On the last day of July 2012 the world awoke to hear of the death, at 72, of best-selling novelist Maeve Binchy. She will be greatly missed by her friends and family and her 40 million readers.
My first meeting with Maeve was in the late 1970s at the London home of her then fiancé, soon to become her husband, writer and broadcaster Gordon Snell. Maeve worked for The Irish Times, Gordon for the BBC. Maeve had recently moved to London, where she would continue to write her column for The Irish Times as well as contributing to the papers other pages.
A new editor proposed a series of travel pieces which would provide readers with entertaining summer reading and a hoped-for circulation boost. Maeve was to report from the holiday hot spots in France, Spain and Italy where Irish people in increasing numbers were choosing to take their holidays. She wondered if I might like to take the pictures. I had been running my own studio in Covent Garden since the early 1960s, serving mainly the advertising industry and had no experience as a news or feature photographer. Maeve, for her part, seemed to be unaware there was any other kind. Though hesitant to begin with, I was easily persuaded. A good decision as it happens, which would lead to assignments with a variety of both UK and overseas publications and the eventual happy abandonment of my studio career.
The series was called “On the Beaches” but should really been called “Maeve on the Beaches.” Although I occasionally took The Irish Times, I was not acutely aware how Maeve’s column had made her such a celebrity in her homeland. I had to be reminded that my camera should be focused more on her and less on the sun-kissed bathers.
The series proved popular with readers, attracting a huge postbag. The work was unrelenting fun, and during the ensuing weeks we became the best of friends. We continued to work together in the following months and years on far less exotic stories, mostly in and around London.
Occasionally we would meet to discuss work at an Italian restaurant just across Fleet Street from The Irish Times office in the Reuters Building. By this time Meave was sharply focused on her first major novel. Before leaving home daily for The Irish Times, she would already have been at her typewriter since 6am. As yet, the new work had no title, but it would be set in a small Irish town, in contrast to her two already published collections of short stories, which were both set in London.
I had grown up in such a small town and Maeve hoped I might harbour some lasting impressions and memories of the place. She was right; of course, even now I am given to dining out on tales of my rural mercantile heritage.
My parents owned a typical mixed retail business of a type common to many small Irish towns. It included a jumble of departments, which catered to all the needs of such a town and its hinterland. As well as food, clothing and all kinds of household goods, one could buy building materials, coal and farm implements. We ran a pub and a small hotel mainly for commercial travellers; the tourist industry had not yet begun. When her book, eventually called Light a Penny Candle, reached the bestseller list, an amused Maeve would call me as letters arrived asking her how the child of a leafy Dublin suburb came to understand such arcane details of small town Irish life and retail practice.
An Israeli kibbutz
Asked how she began to write, Maeve would say her inspiration was twofold, an early fascination with travel and, more importantly, an unexpected response to the reassuring letters she wrote home daily while she plucked chickens and packed fruit as a volunteer on an Israeli kibbutz. Her delighted barrister father had his chambers prepare typed copies. These were offered to The Irish Press, where they were promptly published. After college Maeve spent some years as a teacher, but her career as a writer had surely begun in an Israeli kibbutz.
When Maeve was not writing, she was talking. In Ireland particularly, she is well known for her frequent contributions to radio and television. Her appearances were not necessarily related to her work as a writer. She was ready to talk about anything. Broadcast producers were forever on her case, knowing their audience would swell the moment an appearance was likely. Taxi drivers rated her as their favourite passenger. She would sit in front and regale the driver with her take on the day’s events. The drivers, in turn, found themselves telling her things they hadn’t thought to mention to their wives.
On a taxi ride in Chicago, many years ago, a fellow journalist and I were seated in the back while Maeve as usual was busily entertaining the driver. So delighted was he with his chatty passenger that he almost ran a red light. The taxi came to a screeching halt just over the line. The driver lowered his window as a police officer approached. Scarcely had the officer opened his mouth when he fell victim to Maeve’s charm offensive. Our driver, she insisted, was not to blame. Her idle chatter, for which she apologised profusely, had distracted him.
The apology was followed by introductions by name of her fellow passengers and a blow-by-blow account of who we were, where we had come from and the urgency of our mission. The police officer up to this point hadn’t uttered a word, nor did he, as I recall, during the entire encounter. Meanwhile the traffic was building up behind us. More apologies became necessary. Had he heard of Finley Peter Dunne, Maeve enquired. The police officer nodded. Clearly he had, as indeed had everybody in Chicago. Reeling from information overload and the impending possibility of a citywide gridlock, the bewildered officer signalled the greatly relieved driver to move along.
Finley Peter Dunne was a famous journalist whose syndicated satirical column “Mr Dooley Sketches” were required reading for both the political classes and the general public of the east coast of America. So famous was he that Theodore Roosevelt had his sketches read at weekly White House cabinet meetings despite his being the frequent target of Mr Dooley’s barbs. As the bewildered officer O’Flanagan had just learned, we were on our way to a gala event to celebrate the centenary of the 1899 publication of Mr Dooley in Peace and War. President Mary Robinson was the guest speaker and we dare not arrive after her.
More recently, in a development unconnected with Mr Dooley or indeed Theodore Roosevelt, Mayor Daly arranged for Maeve to ride in her own float as part of the annual Chicago St Patrick’s Day parade. Maeve loved Chicago and Chicago loved her back.