Frank McCourt and Angela’s Ashes

Frank McCourt loved “smart-ass English authors” like Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh but his favourite was PG Wodehouse, he says in this video. More interesting is what he says about poverty:

We were ashamed. My mother was ashamed of being poor.The poor were ashamed of being poor. You don’t come out of the slum walking tall like they do in the movies, fighting, no, you don’t.You slink out and you are furtive..

You have a sense of hopelessness. But you are dreaming of getting out of that slum. You look up the lane, at the top of the lane, you say, ‘Someday I will go up there and go down to the railway station and  I will never come back.’ That’s what kept us going. But the shame was powerful and it takes you years and years and years to get over. Whatever damage you suffer  in childhood or adolescence takes an awfully long time to heal.

Like Charles Dickens, he wrote memorably about growing up poor. Angela’s Ashes is a deeply moving book. 

But there were those who said not all of it was true, as this video shows. McCourt lost his cool during this television show when he was accused of lying in his book. Finally a woman in the audience turned on the accuser and accused him of lying. The Limerick Blogger has more details about this incident and the accuser, Gerard Hannan, who is also mentioned in an Associated Press report headlined: Even in death, McCourt’s Ashes divides Limerick.

I don’t have the book with me but looked it up online when the BBC reported today that McCourt had died at the age of 78. It begins beautifully, with pitch-perfect tone and vivid imagery:

When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than  the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. 

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred years.

Above all, we were wet.

Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges. It provoked cures galore; to ease the catarrh you boiled onions in milk blackened with pepper; for the congested passages you made a paste of boiled flour and nettles, wrapped it in a rag, and slapped it, sizzling, on the chest.

From October to April the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp.Clothes never dried; tweed and woollen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations. In pubs steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whiskey and tinged with the odour of piss wafting in from the outdoor jakes where many a man puked up his week’s wages.

The rain drove us into the church — our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in damp clumps, dozing through priest drone, while steam rose again to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flowers and candles.

Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain.

(Update: Just heard a recording of the author reading out this entire passage on the BBC World Service’s Newshour programme.).

McCourt returned to America at the age of 19, was drafted into the army during the Korean war and spent 30 years teaching English and creative writing in New York before coming out with Angela’s Ashes in 1996. I don’t have the vaguest memory of its sequel, ‘Tis, but Angela’s Ashes is a classic, which won the 1997 Pulitzer prize for biography or autobiography.


It was a remarkable achievement – an award-winning bestselling first book by a retiree. But as a teacher he had already impressed his students with his creative writing course.

The Baltimore Sun recalls “his wildly popular teaching style at Manhattan’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School, where McCourt would push students beyond the standard creative writing exercises by asking them to compose each other’s obituaries, write excuse notes from Adam and Eve to God, or read from a cookbook as if it were poetry. Many of his students went on to successful careers in journalism and publishing.” It adds:

Paul Golub, now the editorial director of Times Books at New York publisher Henry Holt & Co., says he was not one of those students who remained personally close to McCourt, but his experience taking McCourt’s creative writing course at Stuyvesant in fall 1979 remained unforgettable.
“The class was always hilarious and one exercise I remember was McCourt asking us to write about what we had for dinner last night,” Golub said. “He wasn’t interested in the typical vague writing but understood that everything was details, details, details — who bought the chicken, who cooked it, how it was cooked. He would make us read Mimi Sheraton’s restaurant reviews in The New York Times so that we could conceive of the idea of writing descriptively about food. It was in Mr. McCourt’s class that I first heard that mashed potatoes could be ‘satiny.’ Before I took Mr. McCourt’s class, my writing was very laboured. But after he was done with me my writing was fluid and less self-conscious. He liberated me to become myself.”

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