Friday, 10 May 2013

Mary McCarthy, R.I.P

“The lengths some people will go to, to flog a book”. Those were my parting words to Mary McCarthy, the accomplished author, mother and teacher, who was buried on Tuesday. When Mary was in the early stages of writing her last book, "After the Rain", she said it was difficult motivating herself to write a novel that might never get published. “Let’s face it Tess, there’s never going to be a bidding war over a book about terminal cancer”.

In the throes of grief at the loss of a parent to cancer myself at the time, I was indignant. Self help books pontificating about how to “navigate” your way through the stages of grief, without harming yourself or others, weren’t working for me. Admittedly, I had been stuck in the anger stage for longer than was strictly healthy. My wrath manifested itself primarily, though not exclusively, in pram rage. The local A&E was inundated with Bugaboo related injuries (severed limbs and such like) until I finally moved onto the next stage which, in my case, involved revisiting denial. Injuries continued to rise exponentially in my neighbourhood, the difference being I was unaware that it was me inflicting them. I yearned for someone, like Emer in "After the Rain", to hold my hand through the ravages of loss. I wanted to be cajoled by fiction not confronted by facts.

That Mary would finish her book was never in doubt. She was driven by truth, not market forces. Its publication, coinciding with her diagnosis of terminal cancer was a cruel twist of fate. One of Mary’s gifts as a writer was her ability to take the reader with her. Her style is unpretentious, her language accessible. Like Mary herself, there’s nothing show offy about her writing. It’s always about the story, rather than the storyteller. When I read Mary’s books, I can hear her voice. Her humility, honesty and warmth. A woman comfortable in her own skin, with nothing to prove to anyone.

Before becoming a successful author, Mary McCarthy was my English teacher. For five years of my life, her laconic, anarchic, dark humour illuminated my days. The drudgery of going to a convent school, where conformity and deference were the order of the day, was made tolerable by Miss McCarthy’s English class. Although I was never a star pupil (I used to think syntax was something to be purchased in the toiletries section of Superquinn), Mary McCarthy made me believe I could do something special with words (the fact that I haven’t as yet is no reflection on Mary).

I remember being terrified one day, waiting for essays to be returned. I found the title Mary set uninspiring so, out of sheer boredom, I turned it into an acronym and based my essay on the words created from that instead. I hoped the fact that it was funny might save me from the rolled eyes treatment but resigned myself to being failed. I broke the rules, I knew the score. When she made me stand up and read my essay out to the class, my knees were shaking. Afterwards she furrowed her brows and berated, "Your grammar is shocking, the spelling's shoddy. Otherwise, it's absolutely brilliant!" Those words formed an indelible shield behind which I gradually grew as a writer. No-one had ever told me I was brilliant at anything before. It was a defining, life changing moment for a girl from the "wrong" side of The Liffey.

I bumped into Mary in one of Dublin’s oldest watering holes, Doheny & Nesbitts about 10 years after leaving school. She looked straight at me (well as straight as you can when you’re half cut) and said my name, followed by the adjective she filed next to it: “Cheeky!” When we met again eight years ago, we hit it off and stayed in touch ever since. It’s during that time I realised how many lives Mary had touched. Thousands of her ex pupils have sought her out over the years. She talked about them as if they were her children. She was immensely proud of us all. Mary McCarthy was a gifted teacher. She instilled confidence and inspired rebelliousness in thought and spirit. In the words of her idol, George Harrison, “Everything you think is possible, if you believe”. R.I.P Mary, that is, Remember In Pride, the legacy you left behind.

No comments: