Maeve’s new column would be described as ‘a veritable psychopathology of everyday life’. It could have been conducted simply as a series of interviews. Instead, she took any opportunity she could find for eavesdropping on her subjects. She began listening in to people’s conversations in restaurants, on buses, wherever she found herself. She even admitted to getting off a bus and pursuing two people down the street because their conversation hadn’t finished.
The No. 73 bus was a favourite vehicle: from Victoria through Marble Arch, Oxford Circus, Tottenham Court Road, Euston, King’s Cross and Islington, ‘you hear everything eventually,’ she once said. She even developed a vacant, ‘not the full shilling’ look, as if she wasn’t quite there, so that people wouldn’t think she had any particular interest in them. Gordon found it particularly dispiriting when suddenly she’d tune in to a conversation in a restaurant when he was mid-flow talking to her over a meal.
To give herself an edge, she decided to learn to lip-read. The idea came to her after catching a particularly bad cold, which made her a bit deaf, and when a programme came on television about lip-reading, she gave it a go. She would record the television news and play it back repeatedly with the volume turned down until she could read exactly what was said in the facial movements of the newscaster alone. She even attended classes in Kensington to hone her new skill, which on one occasion far in the future would give her unexpected and highly satisfying supremacy over a critical pair of her fans.
She was giving a talk to a large group of her readers. The format of the event included a lunch, followed by Maeve’s talk and then a signing session afterwards. Maeve always got a bit tense before giving these talks and was so nervous before this one that she barely touched her lunch. Afterwards, feeling peckish, she asked the publicity PA to prepare her a plate of cheese and biscuits, which she was eating while the line of her readers was forming, each with a copy of her latest novel ready for her signature. Some way in the distance she noticed two women, one of whom was saying to the other, ‘Would you look at her, eating a plate of cheese and biscuits after that huge meal, is it any wonder that she is the size she is?’ Maeve had ‘seen’ them say this as clearly as if they had whispered it into her ear. And she was furious. She put the cheese aside and began the signing session, chatting to each of her readers in turn and writing a message in their books. Eventually, it was the turn of these two women. Maeve treated them as she had done every other. ‘Lovely to see you and you look so well… And you mustn’t worry about the cheese; I had it instead of the dinner, not as well.’ And their faces were scarlet and I loved it!’ — Piers Dudgeon, in his book Maeve Binchy: The Biography (read for free)