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

Fri, Sep 20, 2013, 11:36

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”.

The eager-to-impress Viney was dispatched to Cairo to interview, among others, Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt, a man known simply as Nasser, and something of a hate figure in Britain and France. His 1956 nationalisation of the Suez Canal sparked a joint British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt to wrest back control, a move that sparked a rare public rebuke from US president Eisenhower, causing the resignation in January 1957 of British prime minister Anthony Eden.

For Viney, an interview with Nasser, even a few years later, would have been something of a scoop that would be devoured eagerly by the intelligent readers of Today. Dispatched to Cairo, he waited for Nasser to return from the United Nations in New York. But after a while, word came through from the Today office London.

Viney recalls the edict.

“Forget politics! Want drugs and girlies . . .” it said, or words to that effect.

“The editor had changed,” Viney remembers ruefully.

Around the same time, the magazine also went through a spasm of royal coverage. “They discovered that if they put a picture of Princess Margaret on the cover, sales shot up,” he says.

In this vein, he was dispatched to to Glamis Castle in Scotland, home to the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorn, a certain Timothy Patrick Bowes-Lyon, a toff with connections to the royal family. “I was ostensibly there to write a piece on estate management for Horse & Hound [a sister magazine of Today] or something like that.”

But of course what really interested Viney’s editors, and would have been of compelling interest to readers of any decent publication, including The Irish Times, was the fact that the Earl had married his Irish nurse, Mary Bridget Brennan, causing consternation in his family. Viney approached his prey in a sideways fashion, hoping to coax him into discussing personal matters, even as the source of the family’s unhappiness was nearby.

“Every time she came into the room, I had to rapidly invent questions on grouse hunting . . . so the story evaporated. I came back to London but I couldn’t get past part two of the series I was supposed to be doing.” (Nurse Brennan came to an unedifying end, dying in 1967 in what is described, sadly without elaboration, by one royal watcher, Marlene Eilers Koenig, as “mysterious circumstances”.)

Viney soldiered on but the change in tone at Today, the headlong rush downmarket to shore up falling circulation, was not to his taste, even if there were amusing moments with his colleagues. “There were chortling sessions over pin-up viewings,” he recalls. “But Today was going downhill and it was in that kind of disgust with everything that I thought I would have a sabbatical.”

Despite having no family connection to Ireland, the place was known to Viney and it was to the west that he went – to escape into painting and writing and exploring on a bicycle.

“I had my winter and summer in Connemara. I got the train to Galway and cycled out to Tully Cross. And I had a lovely winter, doing a few paintings and writing a bit. And then in the summer an English tea planter from Ceylon [now Sri Lanka] and his family came to stay in the village and he was a fanatical birdwatcher.”

Viney can’t quite remember the birdwatcher’s name. “It was. . . oh, ummm,” he struggles to recall. “Riminton!” comes a voice from elsewhere. “It was John Riminton.”

“She’s such a good researcher,” he says softly but not so sotto voce that Ethna cannot hear the compliment.

Riminton the fanatical birdwatcher helped run the Tangakelle tea plantation until the end of 1964 but was on a sojourn in Connemara when Viney encountered him. “He took me out [with him bird watching] and that was the start of that,” says Viney.

As his money began to run out, he headed for Dublin – “I had 15 quid, punts, and the bicycle, which I sold” – to seek a safe berth from which to avoid a return to London. A pal of long standing in RTÉ, Joe O’Donnell, gave him a bed, and Jack Jones, in charge of features at The Irish Times – “marvellous man, gave me great encouragement”, says Viney – helped him keep the wolf from the door.

From a distance of a bit over 50 years, it is easy to think of Ireland then as perhaps a rather dull place, backward even. But to Viney, fresh from London, whence many a young man his age was then heading to escape Dublin, Ireland was a place of excitement, a place of possibility.

“Of course it was totally romantic and escapist,” he admits, “in the sense that I did feel I was escaping the awful doldrums of Fleet Street. What kept me in Ireland was that in The Irish Times, reading about Lemass and Whitaker, it was obvious that things were happening, that Ireland was actually going to a period of change and development. And I thought I’d like to be part of this and I saw that the kind of social inquiry that I got very interested in, that’s possibly what I can do.”

Viney’s interest in social affairs propelled him first in that direction. An early series of articles, Ireland For Sale, looked at the influx of continentals, mainly Germans, rushing to buy property in the west. Other pieces followed – on the co-operative movement, on the treatment of children, the future of the Irish language, on civil servants and on mental illness.

With the encouragement of Jones, his successor Brian Fallon, and a new editor, Douglas Gageby (“he gave me weeks on end for research”), Viney was flourishing. “I had never had any feedback from anything I wrote in Fleet Street [in London] because the circulations were too big; you were remote from people. Whereas in The Irish Times, you were writing for people that you were likely to meet in the street.”

It was around this time that he met Ethna, “in a car in Fleet Street [in Dublin]”, he says. Ethna takes up the story. She was in UCD and had written a lengthy article about the then new trade agreements negotiated with Britain by the Lemass government and which she sent to The Irish Times.

“I was living in a bedsit up two flights of stairs when the phone went in the hall a couple of days later and I ran down the stairs,” she says. “It was Michael Viney with a very posh voice. He said ‘We’re going to use your piece but I’d like to divide it up into three parts,’ and that was the first time . . .”

A mutual acquaintance then suggested they should meet, the encounter in the car a few days before Christmas 1964 being the outcome. Viney remembers it well.

“She had a long blond ponytail right down her back,” he says with a slightly wistful air.

Love at first sight? I asked.

“Interested,” he replied. “I was interested. She was very vivacious and full of energy, full of beans.”

They began going out together early in the New Year and by October were married. And there, matters might have rested – a happy marriage, life in Dublin, a city of manageable size, and working for a paper he admired and in which he felt at home. But the west remained a magnetic draw, with weekends of hill walking and bird watching assuming an ever greater importance in both their lives.

Their home in Thallabawn was bought in 1972, a former labourer’s cottage built by the Land Commission. Five years’ later, they moved there permanently to live off the land and the sea and by writing Another Life, a column about self-sufficiency, alternative living, and the personal experiences that came with it.

But,after nearly 10 years, it was in danger of running its course with the ascent of a new editor, Conor Brady. “Word reached me that I was in danger of being dropped and that I had better go up to Dublin and have a chat with Conor,” he recalls. “And it was he who said, ‘You know, I’m sort of fed up, I think people are fed up, with all this compost business. Why don’t you write about nature’?”

What’s the draw of the natural world for him, I ask. “Like Ethna, I’ve had this strong urge of curiosity all my life. That’s what’s driven me as a journalist. And nature is full of infinite surprises and amazing details. Anything you look at, from a beetle to a magpie, you could write reams and reams about the way its life is put together. I have to produce a column every week and I can’t write a column about something if I’m not interested – I could just recycle an earlier one – I have to be freshly interested in some aspect of what I’m writing about every week.”

Such detailed close observing must surely have given rise to accumulated concern for the environment. Is the natural world fragile, delicate?

“No, it’s not, It’s all to a function, not to a purpose because you don’t find purpose in nature,” he says. “And that’s perhaps one of the big lessons of living with nature, or studying nature. It is to realise that nothing in the world conceivably has a purpose; it all is existentially, and develops and adapts.”

So does that mean that for him, there isn’t a God? “It does, yes,” he answers without hesitation. “I’m an atheist. I’m firmly so, but relaxed about being an atheist because you know, I find nature is a marvellous thing to be absorbed in but it really doesn’t signify life after death. I think that unfortunately, and I say that because I am a human being, I think that there’s a dim prospect for the human species.

“Yet, in another way that’s pretty marvellous, because if homo sapiens become extinct in another few hundred years . . . the world will carry on as a planet.”

So the future is bleak; and what of climate change? “Oh, I’m totally pessimistic,” he says. “The pace of change on the planet at the moment is outstripping the possibility of political decision. The ice is melting too fast.”

It’s a late August sunny morning as Viney and I stroll away from his and Ethna’s home. The garden – their fertile food-producing acre – is somewhat overgrown now, a little too much to handle in the way they did 20 years ago. Viney knows he will retreat more and more into his polytunnel as the years roll way, still able to manage growing food in it, if not the raised beds in the garden.

Michael and Ethna’s daughter Michele lives in Dublin, working in film production, taking after her mother.

But there’s another member of the family also no longer there – Meg the dog, a beloved old mutt who used to pad about the place happily with the pair of them. She reached her life’s span not long ago and, as Viney puts it, wandered off into the lower garden’s encroaching thicket looking for a place to die.

She is greatly missed but, no belief in life after death notwithstanding, one suspects the Viney’s are comfortable with the almost spiritual thought that their friend has returned to nature and to the Earth from whence we have all come, in a most natural way.