I was looking for something light to read yesterday evening and I discovered that somehow I had missed an anthology of Maeve Binchy’s journalistic writing, called Maeve’s Times. So I picked it up because growing up, my first contact with Maeve Binchy was the book Light A Penny Candle. I was quite young when I read it, and I have to say it didn’t impact on me quite the way other books of hers did. If I had to pick two which resonated, I would pick Circle of Friends and The Glass Lake.
I am not the greatest fan of the Irish Times. I never have been. It seems to me very much to be a paper which rests heavily on emotional laurels. I never quite got the attraction of An Irishman’s Diary, and I didn’t see why the media world in Ireland saw fit to sanctify the outpourings of Kevin Myers. It was like a whole society that I just didn’t fit into. Much of Maeve Binchy’s writing fits into a narrative of classic Irish Times writers. Many people love it. I have mixed feelings about it. I do believe that a review of her novels would be significant in terms of an assessment of social mores in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s. The problem is this collection of opinion pieces and journalism which Binchy wrote over a 40 year career has left me less than sated. I did not find it to be a particularly enjoyable book.
Part of it, I imagine, is a generational thing. Maeve Binchy started writing for the Irish Times well before I was born. Part of it is that I had and continue to have very different experiences. Many of the facets of Irish life that she describes are not my Irish life at all.
More than anything, she writes with an eye that focuses on the melancholy and the negative. There are few pieces in the book which do not end on some note of veiled criticism of some person or other. I found many of the pieces deeply saddening in some respects because the common thread is to be doing something wrong.
Maeve Binchy wrote a lengthy piece in 1994 about a man wishing not to go out because of the constant having to defend not drinking he’d have to do. She wrote at length about how he was wrong, how Ireland had changed and how sure no one would do that to him. The undercurrent the whole way through the piece was how wrong he was, how he didn’t know what he was talking about in this day and age.
The problem is, I have a lot of sympathy for that man. I’ll never know him, and he’s probably 40 years older than me. Given that my experience in Ireland is pretty much that people who do not drink alcohol have a long journey to go before people actually accept that, and this has been my experience the way straight through from 1990 to 2015, I find it difficult to believe that in 1994, there was a happy period when in fact, people accepted that other people didn’t drink. And when Maeve refuses to accept his views on the matter, it becomes clear that whatever the observations are based on, it may not actually be based on listening to other people. She absolutely discounts his experience. I tend to find that quite disquieting.
There are other features of the book which left darts of dissatisfaction. Maeve may have bought a passenger ticket at a ferry port to get access to people waiting for news of loved ones following the Herald of Free Enterprise accident but there is something mildly disquieting about trying to get at people who may not necessarily, want to be got at by journalists.
When you look at the book in a dispassionate manner, there is a strong focus on the gone-wrongness, from the earliest writing to the latest. Mostly, Maeve gives you the impression of people for whom things go wrong, or people whose actions she can cast and judge in a negative life. If I were to take away any message from her book, it is this: that in Ireland, there is a lot of unhappiness and and loneliness in Ireland. I don’t get a good takeaway message from a lot of her columns, be it about Nora and her trips to the airport, or the mother whose trips to Brown Thomas are disrupted by changes to that store. The woman was elderly. There is no person in that story who is given a kindly eye by Maeve, no understanding, no empathy. Just barbed comments about each of the women. More than one piece talked about different women who had become easy women. I realise that I may be looking at things through a very different prism compared to the lens available to Maeve at the time of writing…but one cannot fail to notice the strong stench of judgementalism coming out of the pores of stories about people whose emotional lives failed to be perfect
I found it all rather sad, to be honest. And when I stripped away the sadness, I realise that in many ways, Maeve Binchy did not describe the Dublin I knew. It may be a Dublin other people knew, or used to know. And she certainly didn’t describe the people I knew. Her Dublin may have been small; everyone knew everyone else. It never seems to have occurred to her that this says more about her than it does about Dublin.