As he has been doing since he was a child, Gordon Snell is writing verse into a notebook. “Mainly limericks,” he replies when I ask what he’s working on. “Limericks are a fantastic form. Edward Lear tended to do a repetitive fifth line, but I always think it’s much better if you have a punchline with a different rhyme.”
Recently Snell has been writing limericks inspired by clerihews. For those (okay, me) unfamiliar with the term, a clerihew is a short poem that has the name of a well-known person in the first line and goes on to playfully skewer them. To show me what he means, Snell reads aloud one he has just written: “Philosopher Rousseau/ In secret put on his wife’s trousseau/ Don’t tell a new bride/ But I can confide/ He was not the first bridegroom to do so!”
He follows it up with a second, a verse about Bertrand Russell. Snell has been thinking about Russell’s classic A History of Western Philosophy recently, for it was one of the first books he and his wife, Maeve Binchy, really connected over. “We had both read this tome of Russell’s where he goes through all the philosophers from Plato through Descartes and up to existentialism and so on. Maeve and I had discovered that we were both convinced by each chapter. Descartes’s “I think therefore I am” – that’s got it! Funnily enough, we arrived at this independently, because we didn’t know each other at the time. We’d both been reading it and being totally convinced by whichever philosopher it was in each chapter.”
Connecting over books, movies, music is very much part of getting to know someone, yet because of the subject matter, this sounds as though it was more than one of those lovely happenstances that add an extra piece of kindling to a new relationship. It suggests a more profound compatibility and approach to the world.
“It was wonderful,” says Snell, smiling. “But it doesn’t imply a very subtle mind.” Or perhaps, I counter, it instead implies one that is very open.
Of all the philosophies Snell read about, existentialism – the belief that we are each responsible for creating meaning in our own lives and that purpose is not conferred by any external power – was the one that stuck. “I thought, That is definitely it. And I still think that, actually ... Sartre talks about the self and the other; there’s you and there’s me, and we’re negotiating a sort of contract between us.”
In her columns Maeve tended to cast me in a less than flattering role. In one I appeared as ‘a bore beside me who talked about cushions of air.’ I said, ‘Thank you very much!’
Snell, an excellent raconteur with a great memory, recalls a story about friends visiting Paris who, having had “several drinks”, decided to go to the famous cafe Les Deux Magots, the haunt of many artists and writers. And who did they spy sitting in the corner with a book but Jean-Paul Sartre himself? Full of wine and misplaced confidence, one of them attempted to talk to him but was coldly dismissed. “Had Sartre been faithful to his own creed he would have said, ‘This is an existentialist moment, this madman talking to me,’” says Snell, laughing. “But he didn’t; he brushed them aside. I think that’s a slip-up in his own philosophy.”
Central to Snell’s own outlook on life is not just an awareness of his own good fortune but a genuine, heartfelt appreciation for it. “Maeve and I always said we were very lucky, first to have met each other but also that we realised we were lucky. It’s one of the most important things.”
A producer on BBC Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour programme first introduced them. “We just got on terribly well. It wasn’t a thunderbolt from the sky. We used to meet when she was in London, for a drink and a chat.” He was working at the BBC, Binchy for The Irish Times. He describes “the clinch, if you like”, as a day trip they took by hovercraft from Dover to Boulogne.
“Maeve was writing a column at that time. She never did that awfully mawkish thing which people sometimes do and say, ‘My companion and I sampled the oysters,’ or whatever. She tended to cast me in a less than flattering role. She said, as we were going, ‘How do these things keep up?’ ‘Well, I think it’s something to do with cushions of air underneath the vehicle, between it and the sea,’ I said. So she latched on to this phrase ‘cushions of air’, and in the article it appeared as something like ‘a bore beside me talked about cushions of air’. I said, ‘Thank you very much!’”
They married in 1977 in London. After a few years they moved to her home village of Dalkey, south Co Dublin, where they lived until her death in 2012.
An only child, Snell was born in 1932 in Singapore, where his father worked as a surveyor. In 1942 his mother brought him to Australia to settle him into boarding school. She had intended to return to Singapore almost immediately, but the Japanese invasion began. Snell’s father was detained as prisoner of war at the notorious Changi camp. “I think he was affected emotionally. He became rather withdrawn. He was a very jolly man [before his detention]. He still was, but in a more subdued kind of way.”
Snell recently discovered a play he wrote while his father was imprisoned (the handwriting “childish but quite respectable”). “Some of the scenes were swordfights between Hitler and a British colonel. There was a marvellous stage direction I’m very proud of for a fight scene, which went, ‘They fight. By and by, they all are dead.’”
Snell and his mother spent several years in Australia, a country he still loves. He and Binchy first visited Australia together when she was working for The Irish Times; they said that, had they had been younger, they might have stayed there. After his family returned to the UK, Snell went to Oxford to study English language and literature; following his degree he took a job as a radio-studio manager with the BBC overseas service.
“It was technical; very precise. At that time there was a live-broadcast programme called Radio Newsreel, which was a series of reports. Now they could edit it digitally, but then it was a case of picking up the wax disc it was recorded on. You had to listen on headphones, and if they wanted to make a cut on the air you had to mark up the disc from where the sentence started and physically pick up the needle and put it down 20 seconds ahead or whatever. I was very pleased to find that I could do it, because I hadn’t really been a technical person.”
Maeve just couldn’t think herself into the mindset of somebody who was so intent on revenge that they would do anything to harm somebody. I would feel that too
Not long afterwards he moved into writing and presenting. From the late 1950s onwards he was writing scripts for numerous shows, including pantomimes for Listen with Mother, a children’s radio programme that began every story with a much-loved “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” For Woman’s Hour he interviewed many of the pop stars of the day, including Rod Stewart.
In 1978 he published his first book for children, The King of Quizzical Island. It was inspired by reading about the Flat Earth Society, and tells the story of an eccentric king’s determination to find the edge of the world. “It’s quite well known and I heard it said/ By wise men old and clever/ That those who sail to the end of the world/ Fall off and fall forever.” He approaches writing for children by asking himself, “If I came totally new to the world, what would I think and see? I think it’s a help if you’re writing verse, because children love verse.”
When he moved to Ireland he wrote scripts for RTÉ, including Wanderly Wagon. The Wanderly Wagon team were “a marvellous crowd to work with”, he says, recalling that the script sessions were enormously enjoyable. “People like Frank Kelly, Eamon Morrissey and Jim Doherty, the composer and musical director ... I remember Jim saying once, ‘Gordon I think that’s a terrific idea. It has one fault: it’s not funny!’”
I have been lucky enough to consider Snell a friend for almost 10 years, and I’ve always admired his good humour and capacity for joy. There’s humour to be found in most situations when you look for it, he believes, remembering that when Binchy had an idea for a novel based on revenge, she didn’t go ahead with it, because she decided it wasn’t an emotion that could be made in any way sympathetic. “She just couldn’t think herself into the mindset of somebody who was so intent on revenge that they would do anything to harm somebody. I would feel that too – I think we are probably both quite gentle souls, and wouldn’t want to savage people.”
In addition to his writing – a recent poem called Pangur Bán and Audrey is included in the new anthology, Sunday Miscellany: A Selection 2018-2023 – Snell dedicates time and energy to initiatives that perpetuate his wife’s memory and literary legacy, such as the annual Maeve Binchy UCD Travel Award, which he and the Binchy family established in 2014, and the Echoes literary festival in Dalkey every October. Continuing to encourage and support other writers, just as she always did, is very important to Snell. “We both certainly rejoiced in each other’s successes, which was great. Neither of us felt at all envious or jealous. We were delighted. We were always very celebratory people.”