Monday, July 20, 2009

Frank McCourt, R.I.P.

Well, it usually takes a death or something equally terminal to rouse me from my extended summer silence, and it saddens me to report on the untimely exit of Frank McCourt, one of my favourite Irish writers - dammit, one of my favourite writers, full stop.

He is probably best known as the author of Angela's Ashes, but I actually preferred 'Tis, the touching story of his first faltering footsteps as a teacher in a foreign land. Here's what I wrote about him a few years back...


Well, the other day I spotted one of the [Irish] authors’ works in my local bookshop, and I bought myself a fine book entitled ‘Tis, by Frank McCourt. It’s a delight from start to finish, I must say, written in a pacey style which is almost stream-of-consciousness. What’s more, it’s a must-read for all Teflers, as it chronicles the poor fellow’s shambolic teaching career as an immigrant in a foreign land (in this case, the USA).

I won’t spoil it for you, but let me just say there are several moments, exquisitely described, that I could empathise with immediately – teaching (or not) with a large hangover, ditching the course book in favour of something more (un)suitable, and trying to motivate a room full of testosterone-charged teenagers to study English.

Even better, there are several quite moving scenes too, but I’ll limit myself to illustrating just one. In a quiet moment during a class test, the rookie teacher Frank starts rooting around in some cupboards at the back of the classroom…

[I] find them stuffed with old grammar books, newspapers, exams, and hundreds of pages of uncorrected student compositions going back to 1942. I’m about to dump everything in the trash till I start reading the old compositions…

I pile the crumbling papers on my desk and begin reading to my classes. They sit up. There are familiar names. 'Hey, that was my father – he was wounded in Africa'. - 'Hey, that was my uncle Sal, who was killed in Guam'...

While I read the essays aloud there are tears. Boys run from the room to the toilets and return red-eyed. Girls weep openly and console each other… Dozens of Staten Island and Brooklyn families are named in these papers, so brittle we worry they’ll fall apart. They are suddenly interested in compositions with the title ‘My Life’, and I want to say, "See what you can learn about your fathers and uncles and aunts? Don’t you want to write about your life for the next generation?”

Ah, the joys of writing – and the power of literature.


Your loss is a sad one, Frank, and quite premature. I was hoping to be able to interview you one day, to pick up a few tips and that, but you've slipped away from me, you old bugger!

Who can possibly ever replace you?