In September, I attended my first Iris Murdoch Conference in Kingston. Under the cut is a summary of my three days of IM related fun!
Thursday 09 Sept
After finishing a proofreading customer and going to the gym, I set off for New Street station mid-morning. Picked up a low-fat muffin from Starbucks (the only muffins I can have on the cholesterol beating diet!) and nervously got on my train, as I’d bought a VERY cheap megatrain ticket and wasn’t entirely sure of its validity. It was fine – hooray!
Got to London just before 1pm and managed to get the Tube (a really big thing for me and the first time since I moved from London) so I could meet BookCrosser Wistfuldragon and daughter Claire at Waterloo. A lovely lunch in a soggy pub and then I was off to Kingston. After confidently walking in to the WRONG Travelodge, I was directed to the right one and checked in. Hung out a bit then had to pop to Lidl and buy skimmed milk for my breakfast (they kept it in their fridge for me, which was fair enough). Then walked to another BookCrosser, Urbanspaceman’s house for an excellent dinner with his family.
Slept well, apart from being woken by some drunken shouting from outside. Was a bit nervous about the Conference so set my alarm nice and early.
Friday 10 Sept
Found my way to Kingston University absolutely fine – a 15 minute walk. Navigation on-campus was made easier by excellent signage – in fact the organisation of the conference was impeccable throughout, and as someone who’s organised a fair few events myself, I was impressed by that. I was early, and strode off to the lecture theatre to find it empty, then was waved in by the organising ladies. I picked up my badge and pack and stood around nervously until I realised that one of the people there was the lovely Pamela, who had encouraged me to come along in the first place, so I introduced myself to her, she introduced me to someone else, and off I went! I was pleased to find that all the milk was skimmed and that I was to talk to the catering manager to get my own plate of food at lunchtime.
Introduction – Anne Rowe
Anne Rowe introduced the conference and welcomed us all, then Avril Horner from the University welcomed us on behalf of the School of Humanities. Delegates had come from 15 countries – there were about 70 there, which I thought a very good turn-out. The theme of the conference is IM on the margins, and so there were to be approaches to her work via nature, masculinity, race, class, etc.
Introductory Talk – Peter Conradi – "IM and the Poetry of Transformation"
It was hugely exciting to see IM’s biographer in the flesh, and I also started to relax as I realised that, even if I’m not so great on the philosophy, I recognised all the characters and scenes from the novels that he referenced. Conradi talked about Laurence Durrell and IM, and how IM was able to stay in England and reference its milieu through the decades rather than approaching us from abroad.
We then broke into parallel sessions. Before the Conference, I’d been anxious to pick those I had a chance of understanding. During it, I was sorry to miss all the ones that went on at the same time as the one I’d chosen! Each session had the same format – three presentations on linked subjects, chaired by another speaker, with questions from the floor at the end. All the ones I went to were well-attended by between 8 and 15 people.
Class in the Margins
Priscilla Martin took a general view of the middle-class yet marginal characters in the novels and how they often commented on the substance of the work, such as Daisy and Tim in Nuns and Soldiers or the unmarried Charlotte in Accidental Man, or the mistresses throughout. Fiona Tompkinson talked about the lower-middle-class characters who are looked down on by the rest of the cast, particularly Dora in The Bell, struggling in the "classless" commune, and Jessica in The Nice and the Good. Tammy Grimshaw looked at race in Word Child, looking at the patriarchal and colonial treatment of Biscuit – it was a treat to have a whole section on this novel.
At lunch I was very impressed by the care the catering staff had taken with my dietary requirements, providing a special plate for me and pointing out where they had done a tweak to the food to allow me have a wide choice. This was my first conference since going on the special diet, and I had been a bit worried, so this was lovely.
Plenary – Professor Robert Eaglestone
Prof. Eaglestone bravely admitted he was still getting up to speed with the novels, and a lively discussion ensued at the end of his treatment of IM and J.M. Coetzee. This did go over my head a little, as I’m not at all familiar with Coetzee’s work (and I really wanted to ask him about the order he’d chosen to read the novels in, though I didn’t dare!)
Masculinity in the Margins
Nick Turner gave what was probably my favourite session, about homosexuals in IM’s novels. He talked about one of my favourite characters, Simon in Fairly Honourable Defeat, and had some very interesting things to say about IM and Camp. Carmen Lopez Espejo talked about the Platonic androgynous ideal with reference to Julian in Black Prince and the theme in The Sea The Sea about the split androygynous being trying to rejoin. Athanasios Dimakis’ central conceit was the idea of the swimming pool in Fairly Honourable Defeat representing the fluidity of masculinities in the novel, where antagnonism between characters and battles between convention and unconvention are played out.
On The Margins of Social Responsibility
This was a shorter session with just two speakers. Miles Leeson’s paper on social and moral responsibility was a bit on the philosophical side for me but was well-received by the room, and there was in interesting discussion of sexual taboos in the fiction to follow from Emma Miller, with a lively question and answer session.
After this came a drinks reception where I had a lovely chat with quite a few other delegates, managing to hold my own and trying to stop saying "I’m not a proper academic or anything" after someone pointed out that I was one of the few people there who wasn’t being PAID to read IM! Then Pamela and I and a group of postgrads and other bloggers/tweeters including BloomsburyBell went out for a quick Italian meal before I staggered (exhausted, not drunk!) back to my hotel, tired but happy, wending my way home, etc.
Saturday 11 Sept
Plenary – Jill Paton Walsh
This lovely talk by Jill Paton Walsh (which, incidentally, had all of us teary-eyed when she talked about her last encounter with IM) justified me being at the conference, and my IM a Month reading group, by asserting that the most relevant and important reading of any novel is that of the innocent, first-time reader. Without a readership, we wouldn’t have a collection of critical work and theory, as the original text would not be available. I went and found Jill afterwards and thanked her for this and told her about the reading group, and she clasped my hand and said well done to all of us!
The Spiritual Margins – Mysticism, Buddhism and Nature
I’d chosen a different session to go to, which got rearranged, so I was a bit worried about this one, but I managed fine and even asked a question! the frist session was a fascinating insight into a dialogue between IM and the Indian philosophyer Krishnamurti, which can be found on YouTube and is a triumph of awkwardness and cringeworthiness, but also deeply interesting. Then Anna Ponomareva discussed Marxist and Buddhist points of view on love which can be found in the novels, and the contrasts therein, followed by a beautifully written look at the effect of Nature on characters in three of the novels by Andrea Clough – it was this talk that informed my reading of The Good Apprentice this month. I asked a alightly off-topic question about the redeeming power of water (or not) in another novel and was pleased to get some discussion on that, feeling quite proud of myself for speaking up!
After another excellent lunch, we had a talk by Katie Giles, the University Archivist, about the IM Archive. This was fascinating from a librarian’s point of view, seeing how they work their archive, and I was pleased that they have such an enthusiastic young professional working with the IM archive.
Plenary – David Morgan’s Love and Rage
Unfortunately David Morgan was indisposed and unable to attend. But instead, we had a real treat as Anne Rowe and Nick Turner presented a session about the editing and publication of Morgan’s memoir, with beautifully-done readings from the memoir and letters. Avril Horner then brought things to a close, and the formal part of the conference was over.
I walked to the station and got the train with two colleagues from the Conference and this was another chance for IM chat, what’s your favourite of the novels, etc etc. I met Emma, Chris and the girls at Waterloo and went back to their house for the night, having lovely book chat and a nice meal out at Pizza Express.
Sunday 12 Sept
Emma ran me down to Finsbury Park and I made my way to Chancery Lane Tube for the London Walk. Met up with other delegates for a cuppa first, then off we went, following Jake’s pub crawl around the City Of London from Under the Net, led by Cheryl Bove and Anne Rowe, who of course wrote the marvellous book of IM walks I bought last year. This was great – lots of IM talk and I got to know some of the other delegates. I had to leave the pub at the end due to food issues, but it had been a wonderful time, and I had a little London wander of my own before catching the train back home.
I had the most marvellous time. I felt fully justified in being there and realised how well I know the novels, especially having re-read many of them over the last couple of years. It was lovely to hear these senior academics, researchers and authors being so thrilled to hear that we read IM for pleasure, and I’ve decided to definitely pursue a) writing up something about our experiences doing the IM a Month reading and b) something about the value and relevance of IM novels to reading groups – watch this space for more about those researches! I felt very validated, and it was easier than I thought to slip back into academic discussion. And it was great just to be around IM fans, talking about tiny details or her books, laughing about wearing hats like hers, etc. Just wonderful. I literally cannot wait till the next Conference!
Thanks to Anne Rowe for organising it, Pamela Osborn for encouraging me to come, and to the conference team and catering for providing a wonderful experience over the two days.