Maeve’s Times: Irish Times Selected Writings by Maeve Binchy
Reviewed by Anna Carey
Maeve’s Times: Irish Times Selected Writings
Hachette Books Ireland
Maeve’s Times is funny and clever and kind, which are excellent qualities in both books and people. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few days trying to think of the best way to open this review, and then I remembered what Maeve Binchy herself wrote in 1983, in a piece entitled “Develop Your Own Style”, which is one of more than 90 pieces collected in this new book: “If you are having difficulty beginning something . . . an article, a short story, a novel or a play . . . ask yourself, ‘What am I trying to say?’ Then say it aloud and nine times out of 10 you’ll have your first sentence.” So that’s what I did.
In “Develop Your Own Style”, Binchy writes of the importance of writing in a natural, unaffected way. But natural should never be confused with unsophisticated or unskilled, and what this wonderful collection of her work for this paper from 1964 to 2011 makes abundantly clear is that she was a superb journalist.
She began writing for The Irish Times when she was still working as a teacher, and became the paper’s women’s editor in 1968. In 1973 she moved to London, where she continued to write features and columns.
In her acknowledgements, the collection’s editor, Irish Times journalist Róisín Ingle, rightly points out that from her earliest pieces, Binchy’s writing voice seemed fully evolved. Not only did she have the ability to perfectly evoke a scene, a personality or even a national mood in just a few hundred words, but she could write pieces so perfectly crafted that they filled me with a sort of envious delight.
Almost every piece in the book begins with the sort of opening line that many journalists lie awake at night trying to create. Binchy never goes for a lazy cliche or a trite phrase, and she always grabs the reader. Take this opener, from 1976: “I was nearly the co-author of a best-selling pornographic book, and sometimes when I stand in the rain waiting for a non-existent bus and unable to afford the taxis that come by empty and warm and comfortable, I think that it was very feeble of me not to have gone ahead with the project.”
Who wouldn’t want to read more?
Her friendliness towards and interest in total strangers radiates from almost every page, and provides her with some of the book’s most entertaining stories. There’s her encounter with a man who has accidentally settled in to wait for a friend in a corner of a hotel’s ladies’ cloakroom (he thought it was a quiet alcove that just happened to have a mirror in it). And I particularly loved her bus-stop conversation with a woman who didn’t share her happiness at the new law legalising the sale of contraceptives.
Unsurprisingly, this is a very funny book; Binchy could make pretty much anything hilarious, from having one’s photograph taken to going to hospital. But it’s not all fun. Binchy’s writing has often been viewed, mostly by people with only the most cursory acquaintance with her novels, as cosy. But she never shied away from dark subjects in her fiction, and she didn’t do so in her journalism either. She wrote about abortion and poverty and loneliness and cruelty and our inability to deal honestly with death.