Gordon Snell on Maeve Binchy: ‘Her presence is still here’

The late author’s husband says his memories of her are so good he ‘can never really be sad’

Gordon Snell, husband of Maeve Binchy, pictured at a special afternoon tea at the Gaiety held to remember her and to launch the premiere of Minding Frankie. Photograph: Leon Farrell

Gordon Snell, husband of Maeve Binchy, pictured at a special afternoon tea at the Gaiety held to remember her and to launch the premiere of Minding Frankie. Photograph: Leon Farrell

 

The phrase sounds old-fashioned, but Gordon Snell has the most beautiful manners, and manners never go out of fashion. I’m welcomed warmly into his home in Dalkey, Co Dublin. A glass of cold sparkling water appears in front of me to quench the thirst of an unusually hot day, and he makes a thoughtful reference to something I’ve written in the past.

This is all before I’ve been in the house three minutes. In another life, Snell would have made an excellent diplomat.

The fact is, Snell’s life as a radio producer with the BBC in London took a different direction when he took a young woman on an outing to France for the day back in the 1970s.

“At that time, you could get the hovercraft from England to France. We took a hovercraft to Boulogne and went for lunch, and sat in a restaurant chatting all day, and never saw Boulogne at all.”

The young woman was Maeve Binchy, then a journalist with this newspaper, who would become an international best-selling novelist. She and Snell married in 1977 and later moved from London to Dublin, to the house he still lives in. It will be the fifth anniversary of her death this summer.

We’re talking in a comfortable little sitting room full of books. Much of one wall is occupied by copies of Binchy’s books, including those in translation. Snell shows me Japanese, Turkish and Russian editions.”

This loving and heartfelt piece of writing has flashed into my vision before I realise it’s private

“This one is Korean,” he says, and curious to see what Korean script looks like, I take the book off the shelf. It falls open on the flyleaf, with a page-long hand-written inscription from Binchy to Snell that starts, “Dearest Gordon”.

This loving and heartfelt piece of writing has flashed into my vision before I realise it’s private. The reporter in me responds with a reflexive instinct that I should memorise it, but I ignore it and snap the book shut at once, knowing it is the decent thing to do.

Eavesdropping in public, which Binchy was expert at, is perfectly acceptable; eavesdropping on a private conversation in the pages of a book in someone’s home is not.

As we talk, two cats, Audrey and Fred, wander in and out of the room. Snell often talks about Binchy in the present: “These are our cats, which we rescued.”

Asked how they chose the names for the cats, Snell chuckles. “Audrey is a character in Coronation Street. We were both addicted to watching it. One evening we were watching, and Audrey got up and said: “I’m going up to bed to knuckle down with my Maeve Binchy.”

Audrey spends much of the interview on Snell’s knee, shedding white cat hair on his scarlet jumper. He minds not one bit. “They are great company,” he says more than once.

Minding Frankie

When Audrey is not on his knee, he is holding a hardback copy of one of Binchy’s novels, Minding Frankie. It’s the first time one of her novels has been adapted for the stage; it will be performed in June at the Gaiety. Just as he did with Audrey, Snell unselfconsciously strokes the book every now and then.

He is a children’s writer, and has written many books. The couple dedicated every one of their books to each other. “We did that right from the beginning. I am very proud of that, and I was very touched to read all those dedications too. It was a very joyful thing to be able to dedicate books to each other,” he says, his hand tightly grasping the copy of Minding Frankie. To whom does he dedicate his books now?

“Nobody. There couldn’t conceivably be a substitute,” he says, looking stricken. “It would be totally impossible to do that.”

As well as writing in the same room together, they often stopped work to play a game of chess. “We didn’t believe in too much pondering; our games didn’t usually last more than an hour.”

He hasn’t played chess since Binchy died.

Did they ever talk about what life might be like for him after she died? “We didn’t actually, because we had got used to her being in a wheelchair. Maeve was amazingly resilient and never complained at all. Her death was a terrible shock, but everybody says you never lose the shock or the sense of loss when you lose the person you have been with for so long, and loved so much.”

Of course I sometimes feel lonely – we were married for 35 years – but it’s not lonely to be in the house at all

Snell does not believe in an afterlife and refers to death as “the big sleep”. He is not a man of faith. “I’ve lapsed and collapsed.”

He indicates towards the hall, and the rooms beyond. “The house is very much our home and always was, so it remains a very happy place. I don’t feel sad in it. Of course I sometimes feel lonely – we were married for 35 years – but it’s not lonely to be in the house at all. Her presence is still here, and it is very much a joined house, as it were. The books have a life too, if you like, and I am surrounded by her work, which is a help too. The memories of our life are so good, and if you’ve got so much to remember that is joyful and cheerful, then you can never really be sad.”

Gordon Snell and Fred the cat at home in Dalkey. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Gordon Snell and Fred the cat at home in Dalkey. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

A rose by his name

The loveliest thing Binchy ever did for him, he says, was having a rose named after him for a landmark birthday. The Colin Dickson nursery created Rosa Gordon Snell, a yellow rose with a faint reddish-orange shade on the outer petals. There are some in their garden and outside the front door.

“It was the most startling thing anyone could ever do,” he says, smiling with delight.

Binchy was a very public figure, who earned many millions from her talent and who had countless fans. She was invited to lunch at the White House by Barbara Bush, who was a fan (she asked if Snell could come too, and he did). Tara Road was a choice for the highest-profile book club in the world, Oprah Winfrey’s.

Her husband was her constant companion in life and in her many successes, but although she was at ease in the public eye, he prefers a very low-key presence.

When the photographer arrives, Snell is clearly appalled at the prospect of being photographed eating lunch in Finnegan’s, a few doors away from his home. “I think that would be very showy,” he says apologetically.

Over lunch (he has baked crab and a pint of Smithwicks), I ask if he has ever considered writing his memoirs. It’s obvious he has so many stories to tell; stories that began long before he met Binchy.

I wouldn’t feel comfortable about writing about my relationship with Maeve. It’s too personal

Snell was born in Singapore, where he grew up, an only child. His father was an engineer. When it was time for him to go to boarding school, his mother travelled with him to Geelong, Australia. “When my mother and I were in Australia, Singapore was invaded and my father was a prisoner of war for three years.”

He has already been asked by a publisher if he would write a memoir, and has said no. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable about it,” he says. What element would he not feel comfortable with? “Writing about my relationship with Maeve. It’s too personal.”

A little bit later, at the coffee stage, he says, “I was the luckiest person in the world to have met Maeve.”

When I’ve said goodbye to Snell, I walk down Dalkey’s main street to the library. There are three copies of Maeve Binchy’s books on the shelves; the rest are out on loan. I take them out to one of the blue benches in the sunlit Maeve Binchy garden, which was established after her death, and where Rosa Gordon Snell rosebushes are just beginning to bloom. One by one I read the dedications.

The Return Journey, 1998: “To dearest Gordon with all my love and thanks.”

Nights of Rain and Stars, 2004: “For dear good Gordon, who has been such a supportive and kind person that nobody would believe it if I were to write him into a book! Thank you with all of my heart.”

A Week in Winter, 2012 (published posthumously): “For dear generous Gordon who makes life great every single day.”

No wonder Gordon Snell has a house full of Maeve Binchy’s books in many translations; those eternal gifts of consistently loving dedications in dozens of languages ranging from Japanese to Finnish to Turkish to Russian to Korean.

  • Maeve Binchy’s Minding Frankie, adapted by Shay Linehan and directed by Peter Sheridan, is at the Gaiety Theatre from June 6th-17th
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