Wednesday 24 January 2018

Remembering Maeve's newspaper writing

Ink ran through Maeve Binchy's veins long before she became a bestselling author, says Books Editor John Spain

Ink ran through Maeve Binchy's veins long before she became a bestselling author, says Books Editor John Spain
Ink ran through Maeve Binchy's veins long before she became a bestselling author, says Books Editor John Spain
Maeve's Times by Maeve Binchy is published today by Hachette Books Ireland at €16.99

John Spain

Maeve Binchy is best-known for her novels, but for many years she was a journalist. Her first newspaper piece – a travel article – was published in the Irish Independent, and for years she worked for the Irish Times. Today a collection of the best of her newspaper pieces is published in a new book titled Maeve's Times.

The book includes an introduction by her husband, the writer Gordon Snell, who says that when he reads her newspaper pieces again "I hear her voice and feel she is back with us again, in all the vivacious joy she created around her. I above all feel specially lucky that we met, and spent so many happy and loving years together."

Like the best journalism, Maeve's newspaper pieces stand the test of time. One of them in the collection, reprinted on this page, is about time and why the Irish are such poor timekeepers.

It shows that Maeve's writing, although always humorous, frequently had a sharp edge to it.

This piece about people who are always late was written nearly 20 years ago, but it resonates today in a world of mobile phones and text messages saying "be there in two", which nearly always means "be there in 10".

There Is No Excuse, by Maeve Binchy

I regard people who say they'll meet you at eight pm and then turn up at eight-thirty as liars. I had a colleague years ago in my teaching days who used to smile and say that she was always late, as if it were something outside her control, like having freckles or a Gemini star sign.

At first I went through agonies thinking she had been mown down by a bus. After that I would arrange to meet her, not on the corner of a street or at the cinema, but in a café where at least I could sit down while waiting. After that I stopped meeting her. There were too many main features beginning at five-twenty missed, too many buses gone, too many houses where I had to be part of an apology for an unpunctuality that was none of my making.

She lives in another country now and I met someone who had been to see her. Just as nice as ever, apparently, just as good company. Much loved by her children but treated as a dotty old lady who can't be relied on. She would never turn up to pick them up from school, so they just adapted to doing their homework in the school yard. So she is still at it, thinking she can say one thing and do another, and everyone will forgive her because she is unpunctual the way other people are left-handed or colour-blind.

Of course she got away with it because people are so astounded by the unpunctual that they forgive them and allow them to roam the world as ordinary people instead of as the liars they are. It's our fault for putting up with it in every walk of life and I advise people to declare war on the unpunctual. It's no longer acceptable to consider it an attractive, laid-back, national characteristic. It is in fact a lazy, self-indulgent, discourteous way of going on. Already there are a lot of signs that people do not accept it as charming.

I remember a time when the curtain never went up on time in a Dublin theatre because, as the theory went, the Irish were all so busy being witty and wonderful and entertaining in bars they couldn't do anything as pen-pushing, meticulous and prosaic as coming in and being seated before eight o'clock. But enough protests from those who objected to people shuffling in late to performances has led to their not being admitted until the first interval, and it's very interesting to see how that has concentrated the ability to get to the place before the lights go out.

Staff of Aer Lingus don't think it's charming and witty to leave late because their wonderful free-spirited clients can't be hurried, and likewise with trains, the DART and the buses. Religious services don't take account of some quirk in the national psyche by having Mass at around eleven or Matins at approximately ten.

Races, football matches, television programmes start on time. Why should business appointments and social engagements be let off this hook? And yet this week I was talking to an American publisher on the phone who said that she was expecting an Irish author in her office but he was 40 minutes late. She laughed good-naturedly and even though she was 3,000 miles away I could see her shrug forgivingly. 'Oh well, that's the Irish for you!' she said, as if somehow it explained something. To me it explained nothing.

As a race we are not naturally discourteous. In fact, if anything, we wish to please a bit too much. That's part of our national image. So where does this unpunctuality come into the stereotype? Has it something to do with being feckless and free and not seeing ourselves ever as a slave to any time-servers or time-keepers? It's a bit fancy and I don't think that it's at all part of what we are.

Not turning up at the time you promised seems quite out of character and if we do it, it must be because it has been considered acceptable for too long. If nobody were to wait for the latecomer, then things would surely change. If the unpunctual were to be left looking forlorn and foolish when they had ratted on their promise, then people would keep better time. We shouldn't go on saying that it's perfectly all right and, nonsense, they mustn't worry, and really it was quite pleasant waiting here alone wondering was it the right day, the right place, or the right time. We should never again say to latecomers that they're in perfect time when the meal is stuck to the roof of the oven and the other guests are legless with pre-dinner drinks.

Sit in any restaurant, bar or hotel foyer and listen while people greet each other. 'I'm very sorry. The traffic was terrible.' 'I'm sorry for being late. I couldn't get parking . . .' 'I'm sorry. Are you here long? I wasn't sure whether you said one or half past . . .' 'I'm sorry, but better late than never.' I wouldn't forgive any of these things. In a city, people with eyes in their heads know that the traffic is terrible; they can see it. Unless they have been living for a while on the planet Mars, they're aware that it's impossible to park. If they couldn't remember whether you said one or half past, that shows great interest in the meeting in the first place. And as for better late than never, I'm not convinced.

Maeve's Times by Maeve Binchy is published today by Hachette Books Ireland at €16.99

Irish Independent

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