When I first wrote to Iris Murdoch in 1980, I didn't expect a reply. But I got one almost by return of post - a letter which revealed a warm, no-nonsense, brilliant mind, and a fun human being who filled her pages with exclamation marks, notes in the margins, underlinings and brackets. I now have almost a hundred letters.
Before long I was telling Iris about my family, relating the tale of a doctor I'd called out to see one of my children, who would not come because we had recently moved house and we were now out of his area by a mile. The doctor was Harold Shipman, who had just come over the Pennines.
By 1983, I am trying to talk with her about spiritual matters. She writes, "I think dogmatic religion is increasingly difficult for people - though I still meet some who have a literal belief in another life, and cannot imagine how one does without it!" I send her some of my poems. She has written poetry herself, she says, affirming, "Poetry is a difficult art. I write poetry on and off and have published some in periodicals, but do not feel great confidence."
In 1985, I crop my hair. Where can I hide? "Cutting your hair off," Iris jests, "(like Georgia in A Severed Head) can actually be a creative act." We are swapping banter. She wants to know what I'm writing. I tell her I haven't time to write, and am fiercely chastised: "As for not having time to write, I had virtually none during the war, and afterwards did a full time job for 20 years. One must just write!"
In 1986, I send Iris my first publication: Introducing Information Technology. It is hardly exciting material, though Iris is kind. She tells me she's writing a novel again, and is glad of it. She suggests we meet in London. My son has sent her an owl drawing. I wish he would go to his classes, though, instead of wandering about. I tell Iris how when he was 12 he brought a tramp back home with him from the railway station. The man was drunk and his flies were held with a safety pin. He turned out to be a real Lord who lived in a castle. "How infinitely odd and surprising real life is," says Iris. "How can fiction match it?"
In 1990, Iris is writing from Charlebury Road and spills ink on the page. "The move is done, but a state of chaos continues!" My head's in a mess. Everything's going wrong. I run away from my stern scientist husband who only talks to me in maths and formulas. "Collect yourself," says Iris. (I am truly in bits and pieces.) "Try to be calm - all kinds of good things will grow and be... Love will always be there..."
"I am trying to do some difficult philosophy," Iris says, "... not fun." She is thrilled I have won a visit to Martha's Vineyard, though I have to take a class of children. The Vineyard is all bright light and silver trees. We are all invited to Carly Simon's house for a party. The children think they are famous pop stars. "The gods wanted to give you a prize to cheer you up!" says Iris. I wonder why the gods can't be more generous.
Iris sends me greetings for Christmas. "We shall be Christmasing as usual in London," she writes happily, "where everything is orchestrated by John's elder brothers. I do love this time. John and I don't make puddings, just eat them. And London can look so beautiful all decorated and full of people." But: "I was in Oxford Street," she says concernedly, "for that bomb alert." It seems to disturb her.
She envies me singing in Handel's Messiah. "Happy soprano. I wanted to get in to the Bach choir in Oxford but they refused me because I couldn't sight-read! I still feel cross about this."
In 1992, Iris is writing about the Maastricht Treaty. "I at last got hold of a copy of the Treaty (in France it was distributed to all) - I had to write to my MP, who said I could acquire one from HM Stationary Office! It was long and confused and obscurely written - I wish there were more peace in the world - in and out of Europe..." She congratulates me on completing an MPhil about childrens' minds and computers. I have to talk on You and Yours. I am very nervous. Iris says she will think of me and listen.
Iris and I have arranged to meet in Oxford. When the train arrives, she insists on sharing the straps of my holdall. We walk round Oxford like this, taking up all the pavement, and stopping off at interesting places for Iris to show me round. We sit in a tiny chapel. Into the emptiness, Iris whispers, "Can you hear God?" I take lots of photos of Iris. People take photos of us, with my camera. We go to The Randolph for lunch and Iris buys me a marvellous meal, with splendid wine, but we are rushed out halfway through for a fire alarm. "Do you think we are being captured?" she chuckles as we're jostled along to stand outside in a group. She will probably put it in one of her stories. We go round Oxford later, shopping for lace-edged pillowcases. I find to my horror, when I get home, that the film is still on the table. My camera was empty.
I tell Iris I can't swim, even though I was once a school games captain. I am much ashamed. "I can't imagine life without swimming," she says, baffled, "though actually I can rarely get near real swimming, in the sea - 80 miles away - or the Thames (too cold until June)!" She is always talking about the sea: "I wish I could get to the sea. I imagine you as close to it."
Iris is reading Dostoevsky again. "I've finished The Idiot and am reading Crime and Punishment, both his most distressing works. I think Brothers Karamazov and Possessed are best." She is going to Iceland to talk at the university.
"How exhausting holidays are," she says later, "(I always bring my work anyway)." I ask if she is writing an autobiography. She tells me AN Wilson had started to write her biography, "(so little to say)", but has left off now for a while, to write the life of Jesus Christ instead, "(lots to say)". They have known Wilson since he was 20, Iris tells me, "... a dear boy and a friend." Everyone is eternally young for Iris.
1995-96: Still there is no novel. "I am at present at a stand-still, but hope something will happen." Other writers slip inand out of her letters: "I'm glad you met Fay Weldon. I know her slightly, we were on a journey together, and I like her very much!" - "Andrew Motion. Awfully nice. And gorgeous too." - "AS Byatt, so v. good."
April 1995, Iris is feeling "rather exhausted, but OK."
October, 1995, "Am feeling rather tired but will buck up soon!"
December 1995, "I am afraid I have no novel in sight at all. Maybe it will arise, but there is now nothing!"
January 1996, "I am feeling tired and rather slow." I send her flowers.
February 1996, "Just now it is spring time and blue skies. I cannot deal with any, many matters... Excuse this stuff - much love anyway, I."
I send her my first published poetry collection, Amphitheatre. She sends me a wonderful letter. She talks of music again: "I wish I could play the piano and sing. I can sing but there are few occasions! My mother was a trained singer, a remarkable soprano, and sang in the operatic world in Dublin; then in London, after she got married - only my father was less musical! I had some singing training for a while - but long ago!"
Iris seems to drift away after this. She does not write to me at all. I talk to an enchanting child on the phone, though her voice has warmth and happiness, and a strange carelessness in it, a kind of freedom perhaps? "Love will always be there ..." I do not really know John Bayley, apart from a voice on the phone who brings her to talk. I am grateful he lets us speak.
One night, just before it is over, I wake up dreaming of Iris standing high on a cliff, her hair blowing out in the wind. She is smiling with a look of strange contentment, not of this world. Below, her, crashing against the rocks, is the sea.Reuse content