Sadomasochist falls for soft-boiled egg, and why I won't be joining in

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The Independent Online

There has seldom been a film I want to see less than Iris. To me the idea of tootling off to the cinema and getting mushy over John Bayley's relationship with Iris Murdoch is about as appealing as watching a biopic called When Tony met Cherie. I mean, I am very glad they found one another and all that, very sorry that Alzheimer's eventually triumphed over Cupid, but would have been quite content if the minutiae of their love affair had remained behind closed doors. Few people's relationships stand close scrutiny because, on the whole, why one person finds another alluring beyond all others is an utter mystery. Never is that truer than in the cloistered world of academia where some scrofulous professor truffles out a bluestocking who looks like she's been living in a flour-bin for 20 years and you can't decide who's got the worse deal.

Wednesday night's emetic BBC documentary on Murdoch and Bayley, Strange Love, only strengthened my prejudice against romanticising academic unions. All the evidence suggested that Bayley got a woman who thought she was "a sadomasochistic homosexual man" and that Murdoch got a chap who looked like a soft-boiled egg. It is hardly surprising under these circumstances that Murdoch had multiple love affairs, with men and women. To judge from the clips, the film-makers interpreted this as Iris being a "free spirit"; in real life it just meant she was typical of one of the two camps that used to exist in academic circles. The first consisted of people who would sleep with anyone, however hideous, so long as they could crack jokes in ancient Greek. The second contained those who never joked and only bedded down with medieval tracts and the college wine cellar. Nowadays, of course, there is a third camp which houses academics who view their PhDs in the same light as collagen lip implants or Paul Smith suits: something that will fast-track them to a lucrative career in television. Anyone who has watched gorgeous, pouting Dr Tristram Hunt, currently presenting a Jackanory version of the English civil war on BBC2, will know what I mean.

Fifty years ago no one would have confused F R Leavis with Cary Grant, but in recent years it has become much easier to conflate academics and actors. This explains why Kate Winslet was cast as young Iris: British cinema law demands her involvement in any script featuring a spirited rebel. No matter that the 25-year-old actress, all winsome curves and girl-next-door charm, can no more convey the 35-year-old Iris's extraordinary angular face and fierce intellect than were Hugh Grant to try to play Bayley. Most critics have lamented the fact that Iris gives a poor idea of Murdoch's achievements but I would say this sounds like the film's saving grace. There is not much cinematic mileage in doctorates, theses and literary criticism. And when it comes to the novels, well, the less said the better. I read A Severed Head and The Time of the Angels when I was in my late teens and had never come across anything so hysterical and preposterous. Everyone was screwing everyone, and when they weren't, they were having histrionics or attacking each other, and all this fondant melodrama was coated in thick layers of literary gravitas. Here was this massive intellect devoting her energies to writing third-rate suburban fantasies about incest and wife-swapping. Reading her novels was like going to a north Oxford Tupperware party.

If this sounds like a malevolent attack on an eminent person whom I never knew, I should say that I met Murdoch several times at my Oxford college's drinks parties and appreciated her courtesy in talking to a callow student. My point is just that it's bizarre to think cinema audiences worldwide will be paying to watch the romance of two academics who famously never washed and lived on curried baked beans and stale Mr Kipling cakes in rooms that had not seen a duster for half a century. What was unpalatable to most people in real life has been rendered charmingly eccentric and picturesque on celluloid. Much like Murdoch's books, I just don't buy this particular fiction.

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