Monday, July 15, 2019

On Magpies, on!

‘Well - that worst part is over. Tomorrow, to pack, & then onto the Road & away. Details, like lorries & portable pianos & car insurance, remain to be settled - but nought shall stay our triumphant flight. On Magpies, on!’ This is from a journal kept by the writer Iris Murdoch, born 100 years ago today, when still a young woman and touring with a group of actors called The Magpie Players. The diary, published posthumously, is said by its editor, Peter Conradi, to show ‘a person vividly alive and fascinated by her world, trying to make sense of it by writing it down, seeking to be in charge of her own destiny.’

Murdoch was born in Dublin on 15 July 1919. However, within weeks, her father took up a job in London, working at the ministry of health. She was educated at the Froebel Demonstration School, at Badminton School as a boarder from 1932 to 1938, and at Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied classics and philosophy. After leaving Oxford, in 1942, she worked for HM Treasury, until mid-1944 when she joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Initially stationed in London, she was transferred in 1945 to Brussels, then to Innsbruck, and finally to Graz, Austria, where she worked in a refugee camp. Subsequently, she took up philosophy as a postgraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge, before, in 1948, becoming a fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she taught philosophy until 1963.

Murdoch published her first novel - Under the Net - in 1954. In 1956, she married John Bayley, an English academic and literary critic. Though the relationship lasted the rest of her life, Murdoch is known to have had many affairs. She produced a new novel every one or two years - including The Bell (1958), A Severed Head (1961) and The Black Prince (1973) - some of which won literary prizes. Her greatest success came with The  Sea, The Sea which won the 1978 Booker Prize. In 1987, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 1994, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In 1997, she was awarded the Golden PEN Award by English PEN for ‘a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature’. She died in 1999, and later the same year Bayley released Iris: A Memoir (later turned into a film). Further biographical information is available online at Wikipedia, The Guardian (and here), The Irish Times, Encyclopaedia Britannica, The New York Times.

Murdoch kept diaries for much of her life. In Iris Murdoch: A Life (HarperCollins, 2001), the biographer Conradi explains that she left behind edited journals (1939-1996) ‘which constituted an invaluable resource, carrying her unique ‘voice’.’ Indeed, it seems, he was the first to have access to her journals, referring to, and quoting from them, generously throughout his biography. Many pages can be freely read at Amazon and at Googlebooks. In 2010, Conradi also published Iris Murdoch - A Writer at War: Letters & Diaries 1938-46 (Short Books, subsequently Oxford University Press, 2011). The diary extracts take up one third of the book, and cover the period in 1939 when she was on tour with a theatre group, The Magpie Players. A few pages can be previewed at Amazon, and reviews can be read The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent.

One of Conradi’s aims in producing this latter work, he says, is ‘to reclaim the living writer as she begins her adult life’. He explains: ‘Dame Iris in life so august, remote and intensely private, was in death unwittingly reduce to two opposed stereotypes: in vulgar language bonking (younger Iris) or bonkers (elderly Iris). If you’re American: screwing or screwy. Both sensationalisms reduced her to gross physicality, by-passing and demeaning the one thing about her that was truly remarkable - the freedom of her mind.’ He goes on to say: ‘The journal and these letters show her, by contrast, as a person vividly alive and fascinated by her world, trying to make sense of it by writing it down, seeking to be in charge of her own destiny. That she was disturbed by a troubled love-life does not prevent her being a role-model for young women today. Such experiences, which mark the growing-up of most of us, were to feed her strenuous moral philosophy and her fiction alike. And in these writings she walks and talks and lives once more.’

In 2017, Kingston University, London, announced that Audi Bayley, the widow of John Bailey, had gifted Murdoch’s private journals, covering the period from 1939 to 1996, and that consequently it now had ‘the most significant collection of Murdoch-related material in the world’. ‘These journals,’ a university press release said, ‘provide unparalleled insights in to [sic] the remarkable and complex life of a woman whose private and public personas were often at odds with each other. [. . .] A first glance at the journals revealed that some entries had been edited by the late author with phrases having been physically cut out of pages by Murdoch herself, [. . .] The second journal is missing and assumed destroyed as it spans the period during the Second World War when Murdoch was caught up in a controversial love triangle [. . .] The account of the first days of her marriage has also been removed. Among the collection is a journal from the 1980s which is packed with descriptions of domestic incidents and accounts of dreams. Most significantly, there are hundreds of cryptic comments on philosophy, theology, literature and the writing process itself.’

Here’s a selection of Murdoch’s diary entries as chosen/edited by Conradi: the first two long ones (August 1939) are taken from Iris Murdoch - A Writer at War: Letters & Diaries 1938-46, and the remaining short ones are all from page 274 in Iris Murdoch: A Life.

23 August 1939
‘Well, we did put on a show - but only just. We didn’t know our lines (some of us), our costumes weren’t finished, & held together with pins, parts of the scenery were unpainted, & we had to cut out chunks of the programme because it was under-rehearsed. But we put on a show & what’s more they liked it! 'The whole day was a glorious nightmare of sewing on clips & fasteners & buttons & bells, & drawing innumerable magpies on innumerable sheets of paper for innumerable purposes. Hugh & I took half an hour off after lunch & walked up to the meadow where the horses were & talked about the Party. I was amazed when he told me he had been in only a few months & there was I imagining him an Old Bolshevik. Hugh is full of surprises.

He makes a very good dead Cuchulain in the ‘Lay of the Heads’, and even shewed great enthusiasm for the part!

We were supposed to have a ‘Dress & Lighting Rehearsal’ at 3.30, but of course it did not materialise. At 3.30 I was just beginning Joan’s ‘Queen o’ fairies’ dress, & the bulbs for the spotlights hadn’t come! About 5 Joan and Hugh & I went and lay on the grass exhausted & Joan did the Times crossword & moaned about the political situation. The papers seemed scared & I suppose a grave crisis is on but I can’t seem to feel any emotion about it whatsoever. This is such a strange, new, different, existence I'm leading, & so entirely cut off from the world.’

About 6 o/c we rehearsed Tam Lin & it was appalling. Denys, of course, nervous creature, went off the deep end, & said O I wish we weren’t doing this! But I tried to reassure him, privately thinking he was quite right.

Tom almost lost his temper several times during the afternoon - quite unheard of. But Joan was magnificent & sorted all the costumes out, & was sweet to us when we rushed about & said Joan, where is that cloak? Joan, where are my shoes. . .

And at 8 o’clock there we were, Joan & Moira & I singing the theme song & trembling all over. ‘Julius Caesar’ was on first, & Moira told me afterwards it was terrible. Victor had to be prompted every other line, & she sang her song wrong. Alas. Then we did Tam Lim and it went wonderfully, never better. And they liked it!

Denys was exultant. (Joyce said afterwards my arm movements were perfect & reminded her of Peggy Ashcroft! I like that girl Joyce, she says the right things.) ‘Broomfield Hill’ didn’t get across so well, tho’ Joan’s dress was splendid, like a young parachute.

‘Clydewa’er’ was the hit of the evening tho’, with Hugh compering, & doubled the House up in laughter. Joan gave a fine little introductory speech to the ‘Lay of the Heads’ & it went down amazingly well. No one laughed! ‘The Keys’ also went far better than I’d expected. Hugh filled all the sceneshifting intervals with a brilliant & endless stream of songs & patter which the audience loved. First he was American & sang cowboy songs, then he sang in Welsh, then Irish & Scottish songs. The production went moderately smoothly, with only one major blunder, when Joan was left sitting alone in the middle of the stage for 3 minutes in ‘Donna Lombarda’, while Joyce & I desperately jabbed Denys’s costume as full of safety pins as a porcupine is of quills. The ‘Play of the Weather’ went well, tho’ Cecil said it was ‘a shaggy performance, just hanging together, with everyone inventing their lines for themselves.’ I think some of the audience were shocked at the bawdier parts, tho’ the curate in the back row whom we’d fixed on as a test case, laughed heartily thro’out.

Well - that worst part is over. Tomorrow, to pack, & then onto the Road & away. Details, like lorries & portable pianos & car insurance, remain to be settled - but nought shall stay our triumphant flight. On Magpies, on!’

27 August 1939
‘[Water Eaton Manor] A peaceful day. We left Northleach with mingled relief & imprecations, after the men had been well rooked by a charming but villainous robber of a Youth Hostel warden. And, as a grand finale, Joyce had her purse stolen. O Northleach, Northleach we shall pass this way but once! We went to Water Eaton via Shipton-under-Wychwood, & left our big props & the trailers behind there. Water Eaton is a fine Elizabethan manor belonging to Prof. Carr Saunders, the London university population expert. We weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms by the professor & his lady. Not exactly. But we found Frances was there with her two harps - so that compensated for a slight aloofness on the part of the family & a noticeable scarcity of basic nourishment. We wandered the gardens, lay on the grass, & Tom talked vaguely of rehearsing this & that. My opinion of everyone in the company is going up by leaps & bounds with 2 exceptions. Tom & Jack. Tom really is maddening. He refuses to make up his mind, and when he does make it up, he won’t tell anyone. He was well served this afternoon, for as a result of his not divulging what ballads we were going to rehearse, half the company went off in a punt & left him fuming. Actually it was mean of them too to wander off without a word, & I ticked Joyce & Moira off about it when they came back. Frances played her harp in the family chapel & I came & sang softly to it, & happily we passed the day. At 6 we gave a show to the Carr Saunders & aristocratic & arty friends. It was beautiful to do Tam Lin out of doors in such a superb setting, & it went well. Tom wrecked Donna Lombarda by too early an entrance, but on the whole all was delightful.

After the show Hugh & I wandered down to the Cherwell which flows thro’ meadows below the house, & sat & watched the moon rise. A group of white swans sailed silently past. It was a most magical evening. Hugh lay down beside me with his head touching my side, & I sat and looked across the river. Then gradually we gave expression to what had been tacit between us for several days. There is something incredibly tender & gentle about Hugh, for his all terrific strength & bluffness.

I went back late to the house to find Moira & Joan had been waiting for me. They then took Joyce & me in the car to the people we were to stay with in Yarnton. Both Joyce & myself, by some unlucky change had lost our cases, & were in great distress. However, we survived the night. We were staying with a hearty old couple, good working class stock, but unintelligent. The star of people who are nice to you when you come canvassing, bu who will not buy a copy of the ‘Daily Worker’ as they ‘already get the Herald, thank you very much.’

13 December 1948.
‘I need a strongbox to keep this damn diary in. Probably I ought to destroy all the entries of the last 3 weeks. Why am I unwilling to? . . . Must root out the weak desire for an audience (the lurking feeling eg that I write this diary for someone - E[lizabeth], P[hilippa], D[onald], or X, l’inconnu, I still believe in l’inconnu -? ). Way to sincerity, a long way.’

30 January 1949.
BS [unidentified] lectured me on politics & the old nostalgia stirred, part conscience, part guilt, part sheer romanticism and part sheer bloody hatred of the present set-up. To no end, but it stirred. It occurs to me that I entertain the idea: ‘One day I shall return to the party’, and the idea ‘One day I shall join the Roman church’ like two escape valves. It is not that I am utterly unserious about them - but they not held close, but part of some far project ... Thought later: what marks one out as a confined person, with no dimension of greatness? Some lack of sweep, some surreptitious idolatry. In my case, I feel there must be some will to please which is on my face like a birthmark. Who lacks this smallness? D[onald], and Pippa [Philippa], unconfined people, and E[lizabeth] too.’

18 May 1952.
‘Looking back in this diary. What an unstable person I seem to be ... I shall be to blame if I don’t build now where I know it is strong, in the centre, through loneliness. (Aloneness) ... I wrote today on the top of my lecture paper: marriage, an idea of reason!’

14 June 1952.
‘There is a lot which I don’t put into this diary, because it would be too discreditable - & maybe even more painful. (At least - no major item omitted but certain angles altered - and painful incidents omitted.)’

27 October 1958.
‘The instinct to keep a diary: to preserve certain moments for ever.’

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