The good life
From the side of a Mayo mountain, Michael Viney has dedicated decades to chronicling the natural world around him, and even after turning 80 earlier this year, his appetite for observing the neighbouring flora and fauna remains undimmed
Michael Viney in his garden at Thallabawn. Photograph: Richard Johnson
Michael Viney (second from right) and naturalists David Cabot, Richard Nairn and Steve Newton prepare for a trip to Greenland to study the barnacle goose in 1984. Photograph: Jack McManus
In September 1961, London’s Evening Standard newspaper printed a small observation that was infused with incredulity. “In a few days’ time,” it reported, “Michael Viney throws up a £1,500 a year job to go and live in a Connemara cottage on £6 a week.”
Young Viney (he was then just 28 years old) was quoted explaining himself. “I’m going to write,” he said, “and I’m going to see if I’m a painter.”
Now a slightly older version of himself (80 earlier this year but still sprightly), the evidence to answer whether he succeeded is all about his and his wife, Ethna’s, cottage perched on the bank of a brook in Thallabawn, Co Mayo, where it is tucked into a slight hollow on the west-facing slope of Mweelrea.
The walls of the living room are lined with books, floor to ceiling, several written by Viney himself or co-authored with Ethna. The distinction is rather false, of course, for theirs is a partnership, deep and complete, that next month will have flourished for 48 years, their personal and professional lives inseparable.
And the painting; has that been a success? Again, the evidence is clear. Apart from the distinctive illustrations that accompany Another Life, his weekly column in The Irish Times’ Weekend Review supplement (of which there have been around 1,600 since they began 36 years ago), the non-book-lined walls of the living room also tell that story.
There are several notable Vineys hanging here. The two I like best include a large landscape of nearby Doolough – the Sheeffry mountains and Mweelrea on either side of the valley’s two lakes, Doolough and Glenullin, all dark and broody as it so often is. They are captured by Viney with what to my untrained eye seems like at least some of the colour and brush-stroke panache of an impressionist. A little further along the wall is a beautiful large portrait of a heron standing in water, patiently watching and waiting, exactly as they do.
When we met recently for an interview to mark his 81st year, Viney was bright and animated; his face full of life, his eyes sparkling. It was a good day, another fine Mayo summer’s day, the land from the Viney cottage falling away down to the small estuary below and the stunning golden sandy expanse that is Thallabawn, or White Strand – not quite his and Ethna’s back garden but near as damn it.
There is a gentleness about Viney. It comes across in particular in the kind and thoughtful way I have observed him talking to women. He seems to delight in their company; speaking softly, paying attention to what they say and never trying to trump a point of theirs with one of his own, in that very male way some men have.
As hosts, Michael and Ethna keep a warm welcome for their guests and when they are guests in the homes of others, they always seem to be delighted to be there. At 80, a person might be forgiven for having grafted on to themselves a few rough edges, a little Victor Meldrew grumpiness, as it were. But there’s none of that with Michael (nor for that matter Ethna, who exhibits a terrier-like determination in protecting Viney). There is nothing nasty or horrid about the man; it is impossible to envisage him inflicting any sort of cruelty on anyone – either physical or, often the more hurtful, through the carefully chosen dagger word with nasty intent.
He seems genuinely interested in people, especially those who share an interest of his, or who surprise him. It might be something about painting; it might be an observation about a plant or animal; or it might just be a morsel of gossip about a mutual friend.
Viney’s life has been one of allowing himself to pursue his curiosity. In this, he is a born journalist. The first major event of his life was on February 6th 1933, when it began. He grew up in Brighton, that most English of English seaside towns, on the south coast of Sussex. He left school at 16 and was formally apprenticed to a local newspaper.
“There were foolscap sheets signed in a solicitor’s office – the real thing,” he recalls, seemingly bemused at the contemporary contrast in which media entrants chase that all-important Masters degree.
There was no family tradition associated with newspapers, but school performance nudged him in that direction. “I was good at writing essays and a reporter’s life was going to be dead glamorous,” he pronounces, still managing to convey the excitement he felt at the prospect of a life in ink.
Asthma helped him avoid National Service, in which young British men aged between 17 and 21 had by law to give 18 months of their time in the armed forces, a theatre that for many was their further education. (The practice was abandoned in 1960.) But for Viney, it was straight into local newspapers and thence to Fleet Street, home to many of Britain’s national newspapers until the 1980s.
His national newspaper career began on The Star, a now defunct London evening paper, graduating to Today, a weekly magazine that rose from the ashes of the memorably named John Bull, “a staple of dentists’ waiting rooms”, as Viney puts it. When John Bull’s circulation dipped below the million mark, its owners started Today (or Today – the New John Bull as it was called when launched) hoping to create an English version of the hugely popular (but also doomed) US favourite, The Saturday Evening Post.
“It was supposed to be a sort of left wing Paris Match. I was seduced with that thought,” says Viney, who at the time recalls that he was an “avid reader of the New Statesman and New Society”.