Philip Hoare: The battle for the memory of Iris Murdoch

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The Independent Online

The current fight for the memory of Iris Murdoch is a fairly unseemly one to outsiders but, to the biographer, the possession of one's subject is an all-important and vexed question. The battle between AN Wilson, the philosopher-novelist's latest biographer, and John Bayley, Murdoch's

husband, centres on memory itself: Murdoch's loss of it, as portrayed on film, which Bayley describes as having "turned Iris herself into art"; and Wilson's objections to that portrayal - while at the same time being accused of writing a "misguided, treacherous and inessential" biography of Murdoch. As the author of two biographies, I know that feeling of the pursuit and the pursued; a paranoia which does not, contrary to popular impression, lessen if one's subject is deceased. Sometimes relatives and friends make even worse enemies. In Murdoch's case, however, I can't help but recall my own potent memory - common to many who attended literary launches in the Eighties and Nineties - of Bayley with the senile novelist in tow; a shuffling, ghostly figure whose presence at parties always seemed, to me at least, to be an uncomfortable one.

This past week I saw the subjects of my own books - Stephen Tennant and Noël Coward - make filmic appearances. Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry's directorial debut, which opens in October, is based on Evelyn Waugh's satire of 1930, Vile Bodies. In the film, Michael Sheen plays Tennant ("Miles Malpractice" in Waugh's book) as a foppish aristocrat; while no less than four Coward songs feature on the soundtrack. The more fastidious might balk at hearing the Master's "Nina", not composed until 1944, and historians of hedonism take issue with the sight of everyone from Harriet Walter to Sir John Mills snorting cocaine through gold tubes and cigarette holders - the Twenties method was to use a tiny silver spoon, darling. But Fry's film is a tour de force; and its use of recreational drugs is certainly not anachronistic. When the former Bright Young Thing Diana Cooper, dining with the Jaggers in Cheyne Walk in the Sixties, was offered a post-prandial sniff, she merely drawled in her most world-weary tone, "My dear, in our day we had salt cellars full of the stuff."

Seventies? Hooray

I've just spent what already seems like the last weekend of summer on the Isle of Wight. Hanging like a punctuation point off the coast of Hampshire, the Island was recently criticised in a report for its tourist amenities which, it was claimed, are stuck in the Seventies. Yet, like many people, I remember the Island from childhood holidays and, to me, that time-warp is no bad thing.

As soon as you cross the Solent, you seem to enter another era. Even the road signs still look Sixties. Admittedly, there is lot to be desired on the catering front: my Korean-American guests decided that the reheated pasta at the cafeteria at Osborne House was not a dish fit for a queen. But the guides at Osborne couldn't have been friendlier. Newly restored to its original ochre outside, inside the house is strewn with reminders of an imperial past, from the surreal sculpted limbs of the royal children, preserved sepulchrally under glass domes, to the bright, Victoria and Albert era furnishings, bought straight from the Great Exhibition, the Conran store of their day. Presided over by the Queen and her consort in their glamorous Winterhalter portraits, and bookended by the amazing Durbar Hall, with its multicultural corridor full of dark-eyed Indian princes and dreadlocked Ethiopians, Osborne subverts our notion of Victoriana. Far from subfusc gloom, it rejoices in a time when England's Queen was gay and, yes, even sexy.

The memory of Victoria and her empire looms large over the Island. We stayed at Freshwater, which in the mid-19th century was home to an alternative court, ruled over by the Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, mistress both of the "black art" (because the silver nitrate stained her hands black) and, rumour has it, of the Laureate himself. That bohemian air - a kind of proto-Bloomsbury (Cameron was aunt to Virginia Woolf) still pervades West Wight, an island within an island. Lewis Carroll, G F Watts and Darwin all came here; later, Auden and Isherwood, T S Eliot and John Betjeman drank in its particular charms, while Haile Selassie was even seen to process its village streets.

Cameron's Dimbola Lodge (named after the family's Sri Lankan estate) is now a well-run museum and café (which came to our rescue when our otherwise charming hotel, true to British tradition, stopped serving breakfast at 9.15 on a Sunday morning). On show in the upstairs rooms are some of her strange, numinous photographs of Tennyson, Herschel and Carlyle, their sepia shapes almost floating in the ectoplasmic emulsion. They seem to embody the otherness of the place. Farringford, Tennyson's gothic house - once the home of Sir Fred Pontin - is now an hotel. We took tea on its terrace (and overheard one grumpy couple complaining about the place being "overrun with Japanese"), then viewed the poet's relics in a wood-framed vitrine - among them, his famous black cape - before descending his secret staircase to the gardens below and, beyond them, Tennyson Down, the vertiginous white cliffs where the poet claimed the air was "worth sixpence a pint".

On the other side of the Island, we dined sybaritically at the Seaview Hotel, from a locally sourced menu to rival any smart London restaurant. Its regular clientele include Anthony Minghella (whose parents still run their famous ice-cream-making factory on the Island) and Peter and Virginia Bottomley; the accents around us were certainly more Fulham and Chelsea than Sandown and Shanklin. The hotel has just changed hands for £1.9m; apparently metropolitans with business in Portsmouth over the water prefer to stay here rather than face that port's more dubious accommodations.

Then we sailed out to the Needles, their great stacks like chalk icebergs, each outcrop surmounted by heraldic cormorants drying their wings in the afternoon sun; and I felt grateful that this particular island hasn't moved into the present day.

One aspect of 21st-century recreation hasn't escaped the Isle of Wight, however: the jet-ski, whose predations on the south coast have been more egregious than ever this year. Surely one of reason why we escape to the beach is for peace and quiet - not to watch some testosterone-fuelled hooligan revving up and down? Things are much worse, and positively dangerous, if you're actually in the water. There I was, bobbing blissfully along in the Solent, where Swinburne swam, when a "wet-bike" zoomed out of nowhere, missing me by metres. Enraged, I gave the joy-riders the finger, but mistaking my gesture for waving (as opposed to drowning), they merely waved back and went on their way, leaving me spluttering impotently in their fumy wake.

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