Sunday 21 January 2018

A circle of friends and unreliable men

Maeve Binchy pictured in 1982
Maeve Binchy pictured in 1982
Maeve Binchy at her graduation

Piers Dudgeon

As a teenager Maeve Binchy was over six feet tall, overweight, and had never had a boyfriend. But the day she entered UCD, her life began to change and she went on to have doomed romances with several men.

The second part of the extracts from the new biography by Piers Dudgeon of Ireland's best loved writer which began in Saturday's Irish Independent.

Next Tuesday, July 30, is the first anniversary of the death of Maeve Binchy, who sold more than 40 million books worldwide making her Ireland's bestselling writer ever. The first biography of the writer will be published on Monday, August 5, by The Robson Press, written by Piers Dudgeon. The book is an intimate portrait which shows how Maeve Binchy used her own life to create the characters in her novels. Dudgeon is the author of bestselling biographies of a number of writers including Catherine Cookson, J. M. Barrie and Daphne du Maurier

In 1956, University College Dublin was still on Earlsfort Terrace in the classical building that now houses the National Concert Hall. Initially Maeve -- then just 17 -- signed up for law with the intention of becoming a barrister, but soon realised that law wasn't for her and transferred to arts, taking French and history for an honours degree.

The novelty of university was immediately upon her. The noise and bustle were a hundred times bigger than at school in Holy Child Killiney. Everyone seemed so much more grown up than her, with a confidence and independence unlike anything she'd encountered before.

Student social life revolved around the coffee bar known as the Annexe, as Maeve recalls faithfully in Circle of Friends -- the novel that owes so much to her experience at UCD in the pre-Pill, pre-sexual revolution era.

For Maeve, the Annexe was a huge challenge. There were boys everywhere. In the 1950s, the vast majority of students at UCD were male, a species she knew nothing about.

She had had no boyfriends at all. In the last year at school there'd been a lot of talk of her friends being taken by boys in cars up the Dublin mountains, but she was never invited. She had met fellows at parties, but that was all. Boys were, as far as she was concerned, a species apart.

She was innocent not only of sex but of also talking to boys in the first place.

In the Annexe, it was inevitable that something would happen.

In Circle of Friends Maeve is Benny in this very situation, sitting at a table with her friend, the shapely Nan. A group of boys come over and their leader asks whether the girls would like to come down Grafton Street for some real coffee. He has eyes only for Nan, who puts him off with practised ease. But then to Benny's alarm, Nan offers her instead. To cover her blushes, Benny surprises herself by issuing an invitation of her own: 'Why don't you bring a chair over and have a coffee here with us?'

And so it began, in reality for Maeve as in the fiction for Benny. Communication was easier than she had anticipated. The boys seemed to be almost normal human beings.

In the novel, the boys accept Benny at once. One of them says that he's heard that the Debating Society on a Saturday night is a lot of fun. Maeve did become a force in the UCD Literary and Historical Debating Society (the famous L&H) later and the Saturday night debates usually were followed by the dance in the Gresham Hotel.

In the novel, attending the dance is suggested but Benny cannot go because she is living at home and cannot be in Dublin at weekends. It was the same for Maeve, who had to go home to Dalkey.

Seeing the mass of students milling about in Earlsfort Terrace, the confidence of the girls with their ponytails and college scarves talking with boys, made her feel hopelessly inadequate in the beginning. On campus she felt more desperate than ever before. Since adolescence, she said later, she had been a foot taller than Napoleon and twice the weight of Twiggy. "There I was, a fat, insecure young woman who thought that the race was won by the small, the pretty and the slim."

It took time, but her self-deprecating humour, entertaining chatter and warm personality helped her to make friends in the Annexe, even if it didn't get her a boyfriend. And after her first couple of years in UCD, she had a moment of revelation that was to change everything. She was reading a French essay one day, sitting on a bench in Stephen's Green, self-consciously worrying about what people were thinking about her sitting there on her own.

Then, all of a sudden, something hit her between the eyes. The sentence she was reading (maybe in a book about Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir) was something about a woman who spent her time trying to impress people, and hardly any time actually living her life.

Maeve saw herself, at that moment, for the very first time. It was "as if I had had a vision, that my whole twenty years had been spent running a futile race".

She recalled later that it had been a lovely day. As she put down the book she said to herself, "Nobody is looking at me -- it does not matter what I'm wearing. All these people walking through Stephen's Green are not looking at me, they are wondering how they look!"

Life was not some kind of competition with everyone examining you. She knew she would never worry about what people were thinking ever again. Nor did she.

She described it as an incredible liberation. It was the first step towards taking control of her life. 'The secret of the universe is that we do have to take control of our own lives,' she said years later.

Maeve's revelation brought her to self-belief. The important thing immediately was that she now accepted the hand that nature had dealt her. Once the veil of self-consciousness fell away, she let her real self express itself, intellectually, emotionally, even physically.

"From then onwards I was never afraid. I wore miniskirts in the days when no fat girl should have, and with total delight", she said later.

Maeve no longer lived life on anybody else's terms. In particular, she stopped worrying about not having a boyfriend. "It was a freeing thing for her," a friend said. "She could say, I'm not competing with you for men, so I'm free to be myself."

The summer of 1959 found Maeve studying at a summer school in Wales, along with history students from all over Britain. The lessons were disappointing, so instead she began making eyes at a fellow student called Hiram John, a Welsh boy with curly hair and a great smile. Hiram took Maeve for walks around Caernarvon, swims in Bangor and home to tea with his family. On their last night he took her in his arms, kissed her, and told her that she had been the nicest summer-school romance he had ever had (it transpired that she was his third) -- and sadly that was that.

Maeve, not helped by all her socialising, did badly in her degree exams and went back to UCD for a year to do a HDip, so she could teach. For the next eight years she did just that -- first in Cork, then in Pembroke Road in Dublin at the famous Miss Meredith's, called after its founder who was something of an eccentric. Maeve fitted in very well, for there was a great deal of the theatrical about her during this liberal stage of her life in the early 1960s.

Occasionally she would fly to London, staying at her friend Mary Holland's house in Kensington. Holland was then just starting her journalistic career, which began after she won a competition and was taken on by Vogue which, according to her neighbour, the fashion writer Molly Parkin, she hated. Holland's house became a magnet for visiting Dubliners, including Maeve, and there was quite a party scene. "It was very arty up there at that time and we were all party people," Parkin said.

Three days a week in Dublin, Maeve also taught in a Jewish primary school in Rathgar and her interest was fired in Israel.

When grateful parents of children in the school gave her a present of a ticket to visit Israel, it was to be another turning point. With her best friend from UCD, Philippa O'Keefe, she made arrangements through the Zionist Federation to take a working holiday for two-and- a-half months at Zikim, a kibbutz in southern Israel in the Negev Desert.

On arrival, they were put to work peeling potatoes and plucking chickens. As the long hot summer wore on, Maeve fell in love with the ideals of the kibbutz, writing home about the communal farms and the way of living.

Political idealism and romance were in the air. Cool evenings under the stars were spent listening to music. The songs and the clicking of the crickets mingled with the laughter of army boys and girls who had been billeted on the kibbutz for a month. Maeve was knocked out by it all -- and fell in love.

She was sure that her man loved her. She was so sure that she was wondering how she could explain to her parents that she was going to convert to the Jewish faith and that there would be a desert wedding.

But once again, it turned out that she had poor judgment where men were concerned. Her Israeli did not love her after all. She was not the love of his life, only a summer fling. Maeve took this very badly. And to make matters worse, during that summer she had also lost her faith.

Each week she and Philippa had a couple of days off and on one occasion, Maeve decided to go to Jerusalem and see the Upper Room, where the Last Supper had taken place just before Christ's crucifixion. What she found was a cave. She couldn't say what exactly she had been expecting to find, but of course in her mind will have been the depiction of the Last Supper on the front of the High Altar of the Church of the Assumption at home in Dalkey, modelled on Leonardo da Vinci's.

What she found, she said, was a cave and a gun-toting Israeli soldier with a Brooklyn accent who, when she exclaimed that this couldn't possibly be the site of the Last Supper, said, barely looking up at her, 'What were you expecting, lady, a Renaissance table set for thirteen?'

Immediately, white was black and black was white. Everything she had been taught with such certainty, everything she had taken on board with such trust and faith since she was a tiny child meant nothing. It all went -- like that! -- 'and never came back', she said.

There was another big disappointment in those early years. Molly Parkin remembers Maeve coming round to her house one morning following a party at Mary Holland's house in London. "It was long before mobile phones and she asked whether she could make a call. There'd been a very drunken evening and she'd ended up with the actor Jack MacGowran. There was nothing unusual about this in the 1960s. I was thrilled and excited for her. He was quite a brusque man... he was one of those who came over from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Now she wanted to call him and she was very nervous.

"I remember she needed a couple of brandies before she could pick up the phone.

"Well, it was terrible," said Molly. "Jack didn't want to know and Maeve was bitterly upset. I did my best to console her. She was a warm, wonderful person. I loved her. I'm not sure that men were very good for her."

Hiram John from Wales, her Israeli man and the Irish actor Jack MacGowran certainly weren't. But all that was to change in the near future.

In her eight years as a teacher, Maeve used the long summer holidays every year to see the world. After her first working holiday in Israel she returned to the kibbutz for the next two summers (1964 and 1965). And in the years after that she visited many other countries, spreading her wings.

For two-and-a half-months every year (during the school summer holiday) Maeve took off on her own. Cost? Not a problem. She worked in children's camps, did cheap bus tours and slept on the decks of ships for free, having made a spectacular discovery: a timetable of world shipping called The ABC Shipping Guide.

She spent months studying it. Every port was listed, with the shipping lines that made use of the port, when the ships arrived and when they left, as well as an index which told her where to find out everything about the ships themselves. Maeve used it to plot journeys across the world.

The journalist Michael O'Toole once described her as 'a great traveller, and the only person I know who can say things like "I remember one night in Bombay" without sounding affected'.

Many of the ships were not passenger boats at all. She would write letters to the shipping lines (addresses were available in the book) and ask whether she could be a guest on their boat going to ... wherever.

She would either sleep on the deck of the boat for nothing or, if a berth was available, she would try to get work that would pay for it.

She called the guide her 'favourite book'.

Travelling so much provided a good opportunity to write travel articles. And that is how it all started for her.


'Maeve Binchy, the Biography' by Piers Dudgeon is published on August 5th

Part three ‘Meeting Gordon, the Love of her Life’ in today (Monday's) Irish Independent


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