In a year with little to smile about, McEntee's memoir made me laugh out loud
In worrisome old 2016, this is the book that really made me laugh. It's the story of the Cavan boy's picaresque adventures and it made me laugh more than anything else I read during 2016. I shrieked with merriment at some of John McEntee's stories as he went from apprentice on The Anglo-Celt newspaper to earning £100,000 a year as a London journalist when he "often woke up blinking in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, thinking the champagne-fuelled carousel had finally stopped …
"By then my marriage had ended, through my own fault in a blur of expenses, drink and sex. Only my robust Irish peasant constitution prevented a physical implosion. Mercifully," he adds, cheerily, "I was never afflicted with the genuinely horrendous curse of depression." Robust, yes!
John's memoir is called I'm Not One to Gossip, But..., and to me, it's a lot better than many a more pretentious tome garlanded with literary prizes. The title makes it seem as though it's just a bit of froth, and it does contain froth - his drinking sessions with Richard Harris, his hilarious times with Caroline Aherne, the day he was accused of killing Derek Nimmo - but behind the froth lies the narrative tradition of Thackeray and Damon Runyon.
Here's the country boy coming to town, first in Dublin, where he works for The Irish Press, in times when journalism was full of offbeat "characters". Alongside the many droll tales are more serious vignettes. Inadvertently, he finds himself giving hospitality to a teenage Tyrone lodger, Colomba McVeigh, who is being pursued by the IRA as a so-called informer. Colomba is just a typical chaotic teenager, but the IRA catches up with him, bundles him into a van from leafy Rathmines, shoots him in Co Monaghan and buries him in a bog. His body still lies there, wearing the jumper John's sainted mother once knitted.
John is the eldest of seven, and his mother Judy was a great personality, with that comic mixture of Cavan cuteness and Cavan generosity. (Her brother was a famous Cavan footballer, Johnny Cusack.) When the local priest came to sympathise with the loss of her husband, he drank most of a bottle of brandy and as he was leaving, she gave him £20 (this was 1975) to say a Mass. He walked out the door and dropped dead in the street. Judy ran out and got down on her knees next to the expired reverend: not to resuscitate him, but to recover the 20 quid.
Yet when she won IR£80,000 on a lottery show, she sent her son the gift of £1,000 - all in Masses.
McEntee writes a bracingly honest account of having been sexually abused - then called "sexual fiddling" - by a handsome De La Salle brother. "Aged eight, it was considered quite a privilege to be selected for Brother Francis's sexual attention. I, like my friends, knew it was wrong, but we were not then sexually awake. What he did, and we allowed him to do, was simply naughty - like wetting your trousers." He writes that it didn't ruin his life, it left no lasting damage and caused no nightmares. He was much more distressed to witness the physical beatings of less favoured boys. (When he disclosed this in a magazine, he was accused of trivialising the crime of sexual abuse: but he was only reflecting on his own experience.)
The funnier passages describe hilarious days spent with the good, but eccentric, Lord Longford, who literally tied himself in knots trying to demonstrate his exercise regime, jumbo gins with Denis Thatcher, sheeben afternoons with the painter Francis Bacon and boyfriend, and friendship with the innocently Pooterish brother of John Major, Terry Major-Ball. McEntee gave the TV comedy star Derek Nimmo such a good lunch that the unfortunate chap fell down a flight of stairs, became comatose and died. Sportingly, his widow afterwards said it was a lovely last day on earth for poor Nimmo.
Richard Harris lived at the Savoy in his latter days, and John would lift a pint with him at the pub next door, the Coal Hole. He writes that Harris gave out yards about his fellow Limerick-man, Frank McCourt, whom he thought had exaggerated his impoverished childhood. Harris talked a lot about how Frank and Malachy McCourt did stand-up comedy in America talking about Limerick, and their mother, Angela, would turn up at their gigs shouting: "Lies! Not true!" Harris felt that Angela was distressed "by the destitute ornamentation of the McCourt life in Limerick," and he accused McCourt of having lost Angela's actual ashes. They did surface eventually, but that's another saga.
John was sending his own mother a cheque for £50 for Mother's Day, when Harris said: "You mean Cavan b******, send £100." He duly did and Judy forever afterwards thought the money came from the movie star.
There is a tradition of the blarneying Irishman - half-Chaucer, half-chancer - making his way in the world: one minute he's fired and heading for bankruptcy; the next, he's a high roller smoking cigars at the Ritz. McEntee's disasters and embarrassments are recalled with beguiling self-deprecation, like the time he found himself in bed with a "well-lubricated female" in the deserted lounge of a ship plying between Liverpool and Dublin. And then, the mortification as she calls out to him in Moore Street, and himself with his "respectable" girlfriend trying to ignore her. He got the full blast of a Moore Street mammy's invective, all right.
In the worrisome old world of 2016 that we now leave, anything that makes you laugh has earned its place in any canon, and the Cavanman's tale sure lifted my spirits.