‘A THUNDERBOLT’ is how writer and journalist Alannah Hopkin describes her first encounter with ‘a very strange man’, her husband Aidan Higgins; who was also brilliant, amusing, witty and challenging.
“He took my hand and it felt like velvet,” says Alannah, author of nine books including Eating Scenery: West Cork the People and the Place.
Alannah, who grew up in London, came to live in Kinsale in her early thirties, where her mother had a house in Summercove.
“I fell completely in love with Kinsale,” she says. “Living by the sea, sailing and writing fiction was like living the dream. You always had that sense of a party just around the corner.”
Romance was also just around the corner. Alannah fell in love with writer Aidan Higgins, who, at 59, was 23 years older than her.
“It was love at first sight for both of us,” she says. She wasn’t expecting Cupid to strike when the poet Derek Mahon introduced her to Aidan.
“I was swimming in the hotel pool,” recalls Alannah. “And I didn’t even bother to dry my hair going to meet the men! Aidan’s first view of me is of an otter-like head!”
But Aidan obviously liked what he saw. The couple moved in together almost immediately after their first meeting.
Alannah’s book, A Very Strange Man, is an old-fashioned love story that recounts a once-in-a-lifetime romance documenting the joy, the intensity, the complexity, and the ups and downs of two people who were bed-fellows and soul-mates, yet very individual characters.
“Aidan had a lovely way of speaking and he had a very distinctive voice. He was a larger than life figure,” she says,
Is A Very Strange Man a legacy of love?
“Very much so,” says Alannah. “We were together 29 years and we were writing together 29 years.”
Alannah instinctively prioritised work that would pay the bills and provide Aidan, focusing on his form-bending writing, with some of the most stable and productive years of his life.
Those years were never boring. Alannah recounts evenings and soirées with the cosmopolitan cremé de la crème of the creative world that gathered in Kinsale.
Her book paints a vivid Great Gatsby style picture, with delicious details of languid boozy evenings in local hostelries and in the Dutch House where she and Aidan lodged before purchasing their own house.
The couple hung out with literary greats and lived life to the full, enjoying their garden, their cats, their workplace and their lifestyle.
Travelling to far-flung destinations like Nerja, and to Mexico near Cuernavaca where Alannah’s sister lived, was part and parcel of their exciting lives. Encountering exciting people everywhere was par for the course.
“No, our lives were never boring!” says Alannah.
But she adds: “The work day was disciplined, and then at 6pm we’d usually have a drink. We’d meet our friends often; the ones that were good friends and who mattered. Kinsale was a place to play but I was always aware the bills had to be paid.”
Did the age gap between Aidan and herself ever matter?
“Only where music was concerned,” says Alannah. “Aidan’s eldest son was 10 years younger than me! I loved my music. Aidan would say about Bob Dylan, he’s horrible! Like a father might say! Aidan liked Bob Marley and the Gypsy Kings.”
The couple loved playing scrabble in the evenings. Aidan’s pet name for Alannah was Zin, derived from a scrabble word Alannah came up with and scored highly with; Zinnia, a Mexican plant.
Life was good for the loved-up couple, who embraced their work, their families, their friends, and their beautiful surroundings. But all wasn’t always rosy in the garden.
“They were joyful, challenging, sometimes dark years when Aidan suffered mental health issues,” says Alannah.
“Eventually his decline into dementia was a huge source of sadness. He couldn’t stay at home.
"For his own safety he had to go into care. He didn’t know if it was day or night. Then somebody else decided what he’d wear, what he would eat, when he’d get his hair cut. That was sad.”
While Aidan, previously married to Jill and who had three sons, was a very attractive, intelligent man who was great company; he could also be unpleasant.
“Once, he asked me how a novel was writing was going,” says Alannah. “I told him it was going well and he replied, how can it be going well when what you’ve written so far is no good?”
Was Aidan, an accomplished and critically acclaimed writer himself, jealous of Alannah’s prowess and her productivity?
“I’m not sure what it was,” says Alannah. “Whatever it was; it was ridiculous. And then; he could be very supportive.
"On a good day each of us could defend the other unconditionally against any criticism from an outsider.”
But it wasn’t all moonlight and roses.
“After 12 years together, life was often difficult, and we went through a crisis. When we got through that I knew I’d never be able to leave. There were rocky moments when his cutting remarks took their toll on our relationship. We were destined to be together.”
The relationship worked because the couple had so much in common. They could sit for hours quietly reading, just at ease in each other’s company, without speaking.
“We could go for weeks without really talking to each other,” says Alannah. “We got used to our own company.
“You eat your meal and go for a walk on your own. You can live quite closely to someone without relating to them.”
Aidan’s vocabulary was very limited as dementia took hold.
“No! And Bloody Hell! Was the extent of his words.”
He said something else. “Without you; I’m bitched.”
Why is Alannah relating the story of the great love of her life?
“I couldn’t write anything else until I’d written this book,” she says.
“I had a story to tell. And I realised if I didn’t tell the truth it wouldn’t be any good.”
Why did she call the book A Very Strange Man?
“A publisher that knew Aidan in his 20s described him as a very strange man! Normal People was a phenomenon; so perhaps A Very Strange Man, which is the opposite, might be too!”
While Alannah documents the love story with refreshing honesty (moving from desk to bed with comparative ease), she also documents Aidan’s deterioration of his mental health as dementia takes hold and she has to let him go into the care of others.
“Seeing his decline at short range was hard to see,” she says.
Their last precious moments together is hard and emotional to read; the end of the honeymoon period and the love story that lasted 29 years.
“Reading my old notebooks and diaries that I kept over the years revealed a lot to me,” says Alannah.
Aidan caught his lovely ‘Zin’s’ hand with his velvet touch as he slipped away in December, 2015. It was the right moment.
“It was something of a relief,” says Alannah. “It seemed to come at the right moment. He was fading away in every way, physically as well as mentally. It just seemed to be very gentle and right to me.”
A Very Strange Man is a unique account of two people’s lives that intertwined at the right moment and became a beautiful love story.
Aidan won’t turn in his grave with any revelations of their fulfilled life together will he?
Alannah laughs. “No he won’t! He would be delighted.”
A Very Strange Man by Alannah Hopkin published by New Island Books. Donkey’s Years by Aidan Higgins is due out next month.
Alannah Hopkin will feature in the Cork World Book Festival on Saturday, April 24, in conversation with Thomas McCarthy.