Wednesday 19 December 2018

Review: Memoir: Me And Mine by Anna May Mangan

Virago Books, £12.99

If subject alone was what counted, then Anna May Mangan's account of an extended Irish emigrant family's experience in London from the 1950s onwards -- juggling memories of home with ongoing hardship abroad -- would thoroughly merit the label "misery lit".

These are pages thronging with illness, death, rain, poverty, hunger, gambling, prejudice, sexual repression, sadistic rural schoolteachers, hypocritical priests, domestic abuse, and way too many cigarettes. Frank McCourt would blush with envy.

Yet Me And Mine is a perfect example of how the same material can be fashioned differently by different hands. Another writer might have been tempted to lay the anguish on with a trowel, but Mangan never does that.

Her publishers have subtitled the book A Warm-Hearted Memoir of a London Irish Family, and while readers may be irked at having their responses so clumsily choreographed before they've even opened the cover, in this instance the epithet "warm-hearted" is entirely justified.

One by one, the family scrimped together the money to come to London to find work and raise their families -- and there was plenty of trouble along the way -- but what really comes through is the warmth and loving care of a family who treated one another's houses "as if there was no front door" and who "lived and socialised like they were still living in rural Ireland".

There were bad eggs among them, such as Uncle Tony, who came to London and brutishly drank his way through everyone's patience before dying squalidly.

But most of the family's various members are remembered with prodigious fondness -- the women particularly, who all put up with so much and died, so many of them, tragically young, as cancer cut a swathe through their ranks.

Mangan's parents, who went to London with nothing and managed through hard work to raise three children with a constantly shifting series of unskilled jobs, are tenderly recreated throughout, from their childhoods back home in Ireland -- where the "desire to learn was frozen and bludgeoned out of them" -- through all the relentless financial struggles that followed, to their terribly sad ends.

Both, writes their daughter proudly, were "without education but shot-through smart", with a memorably humorous turn of phrase summed up in the family's motto: "Don't waste today worrying because tomorrow will be even worse."

Personally, I'd have liked more about what it was like to be Irish in London during the IRA campaign of the seventies, when families like theirs were treated with unwarranted hostility, because Mangan writes so well about how a feeling of having turned up "uninvited" in England was always at the back of their minds.

But in a way, her book is much more true to memory for not dwelling with hindsight on such issues, instead focusing on the often-overlooked domestic details which mean much more to a child -- the Green Shield stamps and the Wimpy bars, or the time the family won a small fortune on the Irish Sweepstakes.

Some readers might find something too rose-tinted about Mangan's recollections, but they're so beautifully and delicately described that every word rings true, and the anecdotes are very funny, too.

They're no saints, but there's a cheerful stoicism in these people that may be unfashionable in our more emotionally incontinent times; it's a refreshing contrast to the usual offerings in a literary genre too often dominated by despair rather than hope, shadows rather than light.

The book does take a definite turn for the darker, as the cancer which has crept through her family makes its claim on the author herself, and then her late sister, both at a shockingly early age.

This part of her life could easily make a book in itself. Somehow, Anna May Mangan comes through her ordeal, whilst trying to care for ageing parents, though later her cancer returns.

Even then, she refuses to take refuge in self-pity. "There was a generation of women missing from my life and my children's so I had to be more. I had to be brave and I had to be grateful."

What she didn't have to be is a terrific writer as well, but it's our blessing that she is. (She has written for The Times, The Independent and other newspapers in Britain and is an accomplished short-story writer who was second in the 2008 Sean O Faolain Short Story Competition.)

Mangan says that, when her mother was alive, she was the one who penned all the letters and cards that the older woman could not, and "even now mum is gone, I still feel I am her writer".

Her family really couldn't have asked for a better person to whom to leave their testament in words.

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