Monday 19 August 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Only once during two decades was I told a column I wrote was unpublishable'

The human angle is at the centre of what we do: The inimitable Mary Kenny looks back over 20 years of her insightful writing for Weekend…

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

The French have a famous saying which I believe to be true: "The more things change, the more they stay the same." ("Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.") Things change all the time, and dramatically, too. I hear people saying that there has never been so much technical change as we are experiencing now. The typewriter lasted 90 years: now our computers - let alone phones - are outdated within a twelvemonth.

Yet, in another way, things stay the same. Human beings don't alter. There's been a great fashion for Shakespeare and the Tudors over the past decade, and there was a powerful drama on BBC1, Gunpowder, about the delights of torturing English Catholics and their priests in the 1600s. Written by Ronan Bennett, the characters seem vividly contemporary (and Catholics sometimes still feel somewhat tortured for being out of step with political thinking). There's another aspect of plus ça change: every endeavour and institution has to change, and modernise, and yet it also has to maintain continuity. Evolution dictates that the law of survival is adaptation: but it is also about continuing to reproduce the species.

So it is with media, which has undergone dramatic changes over the past decade or so. There must be adaptation to new technologies. But there must also be continuity of content, of character, and of a sense of communicating with, and serving, the reader. Styles come and go out of fashion, but the central tenet of journalism remains: 'Remember the human angle.' Journalism is, as they say, the first draft of history: but it is also, compellingly, about people.

It's been 20 years since I came on board the Irish Independent Weekend magazine, which was the first of its kind in Ireland, conceived and introduced by the late, energetic Vinnie Doyle, long-time editor of this newspaper. Having all the week's TV listings in one place, plus columnists and features, brought a new dimension, at that time, to the character of a daily newspaper. Because of its week-long TV listings, Weekend would usually be consulted over the course of a week, and a magazine which has a week's shelf life can take a more discursive view of events.

A daily newspaper columnist needs to address the topics of the day or that have some link with the current news. A weekly magazine can be more reflective. You mightn't read a particular item in Saturday's edition of a magazine until the following Thursday. So the pace is slightly different.

So, perhaps, is the content. Only once, during my two decades of writing for Weekend, have I been told that a column I wrote was unpublishable - and the then magazine editor, Brian Brennan, who made the decision was entirely right in his judgement (in old Fleet Street, we were told that "the Editor is always right, even when he's wrong"). This was a column about Roger Casement's sexuality, and I went into rather too much anatomical detail about the contents of the 'Black Diaries'. It wasn't, as they say nowadays, 'appropriate' for the context. Save it for an academic journal or suchlike.

A successful magazine, like a successful newspaper, has to have a personality, and a magazine's personality should be friendly - though it can be sharp and trenchant when it strikes the right note. But a magazine's readership is often wide: it will turn up in hospitals and nursing homes and unexpected places as well as in the reader's own home, and journalistic boldness needs to be tempered by taste.

In 1997, when Weekend started, we were still working in Irish punts (the IR£ was pitched at 88 pence sterling - around what the euro is worth now, give or take) and bear in mind the Irish Independent is available on both sides of the border. In those days there were still adverts for cigarettes (albeit accompanied by large warnings that SMOKING CAUSES CANCER) and adverts, too, for booze. Kilkenny Beer was a favourite (for Christmas: "Don't be a Scrooge, pour it, it's huge"). There were no websites and when a telephone number was referenced, it was a landline. The up-to-date technology was the fax. There were some advertisements for the new mobile phone, but these were what is now called a 'brick' apparatus, and all it did was make phone calls.

President McAleese was newly at Áras an Uachtaráin and I wondered at the protocol of women wearing trousers at formal events, which seems a little pompous now - Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton are never seen in anything else - but it seems to have been a talking point in 1997. The esteemed Conor Cruise O'Brien was still writing for this newspaper and the key up-and-coming political duo were Bertie Ahern and David Trimble. Princess Diana had only recently died, and Charles J Haughey was still a powerful figure.

By the following year, the human angle which captured much sympathy was that of Chernobyl, and the child victims so valiantly championed by Adi Roche. I wrote a column following my son's observation that there had never been a war between any two countries which had McDonald's hamburgers - liberal capitalism brings peace, you see. Is this still true? Russia and China are both in possession of the famed hamburger franchise - to the horror of Sinologists, there is apparently a Ronald McDonald at the foot of the Great Wall. May it bring peace!

Fashion, films, sport, motoring, music, interviews, the performing arts, celebrities, social issues, feminist issues, travel, quirky aspects of Ireland, gardening and increasing attention to food (which seems to be replacing drink) are featured as the years roll by in Weekend. A little bit of religion occasionally appears - as when Peter Cunningham visits a monastery, for example.

The adverts for Clerys - Clerys for china, for beauty products, for everything, really - give me a nostalgic tug. How I miss Clerys on O'Connell Street, where you could get just about everything, from an unusual light bulb to a First Communion outfit.

Digital Ireland appeared around 2003, and websites started to be cited. The presence of immigrants from Brazil in Roscommon or asylum seekers in Ennis appears in feature reportage. There is more awareness of a world changed post-9/11. But Sex and the City is still mainstream. After the July 2005 terrorist attack in London, there is more focus on the integration of Muslims.

By 2011, we become informed about women freezing their eggs, to "put motherhood on ice". By the second decade of the new millennium, we're increasingly aware of Vladimir Putin - and Leo Varadkar. Personalities in the public realm change over the years, yet it's amazing how enduring some of the showbiz icons of our times have been: Madonna, David Beckham, Liam Gallagher, Shane MacGowan and The Pogues, Keith Richards and, above all, father, grandfather and great-grandfather Mick Jagger.

And there have been outstanding writers and contributors over the years: John McGahern, JP Donleavy, Dermot Bolger, Con Houlihan, Billy Roche, Neil Jordan, Maureen Cairnduff and, currently Roddy Doyle. Martina Devlin appeared originally in the magazine, as did the aforementioned Peter Cunningham, and there have been so many accomplished journalists and writers in these pages. The impressive travel section continues. Diarmuid Gavin has brought celebrity to the gardening arts.The late Paolo Tullio was a great favourite with foodies, and Katy McGuinness has surely followed in his well-loved footsteps.

Inevitably, some of what is chronicled goes out of date, but some stands the test of time. When the euro first appeared, I wrote that its designs were utterly vapid, and that it was a pity the EU couldn't agree on featuring historical figures such as Dante, Goethe or Victor Hugo (banned for reasons of national rivalries). I still think that.

I gave some good advice to Aer Lingus back in 2001 - be more flexible in fare structures - and some which would now be seen as oddly quaint, if not offensively sectarian (go back to blessing the aircraft, forsooth!).

One of my favourite Weekend features has been the Short Story in Six Words (page 3) - a precursor of the tweet, but more thoughtful and meaningful. I'd like to cite a handful from September 2014, which truly satisfy our need for that deep human angle: "Packed bus. Eyes meet. Missed stop," from Emma Olohan.

"'Hello, Mum.' 'Ah… and you are?'" (Ted Jones)

"Her last reunion. Nobody else appeared." (Richard D Barton)

"The bride stuck to orange juice." (Diarmaid Bleheen)

And the winner was Carmel Kealy from Tuam: "Kettle boiled. Biscuits sought. No visitors."

All human life is there, indeed.

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