The hidden truth about Dylan Thomas and Iris Murdoch

`Oh,' said the producer, shocked. `We couldn't possibly use that. I'll have to cut it'
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The Independent Culture
SOMETIMES I tune in to the art and book shows on radio and TV and marvel how people can sound so sure of themselves when reviewing things; how Paulin and Lawson and Greer and Pearson can have such firm opinions at the drop of a hat, and how they sound as if what they are saying really matters; and at moments like this I remember the time I got involved with Iris Murdoch on a TV chat show.

It was a bookish chat show, presented by Terry Jones, who was an old mate of mine - which probably explains how I came to be on the show. Paul Theroux was on it, too, explaining why the book he had just written was so jolly good, and Dame Iris Murdoch came on to talk about philosophy. I can't remember anything she said. I can only remember all three of us sitting there ever so respectfully, and her being whisked off to Oxford afterwards in a taxi, leaving us behind having a drink. At which point one of us said, somewhat shamefacedly, that he didn't actually much like Iris Murdoch's novels. With a surge of relief, the other two of us confessed that we were bored rigid by the Dame's fiction, and had given up reading it years ago. How bravely unconventional we were!

Not brave enough to say it out loud on the programme, of course. One doesn't do things like that. And yet the things you say after a programme is over are almost always more interesting than what came out on air. This is especially true of politicians, of course, who never speak their mind or the truth on TV, but it applies to the arts mob as well. Not long ago I was asked if I wanted to review a jazz book for Radio 3's A Sound Read, and a couple of other books as well, so I presently found myself reading Vikram Seth's new long novel An Equal Music, and a collection of Haydn studies. The Haydn book was full of classical anorak stuff that flew over my head, but the Seth was quite good fun. It's about a violinist in an English string quartet who loses and finds again the love of his life, a beautiful pianist. Unfortunately, by the time he rediscovers her she is not only married with a child, but is going very deaf, which is not a great thing for a pianist to do.

My fellow reviewer, Nicholas Spice, thought that the love story worked well, but the music stuff was badly done - the other characters in the quartet were skimpily done, the music business stuff was bad, etc. He simply wouldn't agree that the love story and the music were connected properly.

"Why did Vikram Seth's book have to be about musicians at all?" he said, as we drifted out of Broadcasting House. "Why not about, well, chartered accountants? They'd be as affected by deafness as anyone, wouldn't they?"

"Maybe worse," I said. "If you get an accountant saying, `Oh, was it 18 million? I thought you said 18 thousand!", you're in real trouble."

We laughed, and I thought of adding that I didn't like Iris Murdoch, but it didn't seem relevant; and on the train home I was thinking how long a concert pianist could really conceal deafness. There is a scene in the novel, set in Vienna,where the pianist plays with the string quartet, and they sense there is something wrong but they can't put their finger on it...

Maybe, I suddenly thought, thinking of Spice's accountants, maybe the mistake is to take it all too seriously. Maybe the way to play a deaf pianist is for comedy. Maybe Vikram Seth got it all wrong, and when they make the film, they should play it for laughs...

Maybe I should have thought of that on the programme. All these maybes... Maybe I shouldn't tell you this, but I was also once on a TV book programme where somebody said something wonderful and it was cut out because it wasn't the sort of thing you said on book programmes. Nigel Nicolson was on the show, as was Caitlin Thomas. Caitlin had been waffling away about Dylan Thomas, till Nicolson clearly felt he should try to help focus her reminiscences, and said to her: "Dylan was so many different things to different people - poet, lover, friend, artist... How do you remember him?"

She swayed slightly in her chair, said firmly: "Dylan Thomas was..." and then paused. Just when we thought she had forgotten her half-finished sentence, she said: "...an utter shit", and she leant back, satisfied. The timing was perfect. I thought it was - in context - one of the funniest things I'd ever heard. There we were, all we supposedly bookish people, waiting for a bookish response, and what we got was this sublimely bathetic remark.

I said to the director afterwards: "That was a priceless moment you captured on film there."

"Oh," she said, shocked. "We couldn't possibly use that. I'll have to cut it."

More fool her. Well, I'm glad I was there to hear it and record it.

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