Revelations

Maeve Binchy, Dublin, 1957
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The Independent Culture
MY MOTHER would talk not only to the person beside her on the bus, but the whole bus. As a teenager, I used to wish she didn't, because I was very self-conscious.

Tortured by the idea that everybody was watching me, I tried to make the most of myself, but as I was fat that was always hard. I remember getting ready for my very first dance, and because there were no tanning beds or fake tan lotion, I rubbed on my face a mixture of Nivea and the cheapest brand of brown boot polish - which most people wouldn't even put on their shoes.

From childhood, my friends and I had been peeping through the railings to watch this dance. We'd decided that girls in red were danced with more. Red didn't suit me, so I bought a horrible turquoise dress for 16 shillings. I'd tried it on so often, admiring myself in the mirror, that once when eating a choc-ice I dropped it over the front. With that and boot polish on my face, it is amazing that I wasn't ordered home from the hall.

I was very dangerous to dance with, and the few men that did must have regretted it when they were left with strange marks on their chests.

As a student at University College Dublin, studying history, I thought academic life would be some kind of beauty contest, where the petite and fleet of foot would win all the garlands. We had this lovely big park called St Stephen's Green, and we students thought we owned it.

One day in my first year, I was sitting on a park bench wearing my "good" coat, beige with a brown velvet collar, which was really my old school coat. I looked awful and childish. Feeling miserable, I started thinking: "Gosh, if only I had a navy duffel coat I wouldn't look so ludicrous, and the boys would fancy me."

I was brought up in a convent school, and there was quite a lot of emphasis by the nuns on the amount of lust we would meet in the outside world. It was up to us girls to try to keep it in the confines of good Catholic marriage. I was almost a little bit disappointed that there was so little lust around for me to repel.

In a blue duffel coat, I imagined much more practice in defending my holy purity. It would have had toggles and a little hood at the back, which you never put up, the dernier cri of the Fifties. Men wore them, women wore them - just like jeans nowadays, the duffel coat was a badge of belonging.

It was a lovely day and there were so many people moving around it was almost like an ant hill. I put down the book I was reading. Suddenly it was as clear as daylight, and it's never gone back: "Nobody is looking at me - it does not matter what I'm wearing. All these people walking through St Stephen's Green are wondering how they look. It's like after a dance, they're not all going to return home and tell their families: `Maeve Binchy didn't get danced with for this number of times', or `she was wearing an absurd yellow dress'."

It was an incredible liberation. Straightaway I stopped saving for the duffel coat - it didn't matter any more. The people who wanted to have coffee and cakes with me, or dance with me, did it because they liked me. I didn't care if a guy had spots, or lank hair falling into his eyes, if he was nice and interested in things. I assumed they would feel the same way, too. From then onwards I was never afraid. I wore miniskirts in the days when no fat girl should have, and with total delight.

Stopping being self-conscious opened a door to other things - such as a kibbutz in Israel at 23. I didn't care that I was the only Catholic girl there, or how I would look in shorts as I picked oranges. I was much more interested in listening to other people talking, and hearing their stories. Stories have taken me to some incredible places.

Barbara Bush is a great fan and asked me for lunch at the White House. Driving up the avenue, I had a fit of the giggles. I did think it was ridiculous; I'm not the sort of person with an invitation, rather someone outside protesting about Vietnam. Everybody else would have worried about how they looked; my concern was whether I would know when to go.

Perhaps most important, my revelation on the park bench stopped me from putting on a literary style and gave me the courage to write about what I know. Many people of my age were affected by the dazzling novels of people such as Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood, but being wary of affectation, I decided that if I could talk, I could write.

Please don't jump to the conclusion that I'm constantly delighted with myself. I don't want to be a mad eccentric like Quentin Crisp - there are limits. I was walking through Selfridges one day, and saw two old bag ladies, with floppy open coats coming towards me. I thought: "How extraordinary. They are the spitting image of each other, they must be twins I wonder if they sleep together on the Embankment?"

So I started staring at them while they looked back at me. Suddenly I realised I was looking into a double mirror - it was me! Such a shock. I knew I had to smarten up. After I got rich, in 1983, I could afford to have clothes made for me. My instructions to dressmakers are always the same: no fittings, no discussions, no ironing. I like nice bright colours; it's stupid to wear navies, blacks and browns in the hope of blending into the background.

Sometimes I still glance in the mirror before going out and feel dreadful: "This dress does not fit me anywhere; it bunches up in the wrong place, I paid far too much money for the material." Two seconds later, I think: "Who cares?" Having been a teacher for eight years, I think: once a teacher, always a teacher. I'm always trying to improve people. Despite my own life being chaos, I know I can run everybody else's.

Sometimes, seeing 17-year-olds in agonies of self-consciousness, I'd love to tell them: "It doesn't matter, nobody is watching." But they wouldn't believe me.

Perhaps, instead, I put the message into my books. I was asked in France about my philosophy of life - it could happen nowhere else to a popular author.

I made something up quickly about its not mattering what hand you're dealt, but how you play it. However, after further thought today, I've realised that in my stories there are no make-overs: ugly ducklings do not become beautiful swans, just confident ducks.

Maeve Binchy's new book, `Tara Road', is published by Orion, price pounds 16.99

Interview by

Andrew G Marshall

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