Pete McCarthy

Author of the bestseller 'McCarthy's Bar'
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The Independent Online

Peter Robinson (Pete McCarthy), writer, broadcaster and humorist: born Warrington, Lancashire 9 November 1952; married (three daughters); died Brighton, East Sussex 6 October 2004.

Pete McCarthy wanted to write books ever since, at the age of 14, in the middle of his education at the hands of Christian Brothers, he read James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It was over 30 years before he achieved his wish, although he did so in barn-storming style. McCarthy's Bar, his quirky, humorous and thoroughly engaging account of his search for his Irish roots in bars that bore his name, was a surprise bestseller in 1999, selling over a million copies and earning him a range of writing awards. In the meantime he had, however, also established a reputation as a performer, comedian and highly-regarded TV travel show presenter.

He was born Peter Robinson in Warrington, Lancashire, to a Catholic Irish mother and Protestant English father. His mother had come to England during the Second World War to work as a nurse and met his father at a dance. She stayed.

The eldest of four children, Pete spent his first 15 summers in Ireland in idyllic circumstances on the farm of his uncle at Drimoleague, in west Cork. "I have a classic childhood memory of faultless summers there," he said. "I don't remember it ever raining. Back then it was truly a farm straight from a children's story book."

Each year the family would receive two post deliveries from Ireland: a box of shamrocks in time for St Patrick's Day and a Christmas turkey from the farm. He said he had been led to believe that "God himself was Irish, and I had been born in a wicked, pagan country".

Pete Robinson's Irish heritage troubled him a little in Warrington, since he had an English accent and didn't want to be known as a "plastic Paddy". James Joyce's novel had a profound effect on him because his education at a Catholic school provided him with similar experiences to those of Joyce's Stephen Dedalus - "a mixture of hellfire and brimstone, corporal punishment and awakening sexuality".

More important was the fact that he found the experimental form of the novel liberating - "If you write you can make your own rules." He thought it "impossibly wonderful" to "make a living from a creative act". A bright boy, he took his O-levels and A-levels early and went to study English Literature at Sussex University in its heyday as a radical alternative to Oxford and Cambridge.

He already had the travel bug. Each summer as a student he travelled in Europe, for six years. When he left Sussex with a first class degree he was expected to follow an academic career. Instead, he took a gap year during which he hitch-hiked 20,000 miles around Canada, America and Mexico. "I had vague and bohemian notions. I had no ambition to achieve this goal or that."

When he came back he was a teacher for a while before, in the 1980s, forming a Brighton-based theatre group, Cliffhanger; he adopted his mother's name, McCarthy, for the stage as there was already an actor registered as Robinson. He used the theatre group as a vehicle for yet more travel.

McCarthy once recalled:

I liked getting in the van in Brighton and getting out in Berlin and I loved going off to Melbourne for six weeks, even though some people in the group said, "What are we going to Australia for?" There was no money in it but it was good for the soul.

He first performed as a comedian on tour with the Liverpool poet Roger McGough. In the early 1980s he wrote TV gags and scripts for Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones and compered at the Comedy Store in London during the alternative comedy boom. He made his first TV appearance as performer and writer in 1984 in They Came From Somewhere Else but it was five years before he appeared on screen again in 1989 in Mornin' Sarge. Before then, his successful one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival led to a slot on Ned Sherrin's Loose Ends and then an invitation to make a travel film about Paris.

That led, in late 1990, to Travelog, the Channel 4 guide for independent travellers that he presented for seven years. He was a relaxed, humorous presence. Other presenting jobs followed. In Desperately Seeking Something (1995) he explored New Age beliefs in an amusing but non-condescending way. He presented Country Tracks (1998), and, for Radio 4, Breakaway and X Marks the Spot (1998).

By the late 1990s he was becoming disenchanted with television. "At one end of the spectrum, there were brochure-type programmes and, at the other, there were reps and naked people drunk in the streets of Ibiza. I was delighted to do something else."

A publisher who liked his tone of voice approached him to write a book. "I had a passion to write this book about Ireland and I relished the new challenge." He signed the deal with Hodder and Stoughton in March 1998 and agreed to deliver by November.

McCarthy's Bar recounts his journey through the west of Ireland - from Cork in the south to Donegal in the north-west - in which he tried to resolve "some confusions of identity" about his Anglo-Irishness. "The journey," he said, "was an attempt to discover whether my feelings were genuine: is it possible to have a genetic memory of a place where you haven't lived but your ancestors did? Or am I just another sad plastic Paddy who has been conned by the Chieftains' albums and the Guinness ads?"

He also had a guiding principle: never to pass a bar that had his name in it. His own ruminations and his encounters with interesting characters - such as Jim Ryan, the only man in Ireland who had a duck that drowned - made for a charming read. The book came out in 1999 to massive acclaim.

He followed it with an even funnier book The Road To McCarthy (2002), in which he went in search of far-flung McCarthy connections in Ireland, Gibraltar, Morocco, New York, Tasmania, Montserrat and Montana.

He had settled in a cottage in a village near Lewes on the South Downs with his wife and three children but to write went into Brighton, to a flat on the seafront which did not have the distractions of phone, TV or stereo. Known as a technophobe, he wrote with pen and paper, possessing neither computer nor typewriter. (Or a mobile phone, although he did have a fax machine.)

When asked whether he regretted leaving writing until late in his life, he said: "Without television, I wouldn't have been in Red Square the night the Soviet Union ceased to exist, or had the chief of the Estonian KGB ask me if he had a chance of a job with MI5, or had a few beers with Kiri Te Kanawa on her veranda in New Zealand."

He said that he liked to leave enough space in his life for "happy accidents" - the random things that are at the heart of what he wrote about. He had been planning his third book, anticipating journeys and chance encounters. He once said that "The best things that happen to us come from a direction we're not expecting". Sadly, the worst things too.

Peter Guttridge

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