There once was a poor writer from Limerick...

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The Independent Culture

I WAS on stage last night in Cheltenham Town Hall, with the writers Frank McCourt and Peter Sheridan, discussing Irish autobiography in front of a rapt and adoring crowd. Some wept openly into tablecloth-sized Irish linen handkerchiefs at our tales of melancholy and thwarted dreams. Many others guffawed at the volleys of blarney and quicksilver wit that ricocheted off the walls.

I WAS on stage last night in Cheltenham Town Hall, with the writers Frank McCourt and Peter Sheridan, discussing Irish autobiography in front of a rapt and adoring crowd. Some wept openly into tablecloth-sized Irish linen handkerchiefs at our tales of melancholy and thwarted dreams. Many others guffawed at the volleys of blarney and quicksilver wit that ricocheted off the walls.

Valerie Grove, who chaired the discussion with unsurpassable charm and skill, dressed in a full-length crimson Lacroix ballgown encrusted with scarabs, remarked on the unique ability of writers with Hibernian plasma in their system to transcend the degradation of their childhood and turn their experience of poverty and rainy fields into the purest...

Actually, no, she didn't. I'm making it up.

I mean, I was on stage in Cheltenham Town Hall last night, and so was Valerie. But I'm writing this on Saturday morning, 30-odd hours before the actual event happens. I'm anticipating, for a Monday-morning audience, how it will go. So my report is both true and not-true (even, I'm afraid, about the Lacroix ballgown) at the same time. Which may illustrate, in a small way, the dilemma of the chap whom the audience had really come to see: Frank McCourt.

Poor Frank. You might not think the author of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis - currently top of the paperback and hardback bestseller charts - deserving of sympathy. But ever since he spilt the beans about his family's tragic past in Fifties Limerick, he's been subjected to more abuse and obloquy than any Irish artist since Oscar Wilde, 100 years ago. The burghers of Limerick didn't take kindly to having their city's reputation for generosity besmirched by McCourt's stories of ragged-arsed children picking fallen lumps of coal off the street to warm the tiny house, sodden with damp, where Frank's destitute family were driven to stripping the wooden fittings off the wall to feed the fire, where his two little brothers died, their father drank his earnings and their mother was forced to beg from the cold-hearted priests at the local Catholic church... Yes, I think we can see where local civic feeling might feel a little bruised.

When I met McCourt two years ago, he told me of a man who approached him at a book signing in Limerick, waving a photograph. "Do ye know what that is?" he demanded. "I do," said McCourt, "it's my old class photo." "And do you know who this is?" demanded the man indicating a sepia'd youth.

"Obviously it's you," said McCourt, "although I'm afraid I have no recoll-". He was interrupted by the man seizing a copy of Angela's Ashes and ripping it in half, like a circus strongman with a telephone directory. It's still going on. McCourt appeared on RTE's The Late Late Show last week and a fight nearly broke out, after a man in the audience shouted: "You're a liar, McCourt," and McCourt roared back at him.

I've become used to having rows at parties with Irish intellectuals about the veracity of the memoirs. And I've become a connoisseur of what they're finding fault with. The faults are twofold: i) none of it happened; ii) although it happened, he shouldn't have said it happened, especially the bit about his mother in the loft, drifting into prostitution. No wait there's more: iii) he remembers conversations that took place when he was only two, so they must be invented; and iv) his younger brother Malachy (who has published his own family memoir, A Monk Swimming) was once known to play rugby, which is impossible to do if you're very poor. I think that's about it, apart from the news that Limerick priests were actually really nice to the destitute in the Fifties.

It is useless for McCourt to explain that yes, some of the conversations are simulations of what might have been said, that some of the details have been heightened or down-played for dramatic purposes, that some repeated scenes of, say, paternal drunkenness have been left out from ennui, and some left in, from artistic licence.

It is idle for him to say: "I can't give you chapter and verse, but Dame Memory tells me it was this road, that Christmas, this coffin, that pig's head, this lump of coal, that scene of squalor, this confession, that death." And it is utterly useless to insist that the vast and chasmal sense of hurt and injustice he has been carrying around for all his fiftysomething years, until you can see it etched into his eyes and mouth and trembling in his voice, demanding to be let out through decades of broody silence and exile, has only been able to articulate itself through the images and sounds he finds in his memory. It is the quality of unmistakable, gen-u-ine hurt, as expressed through the accumulation of details and conversations, that moves readers of Angela's Ashes; not the plausibility of the documentary evidence.

I would not be so exercised about McCourt, had I not been through my own, recent minor-league skirmishes on matters of truth and fiction. I've a book coming out on 11 November. It's a family memoir called The Falling Angels and concerns my relationship with Ireland over 40 years.

Making the elementary mistake of showing the book to the family on either side of the Irish Sea was the worst thing I could have done. They complained about everything: I never said that word. I never did that. I never went out with boys. That never happened. It was a Tuesday, not a Sunday. His name was Herbert. I was the one with the measles/ spots/ spiritual dimension, not you.

I was criticised for conflating two summers (at the same place) into one. Ticked off for having a girl (now a frightfully correct mother of four) use the word "stash" in 1973. One Irish friend brandished my description of his father and said: "You call my father's face 'troubled'. Do you have to put 'troubled'? Couldn't you put 'full of lively anticipation'?" And everywhere I heard the same double-crux: How dare you make things up in a memoir? How dare you have the nerve to put that in, however true it is... Shove over in the pillory, there, Frank.

EVEN AS I was writing the above cogitations on present and future truth - or possibly real and imaginative truth - a book arrived on my desk that threw things into further confusion: Last Words, an anthology of "New Poetry For The New Century" edited by Jo Shapcott and Don Patterson, celebrates the week-long programme of Parnassian events that were held in Salisbury at the end of October.

The organisers hit on the idea of making poetry "impossible to avoid" and palpably civic in being written or carved on bits of the town. Some commissioned poems were enscribed on stone, wood and glass around the cathedral, some written on beer mats and bus tickets, some were displayed in the windows of the local department store and aromatherapy shop, some were written on fireworks, franked on envelopes, dropped out of an aeroplane or tattooed on someone's arm.

All the top poets of the nation joined in. It was hectic. As the book's introduction explains: "At night, poems were projected on to Salisbury's public buildings. Poems were hung in the art centre as if they were paintings. Poems were illustrated by giant origami displays. Poems were tiled in public toilets..." God, it sounds brilliant. I wish I'd been there. But hang on: if all this took place at the end of October, how come...? Soon all became clear; I was looking at an advance copy of the anthology.

The Salisbury poetry extravaganza starts a week today. But you can see how easily misunderstandings can arise, as, I'm afraid, must Sean O'Brien, one of the poets. Days before his poem, "Law" was due to be featured in the festival, it was pulled by order of the city fathers.It's a sonnet about a policeman inspecting a murder through the windscreen of a car, and it hasn't been banned for reasons of quality or obscenity. The trouble was that it had been scheduled to be projected on to the wall of the courthouse building, and has been deemed "inappropriate", especially because of the line "And gouts of blood were jumping at the windscreen". You may have caught Mr O'Brien and a Salisbury bigwig having a lively discussion about censorship and civic "atmosphere" on Radio 4. Why did they ban this poem? Oh you know, said the Salisbury chap, there's been too much in the local papers about the city's crime rate going up. And you get families and kids in the courthouse building. And it's not that I'm against poetry, in fact I really rate Mr O'Brien...

The poet sounded spectacularly unmollified. But now something approaching the truth has come out. It seems that, three years ago, there was a murder in Salisbury and it happened right beside, or against, the very wall on which O'Brien's gouts of blood were due to feature.

The city fathers just didn't want to awaken nasty memories best left forgotten. They really ought to meet the elder citizens of Limerick some day.