John Bayley: Author and literary critic with a gift for friendship and introducing friends

Despite his stammer, Bayley was a conversational curator and superb host

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The Independent Online

Further to Marcus Williamson’s obituary of John Bayley (23 January), John had a gift for friendship and for sharing his friends with each other. At lunch parties at the Steeple Aston house my wife and I were often the youngest guests among a crowd that might include JB Priestley and Jacquetta Hawkes, Anthony and Violet Powell, Roy and Jennifer Jenkins and a smattering of philosophers such as Philippa Foote, Peter Strawson and David Pears.

John’s flattering presumption that everyone in the drawing room-transformed-into-dining room already knew one another did not prevent him from acting as a conversational curator, generously steering the talk towards common interests. He was an accomplished host, untroubled by his stammer or by the blue tinge of the food – the result of leaving some copper pans to soak for too long in the sink of the almost hidden second kitchen.

The quantity of the drink made up for this; though his penchant for “improving” the wine could be disturbing. It was difficult to be pleased by the addition of a bottle of red plonk to the magnum of 1978 Hermitage “La Chapelle” I’d given him – but it was, mercifully, a tease, as he’d already decanted most of the great wine. As a guest himself it was his habit to refuse the first glass offered, and ask if he might mix himself a cocktail, availing himself of whatever happened to be on the host’s drinks table; some fairly weird mixtures resulted, but he always appeared to consumed them with relish.

In the very early stages of his wife Iris Murdoch’s Alzheimer’s, John drove Iris and me to take part in the Cheltenham Literary Festival. It was only at the dinner that night before their scheduled joint event that I first spotted that Iris was returning repeatedly to the same topics. Their “conversation” had attracted a huge audience, but no one seemed to notice that while their questions were directed to Iris, John fielded every single one of them – in an unselfconscious manner so skilful that you couldn’t tell that Iris had scarcely spoken.

When, having moved to North Oxford, John later found the wonderful home where Iris spent her last days, my wife, Penelope Marcus, and John’s second wife Audi decided to clean North Oxford’s own Augean Stables. It was a success, but Penny remembers coming upon a cupboard stuffed with old newspapers, and John stopping her from throwing them out: he kept the bank statements in a precise location in the middle of the piles of paper.

We were at the home with Iris on the day of her death, as John had been staying in Wales with Peter Conradi, Iris’s biographer. It was a great relief when we heard John’s voice, talking to a nurse in the corridor, and Iris died soon after. Later that evening, I was trying both to write the obituary of Iris for this paper and prepare supper for John and Peter and us. We decided the writing would have to wait, and with a bottle or two, we sat round as Peter played the piano and, prompted by John, sang songs for Iris.

John Bayley, academic, literary critic and author: born Lahore 27 March 1925; married first 1956 Iris Murdoch, second 2001 Audi Villers; FRSL 1967; FBA 1990; CBE 1999; died Lanzarote, Canary Islands 12 January 2015.

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