Life was always a laugh with Maeve

Tue, Jul 31, 2012, 01:00

I FIRST encountered Maeve Binchy in the early 1960s when I was a schoolgirl at Miss Meredith’s School, aka Pembroke School in Ballsbridge. She had not long finished her H.Dip and had spent some time teaching in Cork, which she told us she disliked greatly. She taught us history and, because there was no one else to do it, Latin and religious knowledge. She loved history and instilled a love of the subject in many of her pupils, including this one.

Her Latin was merely sufficient to get her through her arts degree at UCD.

She kept a translation of Virgil and Horace and the other texts on the Leaving and Inter curriculum on her lap under the desk. We knew this and she knew we knew. But we carried on regardless. We didn’t learn much and what we did we learned off by heart. Her religious knowledge classes involved simply reading from the books prescribed by the diocese. She had no interest and neither did we.

Miss Meredith’s was a slightly unusual school. Both for its pupils and its teachers. Ms Binchy fitted in very well.

History, I remember, was the first class of the morning. If we were late we got locked out. Something the other teachers never did. She was truly shocked when on the rare occasions she was late we locked her out. We in turn expressed surprise and shock when we saw her disappear across the road into Searson’s pub for the duration of the class.

I didn’t see much of her for a number of years. I was working for some months in The Irish Times when she started submitting freelance articles, mostly about her travels, which were extensive, and about her time working in a kibbutz in Israel, which she greatly enjoyed and spoke of for years afterwards. I amused my colleagues when I continued to call her Ms Binchy even after she took over from Mary Maher as women’s editor.

They were wonderful times. Maeve was such fun to work with and so anxious to learn newspaper ways. She got on wonderfully with everyone in the office. She often told the story of how, searching for a picture to illustrate a cookery article which featured a recipe for a stew, she ended up publishing a picture of open-heart surgery. These were the days of black and white. She got away with this and other hilarious episodes and was a favourite with the editor, Douglas Gageby, and her immediate boss, news editor Donal Foley.

She pretended to be afraid of Gageby and in a way she was as she came to newspapers later than others and had little knowledge of their customs and ways. She was always afraid of missing a big story or putting a foot wrong as her forte was colour and features rather than news.

These late 1960s and early 1970s were the days of long, boozy lunches and public-relations junkets. It was a different world to today’s media. Maeve worked hard and enjoyed it all.

When I worked in Belfast, Maeve sometimes came up north for a story or to see friends but when I became London editor of The Irish Times and she requested a transfer so she could be with her husband to be, Gordon Snell, we became great friends. Maeve wrote wonderful features, diaries and colour stories – most notoriously on the British royal family and their weddings – and I covered the hard news. She started work very early – for a morning newspaper person – and finished at about 2pm. There was then, inevitably, a long lunch.

All her old friends from Dublin were constantly dropping in to see her but morning was for work and afternoons were for socialising and research. She developed a technique of listening to, or perhaps lip-reading, other people’s conversations and writing them up with great effect. To this day I still believe some of these conversations were made up. After all, I sat beside her as she wrote them.

Through her fame she attracted bores and obsessives but she had a wonderful way of dealing with them. On one occasion she actually hid under the desk until they went away. Life really was a laugh and through it all the work got done.

She and Gordon were wonderful hosts in their small house in west London.

They knew dozens of interesting people – mostly in the arty world. She told me that she was a lark and he was an owl but they managed their writing lives very well. Even in later years they shared a study. By then she was writing wildly successful novels and the occasional newspaper piece. He continued to write acclaimed children’s books.

She enjoyed her early retirement from The Irish Times. She wanted to concentrate on novels and she wanted to stay in London. For a long period they kept a house in both cities until moving to their Dalkey home some years ago. She still loved her holidays but ill-health restricted her movements.

Nonetheless, when I last saw her a few months ago she was in a wheelchair but still cheery and bright and terrifically welcoming. We will all miss her.