John Walsh: 'The late Frank McCourt set the vogue for the misery memoir, poor man'

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

The late Frank McCourt (who died on Sunday at 78) has a lot to answer for. His first book, Angela's Ashes, didn't usher in the huge late-1990s genre of the family memoir all by itself – Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father? helped a lot – but it certainly set the vogue for the misery memoir that has extended a horrible claw-like grip over the non-fiction bestseller lists ever since.

There days, whenever I come across a new work of non-fiction entitled Savaged at Six or Please Mummy Not in The Face Again, I shake my head and think of Frank, who never meant to spawn a library-load of depressing anecdotes about nursery abuse and loathsome stepfathers. Poor Frank. He never meant any harm.

I met him several times and every time, he was in trouble. Everyone complained about what he'd written in Angela's Ashes: about the alcoholic father and hysterical mother trying to survive the Depression in 1930s Brooklyn who, when their baby daughter dies, re-locate to Ireland only to find things are even worse: the family fetches up in a one-room Limerick flat with a flea-ridden mattress and an outside privy they shared with the whole street. The floor is damp, the twins die of pneumonia, the father drinks his meagre stipend resting his Guinness mug on the little white coffin he's bringing home to house his son. Life is a constant round of hunger, sickness, want and begrudging charity from cold-hearted Catholic priests. Children trawl Limerick's dismal Dock Road in the rain looking for lumps of coal that have fallen off lorries, so they can make an evening fire. As Frank contracts typhoid, Mother considers taking up prostitution...

Not very surprisingly, people in 1996 reacted with fury at what they perceived as slights on their home town, country and religious guardians. McCourt was shouted at on The Late Late Show on RTE and confronted in shops by irate Limerick-dwellers who complained that he'd embroidered the truth. He told me how, at a book-signing in O'Mahoney's bookshop, a man had thrust Frank's school photo under his nose and said, "D'you know what this is?" He then pointed himself out in the photograph, said "You're a disgrace to Ireland and the Church and your mother" – and ripped a paperback Angela's Ashes to shreds under its author's nose. Everybody had a go at him. American fundamentalist Christians wrote to call him a sacrilegious blasphemer (there's a funny scene in the book about the boy sicking up the sacred host shortly after Communion and wondering if it would be sinful to hose away the evidence) and an oddball hack published a kind of counter-book that tried to rubbish Frank's family story.

What intrigued me at then time was the complainers' attitude to the truth. If something hadn't happened, they argued, it shouldn't be written about. If it had happened, it shouldn't be written about either, especially about the priests and the prostitution. It was, they said, treachery. But I could look into Frank McCourt's troubled face and see the injustice he'd been carrying round with him for 40 years, and realise he'd managed to externalise it only by describing the images and sounds burned on his memory.

Thirteen years later, we're pretty inured to stories of misery and betrayed innocence; we accept that they're likely to contain some germs of the truth, beefed up with quasi-fictional techniques. Give or take the odd outraged relative (like Constance "Ugly" Briscoe's mother, Carmen) we don't hear many cries of denial. The Horror Home memoir, the Grisly Grange narrative, the Poisonous Parent story have become genres, with familiar, strangely cosy conventions about the day the author was locked in the coal cellar or the morning the first social worker came round.

Before everything became formulaic, though, there was McCourt's book which was touching because it told the saddest story in the world in the voice of a kid of 10. And touching because it really happened. You could tell: "There were so many dramatic things, I only put in a fraction of what I could recall," he told me. "My mother begging for scraps at the door of a priest's house. My mother trying to throw herself into the grave of Eugene [who died aged one]... her shrieking like a banshee with jackdaws flying around, and I thinking, Would she really allow herself to be buried and leave us...?"