I’ve met hundreds of amazing women. But Maeve Binchy was the warmest, funniest and most inspiring of all
00:38 GMT, 2 August 2012
You rather expect, when you’re visiting an author who’s sold 40 million books worldwide and there’s evidence from her publisher that readers in remote parts of the world wait at the dockside for a container of her latest offering to arrive, that her great wealth will be immediately apparent. Not so with Maeve Binchy.
It was 2009. She had just published Heart And Soul — inspired by her own experience of frequent trips to hospital as her health deteriorated — and had asked me, my producer for Woman’s Hour, Sarah, and our sound recordist, Bob, to come to her for a long interview about her life and work, as she was no longer fit to travel for a book tour and couldn’t meet us in London.
We expected a grand spread, surrounded by lots of land and overlooking the sea. Not a bit of it. Instead we arrived at a modest terrace house in Dalkey, a now fashionable Dublin suburb, with a battered jalopy parked outside and a pub, Finnegan’s, right next door.
'A friend to her readers': Maeve with Jenni Murray
Nothing grand or ostentatious about it and, we would learn later from Maeve, it’s a mere stone’s throw away from the house in which she and her siblings had grown up.
Gordon Snell, Maeve’s husband, answered the door and showed us through to the sitting room, along a hallway whose walls were covered in pictures of family, friends and pets. Maeve sat in a comfy chair and welcomed us without standing up, while Gordon went to the kitchen to make the coffee.
We spent the whole day with her and as we left, she said how kind it had been of us to travel so far to talk to her. Modest as ever.
In my 24 years on Woman’s Hour, I’ve interviewed hundreds of amazing women — writers, politicians, entrepreneurs and movie stars. Maeve Binchy was the warmest, funniest woman I’ve ever met.
I can’t say I was surprised to hear of her death. She paid scant attention to her health, but, although I’d met her only twice, I felt I’d lost a friend.
It’s rare for an interviewee to leave such a lasting impression, but Maeve was a friend to her readers — and I’d read everything she’d ever written. It’s said reading her was like she was just chatting to you in her kitchen. I was lucky enough to experience her chatter first hand.
MAEVE IN HER OWN WORDS
On love: We’re nothing if we’re not loved. When you meet somebody who is more important to you than yourself, that has to be the most important thing.
On women: I don’t have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turn into confident ducks.
On writing: Write as if you are talking to someone. Say someone cried — don’t say: ‘Tears coursed down her face.’ Don’t try to impress.
On people: I’m never bored because I can see people the whole time. Everybody is a hero in their own story if you just look.
On not having children: When we realised we couldn’t have children there were two ways to cope. We could mope … or borrow other people’s. I used to love them aged 14 and 15, when their families were exhausted by them.
On her work: I’m pleased to have outsold great writers. But I’m not insane — I realise I am a writer people buy to take on vacation.
A journalist, short story writer, playwright and best-selling novelist, Maeve Binchy was born in Dalkey in Co Dublin and was a pupil at the Holy Child Convent before studying at University College Dublin.
After graduating she worked as a teacher and then in 1969 her writing career began.
She became a journalist, columnist and later women’s editor at the Irish Times before moving to London and meeting Gordon, a presenter at the BBC and author of children’s books.
When I met Maeve at her home she was 69, and we talked about the difficulties she had been having with her mobility and, as with any other topic of conversation we approached, that soft Dublin lilt rattled away with wisdom and humour.
First, her hip replacement. ‘I don’t really like to talk about my health. My father always used to say that “How are you” is a greeting not a question.
‘But I had really bad arthritis — I was practically walking on all fours. I’m a big woman. Moderation is not a word that ever appealed to me. The surgeon insisted on weight loss. I ate virtually no calories for several months and lost six stones. When the surgeon saw a window of thinness, we went ahead. I had an epidural and sedation. I didn’t want to be asleep.'
‘Apparently I seemed to think I was a society hostess at a party. I didn’t know the hammering and sawing was my leg being virtually removed and I kept apologising for the noise. They had to stop the operation a couple of times because they were laughing so much.’
But being free of pain did not encourage her to keep the weight off: ‘Ach, I’ve put it all back on!’
Then came the heart problems and frequent visits to the clinic whose title she loathed. ‘The heart failure clinic — yuk — but there is life after heart failure, you know. I take it all quite lightly. I’ve never been a fit person.
‘I can’t believe there are people who like walking — putting one foot in front of the other seems purgatory to me. I now spend most of my money on taxis.’
She did, of course, walk to Finnegan’s for lunch. No more than a couple of steps from her front door, but she was out of breath by the time she arrived.
‘Oh, yes’, she said, ‘I do get out of breath very quickly. I always say to people, “Speak now, before I get my breath back. It’s the only opportunity you’ll have to get a word in.” I do take a little more care. I eat less and drink less alcohol — still more than the people who set the limits would approve of. I don’t smoke anymore and I do absolutely no exercise.'
‘But I reckon the rest of my decades have been fine. Even my teenage years were wonderful, although in those days Dalkey was the boondocks — the most dreary place on earth.'
‘We’d go into town and have to be back on the 11.23 train just when everything was starting. I dreamed of a flat in central Dublin and sitting in a cafe with a strong, black coffee.'
‘We didn’t drink, smoke or have sex. We talked about it all the time, but never did it. But we had wonderful times, throughout my life. I’m not too worried if this decade isn’t so great.’
Talking to Maeve was a little like reading one of her novels. It conjured up Bennie from her novel, Circle of Friends — always trying to lose a few pounds, but having the courage to dump the man who wasn’t making her happy.
Maeve Binchy, over a decade ago, at her home in Ireland.
And it was her understanding of women, the way we talk and value our friends — a lesson she said she’d learned from Jane Austen, who had explained that she never had gentlemen talking in her books because she didn’t know how they talk to each other — that led to Maeve being described as ‘a quiet feminist’. ‘Oh, yes,’ she laughed, ‘I cut that out and stuck it in a frame. I’d never been called quiet before. I saw degrees of calm and reflection around myself!'
‘I suppose I am a quiet feminist. I tell stories about people who are not perfect. Everyone I know has a flaw, but even the seriously flawed have some redeeming quality. But, if we don’t take some control of our own lives, we go on making the same mistakes.'
‘I could have been a fat, lame schoolteacher whingeing and whining or I could do something adventurous. Mark Twain said “Only be sorry about the things you didn’t do, not the things you do when you come to the end.” I don’t regret anything I’ve done.’
'Star Sullivan' by Maeve Binchy, part of the Quick Reads campaign.
It was her interest in travel that got her started as a writer. She loved teaching, but every summer, during the long holidays, she would go on a trip.
One of them was to a kibbutz in Israel and her parents were so impressed with her letters home, they sent them to the Irish Times and she became a published writer. ‘I learned that the way to do it is to write the way you talk!’
The men in the novels are often difficult or feckless, so how did she account for her long and blissful marriage to Gordon
‘Oh, I kissed my fair share of frogs before meeting my prince. We had it hard to begin with. We could barely afford 232 a month for the mortgage, in fact we were overdue when the paperback of Light A Penny Candle was auctioned. I prayed for 5,000. It was 52,000. It gave us security.’
Towards the end of our interview we went up to the top floor of the house in a ‘great glass elevator’ — an outside lift which enabled Maeve to go up to their shared office. They had desks alongside each other in a space full of light.
‘We read our work to each other. We might say “It’s good but it’s not funny” And we’re allowed ten minutes sulking time. Then it’s over. We’ve had two major arguments in 37 years. One about the law of copyright and the other about Mexican cleaners in LA airport. The next day we couldn’t remember what we’d argued about.’
Gordon, who barely got a word in during our visit, showed me a copy of the portrait of Maeve that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. He’s in the background, reading the Irish Times and happy to be there. He adored her.
And now she’s gone, a lapsed Catholic who told me she didn’t believe being poor and meek would give you a better judgement day, but that she would love to think she’d meet her parents, sister and her old friends again. If there is a heaven, she’ll be there, talking endlessly and making everyone laugh.
But I can’t stop thinking about Gordon who told me how delighted and proud he’d been to be Mr Maeve Binchy. He will be inconsolable.