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

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