Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mary Kenny

Something of Myself and Others by Mary Kenny
Published by Liberties.

This Review was published in Books Ireland, September/October, 2014.

When Mary Kenny was a young journalist working in Fleet Street, she was at a party on the Queen Mary in New York. Mini-skirted, and swilling champagne, she approached George Brown. Worse for wear, the British Foreign Minister was in sombre mood, and told her that everyone in Westminster was plotting against him.
The dance over, the twenty-three year old made an International call to the Evening Standard, recounting every word. The piece appeared alongside a photo of Brown, dancing with a well endowed lady, his eyes, apparently on her bosom. Mary’s reputation soared.

The start of Mary Kenny’s memoir is peppered with such tales. Her early days in Dublin working for the Irish Press, and then in Fleet Street illustrate that female journalists weren’t far behind their male colleagues when it came to enjoying a drink or twenty. Although, truth be told, some held their drink better than others.
The young Maeve Binchy could drink prodigious amounts without getting drunk, Kenny tells us. Then she goes on to list a day’s drinking, logged in the company of her late friend, Mary Cummins.

‘First snifter at 11am (large gin and tonic). Lunch: two gins and tonics followed by a bottle and a half of wine each. Snifter at around 5 PM – a couple of gins, or vodkas, and then back to work. 7PM: pub session with pals – often wine in the evening. 9PM, supper with lashings of vino. 11PM to 3AM: postprandials consisting of brandies, whiskey sours, Crème de menthe, and whatever else we could lay our hands on.’

It seems extraordinary that they managed to put words onto a page, yet such behaviour was never discouraged.
‘Drink as much as you like, but file,’ was the mantra of the time. And though Kenny tells us that some journalists found drink helped them to lose their inhibitions and become more effective, she admits that she drank because she liked the sensation and the way it led to recklessness and risk taking.
‘I once drank Ribena and vodka from a baby bottle, with a friend at the wheel doing likewise, and we had a real baby – mine in the back of the vehicle.’

Something of Myself and Others isn’t a conventional autobiography, yet this collection of articles and essays gives a good picture of Kenny’s life and times. A difficult child – Kenny thinks she had ADHD – she was farmed out with a childless aunt. She left school at sixteen, but soon carved out a career for herself.
It was easier to blag your way into journalism in the sixties; indeed, the thought of employing anyone with a specific degree back then was simply unheard of. But then journalism, Kenny says, was considered a trade not a profession. And it was one her parents disapproved of.
‘Oh darling – women journalists are awful,’ her mother quipped. ‘So cynical, and such hard drinkers.’ Prophetic words, indeed.

There are wonderful descriptions of the feminist movement in Dublin, and of the events of the famous condom train – when a group of women bought contraceptives in Belfast, and flouted their purchases back in Dublin, for publicity.
I was living in England back then, and I didn’t know Mary Kenny, rabble-rouser. Her U-turn to respectability and a right wing stance had happened before I became aware of her writing, but I have been an admirer of hers ever since.
Much of the first section of this memoir deals with journalism, and I found all that fascinating. Reading of her famous interviews, where there was often a chance of lingering over an afternoon made me jealous; those days are rare now, and time is almost always limited.

I especially enjoyed the chapter, Life Lessons Journalism Taught Me. In this, Kenny reminds us that preparation is key. Forgetting this, and winging it for an interview with Eamon Andrews, she was caught out by him. Asking about his childhood, he quipped, ‘were you too lazy to look up the clippings?’
Another favourite bit of advice is, ‘don’t get it right – get it written. Get it right on the re-write.’ She also reminds us that a journalist is basically a professional writer, and a professional writer should be able to write about anything.

In another section we hear of Mary’s encounters with Princess Grace of Monaco; with Margaret Thatcher, Gerry Adams, and Michael Fassbender, who acted in her play.

After reams of valuable advice she ends the chapter of a sombre note.
‘I would not advise any young person today to choose the print media as a career,’ she states. She agrees with a veteran editor who compared the state of the newspaper world to the dissolution of the monasteries.
It was a delight, but no surprise to me that Kenny should dispense so much excellent advice on her trade. I’ve met her often in recent years, and always found her to be hugely supportive, encouraging and above all engaged with every aspect of a journalist’s life.

And she’s not averse to asking advice herself. Teaching at Listowel Writer’s Week, she once rang me, asking how I approach editors I’d not worked with before. Her pupils were anxious for advice, and being so well known, it was not an issue she’d had to deal with.

We’re given an inside view of her contemporaries in the section absent friends. The portraits of such luminaries as Terry Keane, labelled as Ireland’s Madame de Pompadour, Nuala Fennell, Mary Holland, and Mary Cummins are insightful and engaging. Learning of their differing careers gives us a complete view of women’s journalism.
On the whole, the accounts are sympathetic. Kenny adored Clare Boylan, the writer who died aged fifty eight. Though she was, at first, upset when, having become a literary writer, Clare described journalism as ‘practising scales, before getting down to real piano-playing.’

Not all are depicted in a wholly complementary way – she doesn’t altogether share the nation’s adoration for Maeve Binchy, for example, but Kenny is not scared to show herself in a bad light through her accounts.
Mary Holland, a journalist Kenny had huge admiration for, proved a loyal friend. When, in 1992, the two shared a cottage in County Clare for the Merriman Festival, Holland was asked if she was concerned for her political reputation, when she was sharing a house with a notorious right winger like Mary Kenny. Her reply?
‘And what about poor Mary Kenny’s reputation – sharing a house with a notorious left wing subversive like me?’
If there is some point scoring, it comes when she talks of June Levine; who was part of that early feminist movement, and wrote an account of it in ‘Sisters.’ That book has become almost the bible of the time, and Kenny didn’t come out of it well. I’ve read ‘Sisters,’ and remember thinking that Levine’s account of Kenny seemed extreme, and possibly unfair.

‘June and some others regarded me as an errant self-publicist,’ says Kenny, who then goes on to defend her appearance on the Late Late Show, after the condom train episode. Clearly upset of the depiction in ‘Sisters,’ of her conduct that day – she was described as behaving disgracefully on the journey back, Kenny sets the record straight, dedicating a chapter to her own account of the day.

The last few chapters become more meditative. Examining her conscience, Kenny details the case of her friend of over thirty years, Father Kit Cunningham, who was convicted as a paedophile. At first disbelieving, the evidence that he had abused boys, years earlier, whilst a missionary became incontrovertible.
Ironically, Kenny had been already been worried that her friend’s behaviour was indiscreet; his friendship with a woman was becoming closer than Mary felt was wise.

The personal life of Kenny’s middle years is barely mentioned. Her two sons receive scant mention, and we only get to know her husband, Richard, through the searingly honest account Kenny gives of being a carer to him, after he had suffered a stroke.

‘My pity for him is stifled by the despair I feel about my own life,’ she writes. ‘In 2010, I will be sixty-six. Will I still be rising each morning to attend to the kitchen, the laundry, the household chores, making breakfast and serving it to him, fetching the papers, facing a day squeezing in journalistic deadlines?’

Kenny ends this superlative memoir by answering the question, why she turned from a fiery revolutionary to a Burkean conservative. She gives us a long list of reasons, some of which, she says, are true.
My favourite?

‘Because so much of what I thought I liked I gradually discovered was not to my true taste at all, and there had been a lot of self-delusion going on. From imagining I was a good dancer to thinking I was dead sexy when I was just dead ridiculous.’

A wonderful handbook for journalists, this memoir highlights a time when eccentricity was encouraged and admired. Highly entertaining, it shows the range and depth of Mary Kenny’s writing.

© Sue Leonard. 2014

Friday, September 26, 2014

Michael and John McGlynn. 2001

I'm spending a week at the gorgeous Tyrone Guthrie Centre, finishing ghosting a book, and John McGlynn from Aunua is here. Lovely guy - he hasn't much changed since I met him in 2001. THis is what I wrote back then.

Michael and John McGlynn.
Interviewed By Sue Leonard.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 2001


“I’ll be on time, and John will be late,” predicts Michael McGlynn, founder and co-director of the spiritual Celtic choir, Anúna. I sit in the salubrious member’s bar of the Royal Dublin Society in Ballsbridge for 15 minutes before either of the McGlynn twins appear. And John arrives first, sauntering across the bar in his brown leather jacket; sweating profusely after his bicycle ride. He’s followed by an embarrassed Michael. “I had a call. It couldn’t wait. I hate being late,” he says, finding himself a chair.

“We’re two sides of the same coin,” says Michael when I remark that although alike, they don’t appear identical. John is a more extreme version of Michael; he is bigger, has longer hair, and wears glasses. (Michael had surgery for his sight last year.) Michael sits sipping Earl Grey tea, putting thought into everything he says. John leans back, casually throwing in remarks. Michael took a music degree at UCD and is traditionally trained; John studied architecture, and was once in a punk group called ‘Dead Drunk.’ Michael married Lucy last year, and says he looks casual, ‘because she made him wear something clean.’ John won’t disclose his girlfriend’s name, but she’s a dancer on ‘Riverdance.’

The twins have just released Anúna’s eighth album, and John’s debut solo album, ‘Songs for a fallen Angel,’ which has received critical acclaim.
“John’s a brilliant guitarist,” says Michael. “He’s created a whole new language. It’s closer to modern jazz but resonates with other things.” Michael has sung with many famous bands, and is currently working with choirs around the world, where his choral works are being performed.

John was the lead singer on the original ‘Riverdance,’ and Michael was Anúna’s producer on it. When I mention that historic Eurovision night back in 1994, they exchange wary glances.
“We had a lot of experience before Riverdance,” says Michael. “The Eurovision to us was just another gig.” But it made them a household name? “Anúna was already ingrained into the Irish psyche, but ‘Riverdance’ changed people’s perception of us.” But surely they reached more people? “It hasn’t made any difference because those people only know us in relation to Riverdance.”

It was a mutual decision to leave the show after two years.
“Although there were elements of an ‘Anúna’ show in Riverdance, we simply could not do just that night after night.,” says Michael. “There has to be some artistic value. We decided enough was enough.” However lots of Anúna singers decided to stay in ‘Riverdance,’ and even now members are auditioned and chosen as lead singers. “It’s very hard for us to keep singers. Simply put we’re a free training ground for singers to ‘Riverdance.’”

Fiercely proud of Anúna, Michael feels it has gone as far as it can.
“It’s a worldwide success and we’ve no state aid or state grants. What we’ve done is unique and it came out of Ireland where there is no choral tradition. In 1999 when we played at The Albert Hall to 4,000 people we were the first Irish group to be asked there. I stood there and thought, ‘this is it. There’s nowhere to go from here.’”

Musical from birth, the boys were put in front of a piano before they could talk.
“We were singing outrageous harmonies at the age of four,” says Michael, who went through the grades in piano. “John got to Grade five,” he says, and John cuts in insisting it was only Grade one. Sitting between the bantering twins is like umpiring a game of tennis. Yet Michael seems perfectly happy when John implies that he’s boring, whilst perceiving himself as the wild socialite. “On a scale of One to 100 I’m 100 socially, and Michael’s not even on one!” says John. Are they good friends? “No, we’re stuck with each other.”

Michael elaborates and says it’s hard to dissociate the fact that they are twins and have that inherent understanding that makes the relationship unique. He recounts a time when he walked into a hotel bar and ‘knew’ John was there, even though he couldn’t actually see him. John agrees.
“Yeah, and stuff like going to films. We arrive at exactly the same time. Like Titanic!” They both laugh. “We ended up sitting together and we glanced at each other in the middle, and said, ‘We’re leaving.’”

Anúna started out as ‘An Uaithne,’ a choir of classically trained singers specialising in medieval and contemporary European music. John wasn’t involved until Michael introduced his own compositions, and John demanded changes.
“At the punk gigs we had three minutes to entertain the audience, and if we didn’t we got egged off the stage. And with Michael’s crowd I had to sit through two hours of unendurable pompous garbage. I said, ‘get them to loosen up.’ We took away the sheet-music and the conductor, and added costumes. Now it’s a visual representation of the music with a good sound system and we treat each venue in a different way.”

“John brought in a different background,” says Michael. “Half the classically trained singers left, and from there I brought in folk and rock singers and we blended the whole thing together.” The twin relationship helps enormously, he feels. “We’re constantly in different venues like a church or a field or a concert hall, so many things can go wrong.”

“And boy do they!” laughs John, remembering a performance in the Pepper Canister church where he kept walking on and off the stage. “People found it distracting, but I’m taking scraps of carpet and sticking them in a jeep that’s parked across the road because the car alarm’s gone off. I have to do it. With those looks he’s giving me I know exactly what he’s saying.”

I ask Michael about his work for the Gate Theatre’s production of ‘The Three Sisters,’ starring the late Cyril Cusack with three of his daughters and he smiles broadly.
“I’m gutted,” he says. “It’s the first time anyone’s asked me that.” John wants to cut in with a Jim Sheridan anecdote, but Michael won’t let him. “I had never worked in the theatre and here I was with Adrian Noble of the Royal Shakespeare Company and all these extraordinary actors. It was a shock.”

“I had to teach Sinead Cusack how to whistle,” he says, with a fond smile. “Niamh worked in the symphony orchestra here, and I think Sinead had lost her confidence because she had been told, ‘you’re not the musical one.’ She didn’t know how to whistle and she was the playing the musical sister. We had to battle for hours.”

“Can I do the anecdote,” pleads John, as Michael continues to talk about the Gate. “Can I get my bloody Jim Sheridan out of the way or I’ll explode!” he says, minutes later, and tells me that after Jim Sheridan worked with Michael on ‘The Risen People,’ he approached John several times in ‘the wee small hours,’ assuming he was Michael. “When I corrected him he thought I was Michael taking the piss. The final time he spent two hours telling me of a great idea for ‘The Boxer.’ He was talking to the wrong person and I hadn’t the heart to tell him!”

©Sue Leonard 2001