‘MAEVE’S PRES­ENCE IS STILL HERE’

Gor­don Snell, hus­band of the late Maeve Binchy, says his mem­o­ries of her are so good he ‘can never re­ally be sad’

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Rosita Boland

The phrase sounds old-fash­ioned, but Gor­don Snell has the most beau­ti­ful man­ners, and man­ners never go out of fash­ion. I’m wel­comed warmly into his home in Dalkey, Co Dublin. A glass of cold sparkling wa­ter ap­pears in front of me to quench the thirst of an un­usu­ally hot day, and he makes a thought­ful ref­er­ence to some­thing I’ve writ­ten in the past.

This is all be­fore I’ve been in the house three min­utes. In an­other life, Snell would have made an ex­cel­lent diplo­mat.

The fact is, Snell’s life as a ra­dio pro­ducer with the BBC in Lon­don took a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion when he took a young woman on an out­ing to France for the day back in the 1970s.

“At that time, you could get the hov­er­craft from Eng­land to France. We took a hov­er­craft to Boulogne and went for lunch, and sat in a restau­rant chat­ting all day, and never saw Boulogne at all.”

The young woman was Maeve Binchy, then a jour­nal­ist with this news­pa­per, who would be­come an in­ter­na­tional best-sell­ing nov­el­ist. She and Snell mar­ried in 1977 and later moved from Lon­don to Dublin, to the house he still lives in. It will be the fifth an­niver­sary of her death this sum­mer.

We’re talk­ing in a com­fort­able lit­tle sit­ting room full of books. Much of one wall is oc­cu­pied by copies of Binchy’s books, in­clud­ing those in trans­la­tion. Snell shows me Ja­panese, Turk­ish and Rus­sian edi­tions.

“This one is Korean,” he says, and cu­ri­ous to see what Korean script looks like, I take the book off the shelf. It falls open on the fly­leaf, with a page-long hand-writ­ten in­scrip­tion from Binchy to Snell that starts, “Dear­est Gor­don”.

This lov­ing and heart­felt piece of writ­ing has flashed into my vi­sion be­fore I re­alise it’s pri­vate. The re­porter in me re­sponds with a re­flex­ive in­stinct that I should mem­o­rise it, but I ig­nore it and snap the book shut at once, know­ing it is the de­cent thing to do.

Eaves­drop­ping in pub­lic, which Binchy was ex­pert at, is per­fectly ac­cept­able; eaves­drop­ping on a pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion in the pages of a book in some­one’s home is not.

As we talk, two cats, Au­drey and Fred, wan­der in and out of the room. Snell of­ten talks about Binchy in the present: “These are our cats, which we res­cued.”

Asked how they chose the names for the cats, Snell chuck­les. “Au­drey is a char­ac­ter in Corona­tion Street. We were both ad­dicted to watch­ing it. One evening we were watch­ing, and Au­drey got up and said: “I’m go­ing up to bed to knuckle down with my Maeve Binchy.”

Au­drey spends much of the in­ter­view on Snell’s knee, shed­ding white cat hair on his scar­let jumper. He minds not one bit. “They are great com­pany,” he says more than once.

Mind­ing Frankie

When Au­drey is not on his knee, he is hold­ing a hard­back copy of one of Binchy’s nov­els, Mind­ing Frankie. It’s the first time one of her nov­els has been adapted for the stage; it will be per­formed in June at the Gai­ety. Just as he did with Au­drey, Snell un­self­con­sciously strokes the book ev­ery now and then.

He is a chil­dren’s writer, and has writ­ten many books. The cou­ple ded­i­cated ev­ery one of their books to each other. “We did that right from the be­gin­ning. I am very proud of that, and I was very touched to read all those ded­i­ca­tions too. It was a very joy­ful thing to be able to ded­i­cate books to each other,” he says, his hand tightly grasp­ing the copy of Mind­ing Frankie. To whom does he ded­i­cate his books now?

“No­body. There couldn’t con­ceiv­ably be a sub­sti­tute,” he says, look­ing stricken. “It would be to­tally im­pos­si­ble to do that.”

As well as writ­ing in the same room to­gether, they of­ten stopped work to play a game of chess. “We didn’t be­lieve in too much pon­der­ing; our games didn’t usu­ally last more than an hour.” He hasn’t played chess since Binchy died. Did they ever talk about what life might be like for him af­ter she died? “We didn’t ac­tu­ally, be­cause we had got used to her be­ing in a wheel­chair. Maeve was amaz­ingly re­silient and never com­plained at all. Her death was a ter­ri­ble shock, but ev­ery­body says you never lose the shock or the sense of loss when you lose the per­son you have been with for so long, and loved so much.”

Snell does not be­lieve in an af­ter­life and refers to death as “the big sleep”. He is not a man of faith. “I’ve lapsed and col­lapsed.”

He in­di­cates to­wards the hall, and the rooms be­yond. “The house is very much our home and al­ways was, so it re­mains a very happy place. I don’t feel sad in it. Of course I some­times feel lonely – we were mar­ried for 35 years – but it’s not lonely to be in the house at all. Her pres­ence is still here, and it is very much a joined house, as it were. The books have a life too, if you like, and I am sur­rounded by her work, which is a help too. The mem­o­ries of our life are so good, and if you’ve got so much to re­mem­ber that is joy­ful and cheer­ful, then you can never re­ally be sad.”

h‘ The ouse is very much our home and al­ways was, so it re­mains a very happy place. I don’t feel sad in it

A rose by his name

The loveli­est thing Binchy ever did for him, he says, was hav­ing a rose named af­ter him for a land­mark birth­day. The Colin Dick­son nurs­ery cre­ated Rosa Gor­don Snell, a yel­low rose with a faint red­dish-orange shade on the outer petals. There are some in their gar­den and out­side the front door. “It was the most star­tling thing any­one could ever do,” he says, smil­ing with de­light.

Binchy was a very pub­lic fig­ure, who earned many mil­lions from her talent and

Gor­don Snell and (be­low) with Fred at his home in Dalkey. PHO­TO­GRAPHS: CYRIL BYRNE, BRENDA FITZSIMONS

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