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The storyteller who rose from Angela's Ashes

ONE night in New York, in the autumn of 2000, I met a ghost who would become a kind friend.

I was going to the opening night of a play of mine in a little theatre in the city, and I had arrived several minutes late, so I was standing in the corridor leading to the auditorium, watching the show from the darkness.

In the play, which is set at a wake, the deceased father of a family is discovered to have left behind a series of videotapes of himself, and his children and widow play them and learn things they didn't know by doing so.

Frank McCourt, who was a member of the board of the theatre, had offered to play the part of the father immortalised on tape, and so it was that wry, handsome, slightly pallid face I was looking up at from the shadows, as it spoke the lines I had written.

Slowly, as I stood there looking at the videotape, in the fog of jetlag and first-night anxiety, I became aware that there was someone behind me in the darkness. I turned around. It was the real Frank McCourt.

He smiled and shook my hand. Then he put his finger to his lips and said: "Shhhh." We stood there, two people who had never previously met, and watched the play unfold in secret, his face on the screen.

Frank loved the company of the young; he loved bright, brave talk. He had long been a teacher in the American public school system, before the extraordinary literary success that made him an international name.

He was generous, encouraging, remarkably considerate, often showing up at readings given by unknown Irish writers in his beloved city of New York. He was endlessly supportive, like an uncle encountered far from home: good-hearted, witty, the best company imaginable. He had a bottomless supply of stories, mimicries, insights, and would make you cry with laughter as he regaled you.

One particular set of yarns, about how he had at one stage followed around the rock band The Grateful Dead, mixing with hippies and beatniks he found beautiful and strange, had the makings of a novel or a movie.

But he was a serious man too, endlessly thoughtful, in both senses. Many of his generosities were private. When a book written by 15 Irish authors for Amnesty International was planned, Frank was among the first to volunteer to contribute, and on the night the book was launched, he travelled to Dublin at his own expense so as to be among the writers giving readings for the occasion.

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On another occasion, when a book of my own had received a tough review, he wrote me a postcard. On it was inscribed a quotation from the great writer Jean Cocteau. It said: "Listen carefully to criticism of your work. Note precisely what it is about your work the critics don't like -- then cultivate it carefully. That is the part of your work that is individual and worth keeping."

He was extraordinarily well-read, and he seemed to know everyone in New York. And anyone who has ever lived in that great city, even for a brief time, will have met someone who praised his schoolteaching: a former student, a parent, a sibling, a friend -- he was a teacher who inspired thousands throughout a career in the public service, changing lives, instilling courage and hope. His finest book, his last -- the novel Teacher Man -- draws on these experiences with amazing skill.

He loved the whole business of his success and the freedom it had brought him. He was endearing about it, like a child. He loved being able to have a nice apartment in New York and a second home in the country, which was "next to Arthur Miller's", he would say.

He had known tough days. He enjoyed his better ones. His only regret, he once told me, was that material success had come relatively late in his life -- he was well into his 60s when Angela's Ashes was published -- and he would have liked to have been able to do more to help others.

He would joke about the literary parties, the cocktail circuit of literary New York, and marvel that he had become a part of it, with wide-eyed irony. He told me how one night, leaving a party, he had been approached by a man who shook his hand and said how much he liked his writing. It was only in the car on the way home that he realised the man had been none other than Bob Dylan.

The last time I saw him was a couple of years ago now. I was giving a reading in New York, and true to form, at one point I glanced up, and there, near the back, in an old-looking raincoat, was a man who had won the Pulitzer Prize. Frank insisted on bringing myself and my wife out to dinner afterwards, where he was witty and warm as ever.

I never heard him say a bitter word about anyone, or utter an unkind thought. If he had a fault, it was that he was so generous to other writers, especially younger ones, that he was simply unable to resist praising their work. His name appeared on so many covers of novels, saying this book was unputdownable, that perhaps he devalued the currency of his praise -- but what a magnificent failing to have.

I will miss that magnanimous heart, that fine storyteller and teacher, his wry and subtle humour, his avuncular hand on your shoulder in the darkness, and think of him now and again as I walk the New York he loved, with the greatest of affection and fond laughter.


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