How We Met: 51. Josephine Hart and Iris Murdoch

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The Independent Culture
Irish-born Josephine Hart (45) came to London in the Sixties, becoming a publishing director and producer of West End plays. Her highly successful first novel, Damage, is now being filmed by the French director Louis Malle. Her second book comes out later this month. She has two sons and lives in Mayfair with her second husband, the advertising tycoon Maurice Saatchi. Novelist and philosopher Dame Iris Murdoch (73) is one of Britain's finest writers, whose books have been translated into 26 languages. She is married to the literary critic, John Bayley, and lives in Oxford.

Josephine Hart: I first came across Iris Murdoch when I was a teenager growing up in Mullingar, a small town in Ireland where my father was the owner of local garage.

It was 1961 and I remember reading this extraordinary review of Iris's latest novel called A Severed Head. I rushed out and ordered a copy from the local library, which took a couple of weeks to arrive. I'll never forget that wild thrill of excitement when I first read the book: the psychological complexity of the characters, the tension between their surface and what was going on underneath - the sort of thing that would later become an obsession in my own work. 'Here's a great mind,' I thought - something I'd only ever felt before when I first read T S Eliot. So I asked the library to help me get hold of her other novels. I was so impressed that I even used to learn some of my favourite passages off by heart. Long after I grew up and left Ireland, I would buy each of Iris's novels as soon as they were published.

Many years later, when I was first married to M (Maurice Saatchi), we'd go away together and he'd always ask me: 'What shall I read?' We'd often buy two paperback copies of the same book - usually something well-established - and then we'd read at the same time and comment on it. On one occasion I said to him: 'Well, you haven't read any Iris Murdoch, so I'd like you to start with The Black Prince.' So I bought him a copy. M was bowled over when he read the book and said quite casually: 'You know, this would make the most extraordinary play.'

I leapt up and grabbed it from him. Then we ran through the book together, finding the most wonderful speeches. The Black Prince is, first of all, a remarkable love story but it's also a dissertation on the nature of art, particularly writing. The main character, Bradley, has this conversation about Hamlet, which goes back and forth like an intellectual tennis game. When Bradley is finally destroyed, there's a line which says that there's no substitute for the discipline of guilt. I thought to myself: 'My God] What a line] How extraordinary that in this day and age she says there's no substitute for guilt, rather than no escape . . .'

So I rang Iris's agent saying I wanted to meet her to discuss putting The Black Prince on as a play. A date was set - 19 December, and even now I always write her a note each year saying a little something about our anniversary. Anyhow, I was in a state of almost hysterical excitement by the time I arrived for that first lunch with Iris at the Connaught. I remember racing in, I was pregnant at the time and this wonderful, calm, radiant person sat down opposite me. In a sense it was like falling in love without any of the sexual side to it. I became much calmer as she listened to me; there was this sense of communion; I found myself telling her things that I'd never spoken about to anyone before. A month or so later, she wrote to say that she would adapt her novel for the stage. As I was the producer, we became very closely involved over the next couple of years and, out of that, developed an ever-deepening love and a great friendship.

Iris is the only person I can talk to about worries or a serious moral difficulty. She never lectures, but in a very few words she will get to the essence of the problem, and make it clear where your duty lies. She's a profoundly good person in the sense that she knows the harshness of goodness; that it's not easy. She never makes anything soft-focus for you. M and I once asked her for her views about a family drama. We wanted to rush in, but Iris advised us to stand aside, and not interfere. It turned out to be exactly the right advice.

I think she has this approach to writing which is a bit like worshipping at an altar. She believes that however small your talent, you must do the very best you can. Then, as T S Eliot said, the rest is not your business. If I get a good review, my ego is thrilled; if I get a savage one my ego is battered. But it's from Iris that I've understood that the ego is irrelevant. If you work to the absolute limits of what you are capable of achieving, and you undertake this with some degree of humility, then that is all that you can do. I've found that very inspiring when writing myself.

Sometimes I don't see Iris for months on end, but I feel very conscious of her presence, especially when I'm at my desk editing my work. She doesn't like the telephone, so we rarely ring each other, but I write her ten, twelve-page letters.

IRIS MURDOCH: A very bright- eyed, heavily pregnant woman came rushing into the restaurant at the Connaught Hotel. That was about eight or so years ago. She'd made an appointment through Ed Victor, my agent, to have lunch with me to discuss the possibility staging my novel, The Black Prince. I realised she was Irish, and this created an instant emotional bond between us. Though I was educated in England, I certainly think of myself as being Irish. Josephine and I started chatting, then a waiter came along with a little note for her from her husband wishing her luck with her proposal. I remember finding it rather touching that they were so close - though at that point I didn't know she was married to Maurice Saatchi.

Josephine and I got on very well, and I could sense that she had a great feeling for theatre, but we obviously couldn't make any definite plans straight away. In the end, it was the summer of 1989 before my adaptation of The Black Prince came to London, with Ian McDiarmid in the lead role. We were rather unlucky because the weather was hot and there was a Tube strike, which discouraged audiences. But by that time, Josephine and I had become close friends and we've remained so ever since.

A few months after that lunch, Josephine invited John and me for the weekend to their house down in Sussex, the first of many visits there and at their villa in the South of France. I saw that Maurice had a generous, happy, amusing face when he came down the stairs to greet me the first time we came to stay; the four of us started laughing together straight away. As a couple, they always produce this wonderfully convivial atmosphere.

Josephine is so intensely Irish and feminine; she's my concept of an ideal woman. Of course, I didn't quite know what to expect when I started reading Damage, but I find she's a good novelist. Sometimes you meet someone who makes you feel liberated, who gives you a sense of security. There's nothing casual about my relationship with Josephine - it's very rich and happy-making.

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