Paperwork and book from the Iris Murdoch ConferenceI’ve decided to move all my Iris Murdoch stuff over to this blog, so look out for more news on my research project coming soon. But first, let me tell you about my wonderful two days at the Iris Murdoch Society Conference.  At the 5th Conference in 2010, I’d told people about my project reading all of IM’s novels in chronological order, and at this one I was presenting a paper on the research project that has come out of it – so there was a lot riding on this one, but I was looking forward to immersing myself in a Murdochian world for a couple of days, too.

Getting there

I got up at 4am – reminiscent of my trip to see the Olympic marathon!) and was safely on the 5:50 train from New Street station. It was one of those Pendolinos, so it took almost no time and there I was at London Euston. I’d chatted to a chap who was going to a trade show on the way down, so no chance to fret about my paper. I was in London by 7.15, and got the Victoria Line down to Vauxhall. I didn’t love my eight years living in London, but it does come in handy when it comes to knowing how to get around the place! I was in Vauxhall by 7.30 and popped to the overground station, getting a Kingston train at 7.46 and arriving in Kingston at 8.15. Map out, striding down the road, and there I was at the University of Kingston, Penryn Road by 8.35. Not bad for having left the house at 5.00!

As soon as I arrived I saw my friend Pamela behind the book table – she was the person who encouraged me to come to the last one, and we’ve been in touch ever since, so it was lovely to see her again. I set all my stuff down, took a few layers of clothing off (it turns out to be colder in Birmingham at 5:00 am than it is in Kingston at 8:45 after a brisk walk!) and said hello to a few people. A couple of the first people I met were artists, Carolyn Bell and Carol Sommer – Carolyn does marvellous drawings of Murdoch characters, and Carol was in my panel, Oblique Approaches, talking about her art installations (more on that later). I chatted to them and a few other people, and settled in. Oh, and bought a book: “Iris Murdoch: A Literary Life” by Priscilla Martin and Anne Rowe. Well, it was on special offer and I couldn’t have justified it at full price …

Friday morning – plenaries and panels

First up was a welcome from Meg Jensen from the School of Humanities at Kingston, and Anne Rowe, Director of the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at the University, who welcomed us on behalf of the Iris Murdoch Society (of which I am, of course, a member). This led straight into a fascinating lecture by Professor Charles Lock on the novelist John Cowper Powys and Iris Murdoch. Cooper Powys wrote his own baggy monsters of novels, which I am now desperate to read, and we learnt a lot about such large, realist novels and IM’s love of Cooper Powys novels, which worked their way into her own. He also shared some memories of knowing IM, which was lovely.

After a tea break, it was time for the first panel sessions. What a nightmare choosing! There were 5, of which only one was a scary philosophy one I couldn’t understand. Pamela and I had decided not to go to each other’s, for fear of making each other nervous (and we have swapped papers now anyway), so I plumped for “The Comfort of Creatures: Animals in Murdoch’s Late Fiction” – and what a good choice that was.

Priscilla Martin started things off with a lovely run through various cats and dogs in the fiction, and their relation to the moral development of the characters. Paul Hullah then basically redeemed Jackson’s Dilemma, the upsetting final novel, for me, with a beautiful poem of IM’s on horses and a talk about the horses in the novel. Beautiful – and really made me feel better about that novel. Marc Keith rounded things off with his first ever conference paper, a well-organised and very enjoyable run through dogs in IM, particularly as an initial step in overcoming one’s Self and moving towards goodness. There were some great questions at the end, too.

Friday afternoon – more panels

Having had a slight panic over the lunch (all sorted out by the excellent conference assistants and redeemed by a lovely young lady in the canteen downstairs) I was getting really tired, and sat quietly with Pamela instead of going to the next plenary – which I feel awful and stupid about, as Anne Chisholm was absolutely lovely when I spoke to her later on, and I had read a fascinating article by her in the Guardian a few days previously. I was worried I wouldn’t have the stamina for the two lots of panels afterwards. And at least this way I did, and I’m glad I did.

The first panel after lunch was on “Chaos and Comedy in Murdoch’s Late Fiction”. I’d already met Josh McCall, one of the presenters, at the tea break, and couldn’t resist the discussion of The Book and the Brotherhood and The Philosopher’s Pupil that was promised. Up first, Tanya Bennet talked about history and the personal being in opposition, and about Jenkin’s scapegoating in the former novel. Donna Gessell talked about the way The Green Knight constantly undermines its own structures with disruptions. Then Josh gave a great paper on the ending of The Philosopher’s Pupil and how it plays havoc with notions of the author/reader/narrator. This book is apparently discussed as a failure – well, I like it a lot, and I saluted Josh for being another person working on his IM projects as side projects to a full, busy other life. We had a nice chat about the Cambridge Latin Course (as you do!) afterwards. Pamela did a great job of chairing this panel – a nerve-wracking undertaking in its own right.

After a short break, more treats, with a shorter, two-person panel. This time I chose “Agents of Power and Morality”, with Michelle Austin, a stalwart Facebook friend of mine, giving an excellent paper on ghostly agents of morality in Jackson’s Dilemma and The Green Knight, with a wonderful mention of Mary Poppins and the strange role of Mir and his “belligerent mysticsim”. Then Adriana Ruta talked about the books being constructed on melodramatic principles, which pull readers in with their appropriation of genre conceits. I was mightily cheered about my own research when I realised that I do understand more about the German reception theorists than I thought I did, and I had some good chats with Adriana about this.

Friday evening – food and drink

After the panel sessions it was time for the wine reception – had some great chats with various people, and met Rivka Isaacson’s (very) small daughter, Netta, properly – the youngest delegate by, oh, 20 years or so! Pamela, Monica from Brazil and I ended up going to Wagamama for our dinner, after popping by my hotel to check me in first (this taking longer than expected because the guy at the reception desk had his arm in a splint and found it hard to write!). I was so tired by the time they dropped me back at my hotel; I had a little catch-up online, thus justifying dragging the small laptop down with me, and a very short read and a chat with Matthew then slept quite well.

Saturday morning – the fear, the fear!

I hadn’t been feeling The Fear too much about my paper, but started to get nervous. What if it had somehow dissolved in my folder and disappeared? (Never mind the fact that I also had it on a pen drive and had emailed it to myself!) I had my breakfast-in-a-box gubbins at the hotel (lots of stuff I shouldn’t eat but I know I can manage this stuff just about, having had it before) and then walked down to the University. I was so nervous by this point that I convinced myself that I’d gone the wrong way when I really hadn’t! Carol and I had a moment of worry but then reassured ourselves. I couldn’t have been with a better panel, with Carol, Rivka and lovely, calm Frances White doing the chairing.

But before we had to face our fear, there was another plenary, this time by Sabina Lovibond, who was talking about whether the Baggy Monsters are “realist” novels. This was very interesting and I was pleased I was managing to follow it all. Then a cup of tea, another trip to the loo, a hot cross bun in case of fainting, and it was time to drag ourselves round to Room 2011 for “Oblique Approaches to the Work of Iris Murdoch”.

I was lucky enough to be up first. Frances introduced us all to an audience of the great and the good – a decent turnout including Chris Boddington, one of the contributors to my research as he’d submitted a review of The Bell for me to look at, as well as Anne Rowe, whose encouragement has meant so much to me. Giving the paper is a bit of a blur. I know I stumbled on occasion but used Marc’s tip of running my finger down the side of the text so I could look up and not lose my place. I know I ad-libbed a bit and got a few more laughs than I’d perhaps expected. People seemed to enjoy it as I ran through my Murdoch-A-Month reading group, the questionnaire I applied to them and their thoughts on the Baggy Monsters, plus some initial findings from my 25 book groups that read The Bell. It was a relief to sit down and know I’d got through it!

Sketch of Liz presenting

Liz presenting – with kind permission of Carolyn Bell

We then had a fascinating presentation from Rivka about synthetic biology and the way it could be brought to bear on the networks in The Book and the Brotherhood, ending with the assertion that arts and sciences are not as far apart as we think. There is always plenty to think about and of interest in Rivka’s presentations, and we were all touched when a Japanese delegate came up to her at the end to shake her hand and tell that he was a neuroscientist! Then Carol Sommer gave what was undoubtedly the coolest paper of the conference, introducing the art works she has made in response to IM’s novels. These were just amazing – text-based pieces with a wry humour that raised chuckles of recognition. I particularly liked her business cards, which included statements by various IM characters on one side, but it was all just marvellous. There are some examples here on her website.  Then it was question time. I got a few, but nothing I couldn’t handle (thank goodness!). Frances’ delightful Mum noted that when first married, they couldn’t afford many books but bought several of IM’s novels from their book club and read them together. Someone asked if I was going to look at the response of male as opposed to female readers – interesting question indeed! Oh, and Carolyn drew a sketch of me presenting, which she kindly photographed and sent over to me!

Saturday afternoon – plenary, goodbyes and hats

What a relief it was to sit down and eat a lovely lunch with all that worry gone. Then it was time for an update from the Archivist, Katie Giles (I always like to go to this one, as an ex-librarian) and a reading from IM’s letters to Philippa Foot, beautifully done by Priscilla Martin, then the last plenary of the day – Philip Hensher on Iris Murdoch as a 1980s writer. This was really well done and interesting, and he raised a point I’d never thought of – having loved IM’s novels as a teenager, he then never thought to discuss them in his English degree. I did exactly the same, but didn’t realise until I heard him talking about it. I bravely asked a question at the end of this one, feeding in to my study of people reading IM for joy rather than study. Then Anne Rowe rounded up the day (mentioning our panel!) and said goodbye.

There was a pub trip, but I thought I’d better get myself across London so I said goodbye to friends new and more established, looking forward to seeing them next time. A quick walk up to the station, then Friday’s journey in reverse. So sad that it was all over – and I was missing the walk in London on the Sunday, as I had too much work to get home for. I had quite a long time at Euston in the end, but got some dinner before getting on the 18:45 train home, getting in at 20:15.

Liz in Murdochian hat I remembered to take a photo of myself in a rather Murdochian hat I happen to have, but had forgotten to show Pamela. On the train, with the world whizzing by me. And then I was home, and it was over for another two years.

Final musings

I had such a good time, and it was made better by feeling I had validated myself by having some research to present on. I was also cheered to see how far I’d come with my research in the two years since I mentioned my reading group at the last Conference – I must remember that when I think it’s going slowly. I understood the sessions I attended, asked questions, talked IM, IM, IM with a load of other enthusiasts, and had some time out for me. All good. Roll on the 7th Conference in 2014!

Please note: this blog post is made up of my own impressions only and has no relationship to any formal account of the event which may be put out. I apologise if I have misrepresented anyone’s research or missed anyone out who I met and spoke to!