very different angle from the book," he said.

"It shows explosions and other disturbing images. There are parts which will shock but hopefully the film will underline the message that there mustn't be any more lives lost to the Troubles here."

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