'Don't go near those vocational schools. The kids are killers. They'll chew you up and spit you out';'Tis by Frank McCourt

1st October 1999 at 01:00
Irish-American author Frank McCourt won last year's Pulitzer Prize for 'Angela's Ashes', a memoir which drew on his destitute childhood in Limerick in the 1930s. "I wanted to show the face of poverty, the grime and stink of it," he said in an interview after publication in 1996. Today, with more than four million copies sold, he is a New York literary celebrity with homes in Manhattan and Connecticut. Alan Parker's film of 'Angela's Ashes', starring Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson as his parents, will be released later this year.

But Frank McCourt is also a retired teacher who spent 30 years in secondary schools and training colleges in the seedier areas of New York: Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, Staten Island. His pupils were like himself - the urban poor, children of immigrants from all ethnic backgrounds. He has said they helped him find his voice as a writer, and he wrote 'Angela's Ashes' in the early 1990s after his retirement, putting into words the family history he had carried in his head throughout his career.

His father, Malachy, was a labourer with a drink problem. His mother, the Angela of the title, never recovered from the early deaths of three of her seven children. Frank, the eldest, was born in New York, but the family returned to Ireland during the Depression. His father disappeared to England in search of work, leaving Angela to beg from the clergy to feed her surviving sons. Frank left school at 14 to become a telegram boy. His big break came in 1949, aged 19, when he had a chance to return to America.

It's at this point that the sequel to 'Angela's Ashes', ''Tis', published last week, takes up his story. The title is the last word of the first book - after crossing the Atlantic, a fellow passenger says to Frank "Isn't this a great country altogether?" and he replies "'Tis".

''Tis' is as full of hope as 'Angela's Ashes' is full of despair. McCourt's prospects were poor, but after a spell in the United States Army (which allowed him to send money home), he managed to work his way through New York University and qualify as a teacher. This exclusive extract from ''Tis' follows his early days in his first job. The view out of the classroom windows and the pupils' haircuts might be different, but the problems he faces with an unruly classroom and a lack of support will have a familiar ring for teachers today.

''Tis: a memoir' is published by HarperCollins, pound;17.99

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