independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Maeve Binchy, part 3 - Meeting Gordon, the love of her life

Gordon and Maeve in their Dalkey home

Being over six feet tall and slightly overweight, Maeve Binchy had found it hard to find a man to share her life. But at last she met Gordon Snell, a BBC writer and presenter in London and her life changed. She had found true love ... and her real calling as one of the world's most successful writers.

After UCD, Maeve Binchy began her working life as a teacher and used the long summer holidays to travel. Her first summer away on a kibbutz in Israel had an unexpected bonus. When she arrived home in Dalkey there was a cheque waiting for her.

Her father had been so impressed by her letters home that he'd had them typed up and sent to the newspapers. The Irish Independent was the first to recognise her talent and gave Maeve her very first by-line, publishing her article under the title 'A Kibbutz Welcome'.

This led to regular travel writing for papers and five years later she decided to give up her safe job as a teacher and become a freelance journalist, full time.

Eventually, the Irish Times asked her to be their Women's Editor and her life in journalism really began. Both her parents had died by now and she had moved from the family home in Dalkey to a flat in Dublin.

It was the early 1970s, and as well as working for the paper, Maeve began doing pieces for RTÉ and the BBC, sometimes going over to the BBC studios in London. On one of these trips she was introduced to a freelance broadcaster by the name of Gordon Snell. They got on very well and whenever Maeve found herself in London thereafter, they'd meet.

Gordon was tall and, although seven years older than Maeve, was boyishly handsome. They gelled immediately, partly because they shared the same kind of humour.

She claimed not to have fancied him straight away, but liked being with him and trusted him. Trust was a key emotion in Maeve's repertoire. And trust was not something she associated with men, since she had been let down several times on her travels in her early 20s.

It was Gordon's openness that swung it for her. She observed that his face lit up whenever he saw someone he liked, and it lit up for her especially.

After all the disappointment with men, he was exactly what Maeve needed. They were good friends for a year or two, then romance slowly blossomed.

Her friends realised she was in love with him long before she did, and the romance went on and on, with Maeve and Gordon travelling back and forth between England and Ireland.

But how was she to get the affair on to a more permanent basis? Her work on the paper was everything to her. How could she give that up and take the risk of a far less certain future with Gordon in London?

That was solved when she applied for and got a job that came up in the paper's London office. It was a busy time, with the troubles and bombings in Britain. But one of her big successes was less depressing, her Inside London column in which her great skill at picking up on overheard conversations was first seen. These pieces were really short stories in disguise and by 1976 they had become a Binchy format, an anticipated ingredient of her writing. And it was this that led in the direction of fiction.

In fact it was Gordon who first mentioned writing fiction as something they could both do. Maeve was starting to feel the same way about journalism -- you wrote your piece, expending great creative energy in the process, and it was history the next day.

They both wanted something more lasting, like books. And that is how it began. Now, after she'd finished her day on the paper, she wrote short stories in the office between 6 and 8pm, after everyone else had gone home.

On days when she was off, Gordon might be out working for the BBC or he'd be writing at home. If the latter, they would write in the same room -- twin typewriters next to one another.

They had a rule about showing each other their work. They had to tell the absolute truth. But then there would be what they called 'sulking time', 10 minutes to decide whether the criticism would be taken on board or the original justified and kept.

Generally, they would stop around seven. They'd be firm about this too, close up shop, have a shower. They were blissfully happy together and in their work.

When they married quietly in London, Gordon was 44, Maeve 37. The honeymoon was in the mountains near Melbourne in Australia, at the home of friends.

From there, Maeve sent back a series to the paper called 'On the Beaches'. Responding to one such article, a besotted reader wrote:

"I disagree with your non-smoking correspondent, Mrs Courtney. I like the photograph of Miss Binchy lighting a cigarette. In fact I like all your photographs of her whatever she's doing. I particularly liked the one in today's issue of her lying on the beach with no clothes on, wasn't she? -- Yours, etc.

By the following year, when Maeve was 38, she had discovered she couldn't have children. She and Gordon were bitterly disappointed, but as time went on they remained so occupied with writing their books that some friends of theirs believed at first that they were childless by choice, which wasn't so. Maeve compensated by pouring attention on the children of friends and relatives.

Around the same time, on a visit to Dalkey, Maeve had spotted a cottage called Pollyvilla for sale close to her childhood home and they ended up buying it. Fortunately her first novel Light a Penny Candle appeared soon after and was a huge success. It entered the Top 10 in the UK immediately and remained there for 53 weeks.

At home in Dalkey with Gordon, at what was now to become their principal address, they extended the first floor to make a studio where they could both continue to work side by side. Glass-covered, and sun-strewn in summer, it could be reached by means of a spiral staircase from the ground floor. A roof patio was laid outside where the 10 minutes' 'sulking time' could be spent dead-heading roses.

Later, with part of the proceeds from the sale of her novel Firefly Summer, they bought the house next door to increase their privacy, naming it Firefly Cottage. Outside the combined cottages looked small, but inside there was all the space they needed to live, work and entertain.

The working partnership with Gordon, who was now a successful children's writer, was extremely helpful. "The discipline of another writer sitting beside you makes you work," Maeve said. They'd work for four hours in the morning. Gordon would often put on a pair of silent headphones to cut out all sound. Maeve could answer the phone and think nothing of the interruption, but when she was writing she was gone to the world.

They were not at all competitive, even now that Maeve's career had taken off globally. Both being writers, they knew that some days go better than others. On a bad writing day, when things just didn't go well, they were a tremendous support to one another.

They had little systems for all sorts of things. For example, one left over from earlier days when money was tight was that they discussed financial matters only on Saturdays. Bills, cheques, whatever, all went into a drawer until then.

Maeve by now was a writer with a huge following around the world, including in the US where President Bush's wife Barbara was a big fan. She was being published in 36 languages and had become very wealthy.

But money isn't everything, and to Maeve it wasn't even very important. Her health was under increasing stress and had been for some time. She was overweight and although she claimed not to have a sweet tooth, she liked butter, sauces, wine, curry and cheese.

She said that more unhappiness was caused in the world by people trying to change people than anything else. It was her lot in life to be big. Her personality and creativity depended on her being herself.

But the other side of that was that at fifty even her large frame (six foot one) could not sustain her body weight. Osteoarthritis was crippling her; she couldn't walk or sleep for pain. Four years of agony later, during which she could hardly stand, she needed a hip replacement, but was too overweight to be operated on. She was told to lose six stone in a year. She managed it in six months.

Desperate measures, a diet of Ryvita and the occasional slice of smoked salmon, so harmed her that she needed a blood transfusion as well as the hip replacement.

How she cut down on her beloved wine is a story in itself. She restricted herself to one evening of wine each month. The problem was that she looked forward to the evening so much, and her body's susceptibility to alcohol increased so dramatically, that each wine night would take days of self-recrimination to get over.

For example, two glasses of wine at a restaurant to celebrate her wedding anniversary and she was holding forth listing the shortcomings of every man that she'd had a relationship with before meeting Gordon, sobbing before the assembled throng. That took her three days to get over.

What the massive loss of weight reveals about Maeve is an ability to turn willpower on and off. Unfortunately, once she'd had the operation, she put four of the six stone back on again, saying that if she had to have the other hip replaced, she would simply lose the weight again.

Maeve wanted to write novels that reflected the new Ireland and one of these Tara Road (1998) became a big hit in America. The idea came from overhearing a woman say to her friend in a restaurant: "I'm divorced ... I always thought we had been happily married, but my husband said we hadn't been happy for years." This novel put Maeve's sales in America into overdrive, thanks to a telephone call she received one evening out of the blue. The voice at the other end claimed to be the American chat-show host Oprah Winfrey. "Come on now, who is it really?" asked Maeve. In a firm voice came the words "It is Oprah," and they began to chat.

Oprah told Maeve that she had selected Tara Road for her book club, which because Oprah's show went out all over the world, guaranteed it global success. Six weeks later, Maeve went into a studio with Oprah and four women who had read the book and had experienced similar experiences.

Despite her health problems, Maeve retained her sense of humour. UCD Professor Declan Kiberd undertook a series of literary lunches with her and Gordon remembers one occasion when Maeve dropped an earring on the floor. When she went under the table to retrieve it her arthritis took hold and, realising she was stuck fast and couldn't move, she looked up at Kiberd with one eye and said: "Is there anything else useful I can be doing while I'm down here?"

When the end came it was unexpected. Maeve died on Monday, July 30, 2012. She had been in and out of the Blackrock Clinic for treatment for her overlapping ailments.

The final blow came from a heart attack, although the end had begun four weeks earlier with a severe spinal infection -- acute discitis, an infection in the disc space between the vertebrae.

Her readers worldwide were distraught. One wrote simply: "There will be a rare old time in Heaven tonight."

Maeve Binchy - The Biography, by Piers Dudgeon is published by Robson Press on August 5.

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