Last night I got back from the marvellous Iris Murdoch Society Conference and I thought I’d share my experience of it here. I hope you enjoy, and sorry if I left anyone out.

Thursday – getting there / guided tour

I set off from Birmingham after an exhausting three days of hard work and long hours and doing all my invoicing. The train down was fine, I just had to pop from Euston to Victoria, then I got the train to Chichester. It’s one of those dividing trains so I spent the whole time worrying I was in the wrong carriage when I knew I wasn’t. Everyone does that, right?

I arrived at Chichester railway station at a quarter to three to find my friend Pamela waiting for me as planned. We walked through the very pretty city to the university – about 20 minutes’ walk – as we were both staying on campus. We checked in to our student accommodation and I sorted out the important things …

and did a little bit of work.

My room was perfectly serviceable – we certainly never had en suites when I was a student!

I met up with Pamela in the lobby of our building and we bravely found the Main Gate and met up with various other Murdoch scholars known and new, including blue-haired Shauna who has just got a first in her undergraduate degree and is preparing to do her Master’s on Murdoch. I might have wittered auntily about being glad Young People are studying our favourite author. We set off across the park to the Butter Cross to meet our guides for the guided tour that had been arranged for us.

More people to greet and old friends to catch up with, then off we set, in two groups, taking in the Cathedral and the lovely streets. A charming city with lots of lovely Georgian and older buildings and interesting sites.

Our guide is in the foreground, Frances and her lovely dad and a selection of international scholars. Here’s the cathedral:

and two views of St Richard, one statue by a modern artist which was very powerful, and one stained glass window within the cloisters, “Given by a vagabond” in 1908 (the year our house was built):

We joined the other group and had a convivial dinner at Carluccios, then wended our weary way etc. I discovered my room window was still stuck open but a Nice Young Man from reception was still there and sorted it out for me.

Friday 1 September: Conference Day One

Breakfast was from 7.30 in the refrectory across the courtyard, past the chapel.

Poor Daniel had to take charge of me, doing the doddering aunt thing, busily adding coffee to my teabag and being unable to find a tray. I didn’t risk the toast machine. We sat with new and old colleagues including David from Hungary and got straight into the academic/historical chat – a bit of a context switch for me but usual for everyone else. I found a lightness and freedom in not having a paper to present.

We checked in at the desk outside the chapel, and were given a fabulous tote bag and programme:

and went in to find … the book stall. At which I had a ‘moment’, as there was my book, on the table with all the ‘proper’ books.

Yes, that’s my book.

Thank you again to Miles Leeson for encouraging me to get a box of books sent to him to put out.

We were in the rather amazing chapel for the big sessions on this day.

There was an introduction by Professor Catherine Harper, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, about the history of the university and strong tradition of women taking senior roles. Then Miles officially welcomed us. I’d found my fellow Alternative Approaches to Iris Murdoch ladies and we sat together for the first plenary.

Rivka (pink hair) is a research scientist who writes wonderful papers on Murdoch’s books and aspects of science, and Carol is an amazing artist who’s done a truly astounding project on Iris’s books – more on that below. It was lovely to see them again: we presented on the same panel at the last two conferences.

Anne Rowe presented on teaching Iris Murdoch as she ran a module at Kingston University for 25 years. It was fascinating to hear about the triumphs and difficulties and moving to hear the feedback from various students. So many of her students were there on the day, too, and she’s had a huge influence on lots of people.

After coffee, it was time for the first panel. I went to one where Wendy Jones Nakanishi discussed IM’s Letters (slightly horrified to find the editors of such letters in the audience), Fiona Tomkinson talked about IM’s Japanese foxes, which was absolutely fascinating, and my friend Rebecca Moden talked about IM’s relationship with the artist Harry Weinberger and the work there is still to be done on colour and synaesthesia in IM’s books.

I became briefly troubled when Anne Rowe mentioned how our reading of IM’s letters and journals will affect our reading of her novels (Reception Theory again!) and also got emotional when she described how Iris’ last letters, when gripped by Alzheimer’s, consisted of the same repeated phrases, born of the long-lasting need to still be writing letters. This reminded me of a gentleman who used to run at a local run, running almost the only thing left to him – I blurted this out then felt a bit teary. But a fascinating panel.

Popping across the lovely campus was always a delight and I made sure I took photos for Gill, who studied there a few years ago.

After lunch (our special diets were catered for after checking and I had a nice chat with a lady from the IM book group), the next session I attended was Traumas in The Sea, The Sea. Norwegian Elin Svenneby talked of the gender trauma in the book and shared her own struggles to read it, Adela Branna from Brno did a very interesting reading of The Sea, The Sea based on concepts introduced by Camille Paglia, including reading Rosina as the sea monster, and chair Cheryl Bove read a paper on female ageing as trauma, centring on Clement Makin, that was interesting and moving (the lady who was meant to present couldn’t attend). There was a good discussion afterwards.

After tea, we were lucky enough to experience A.N. Wilson in conversation with Miles, talking about his book “Iris Murdoch as I knew her” with lots of little details about their friendship. As he had spoken about the sad lack of IM on school syllabuses, I bravely rushed up at the end and told him I’d made 25 book groups read “The Bell”. “Ah, jolly good,” said he, and I rushed away. BUT I found out later that he bought a copy of my book! Shocking!

Third panel time and it was Rivka Isaacson on the liver, detoxification and “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”, Gillian Dooley talking about music in “Message to the Planet” and Carol Sommer with an update on her Cartography For Girls art project.

I’d already bought Carol’s book so could leaf through it – she manually extracted all of the sentences in all of the novels illustrating women’s experiences of consciousness in the novels. One result is this book, listing all those sentences in an arbitrary but controlled manner.

seen here with a copy of one of the postcards she used in her exhibition. You can read more about the project here, and I need to work out an arbitrary but controlled way of reading the book now! I was able to thank Rivka and Carol publicly for having me in their sessions and supporting my alternative perspective on IM with my book group research.

To continue quite a long day, there was a wine reception to launch the new Iris Murdoch Review, which members of the Society collected as part of our membership. I had a lovely chat with new friend Tania, from Russia, now living in Buckinghamshire. I really love the international aspect of the conference. We then went to dinner at Bill’s, which was a  bit chaotic but jolly, and I chatted with Chris and Ruth, who I’ve met a few times before, and other folk. A bit late to bed after walking back – I don’t have conference stamina!

Friday 2 September – Second day

Breakfast again on another clear and bright morning.

Tania and David had been for a 6am swim and collected pebbles (there was also the transfer of a root of ginger) – very Murdochian.

The first plenary was by Gary Browning, who is a philosopher, therefore should be terrifying (only joking, philosophers!). He’s actually so lucid I can understand him (if not the questions) and his talk about Iris Murdoch and history, including mention of the relevance of her refugee characters as well as the politics in “The Book and the Brotherhood” were very interesting. Talking to Jan about first reading “A Severed Head” in our teens and about my book groups made us almost late for the session she was presenting in – oops!

The Iris Murdoch and other Women Novelists panel was superb. Pamela Osborn discussed the influence of IM on Sue Townsend – I knew Adrian Mole mentioned her but in fact Townsend’s work was full of her novels and name, and the paper was so interesting, and funny, of course.

Jan on George Eliot, IM and intention and guilt was equally fascinating, drawing parallels between two authors I love but had never really compared. Great stuff and a good discussion afterwards about who has been influenced by IM, with Paul Magrs’ name being bandied around as he includes her as a character in his novel “Aisles”.

Lunch and a big chat with the leader of the U3A Iris Murdoch Book Group and then it was straight into that session. Joined by a select few, including Tania and Kent Wennman, who charmingly claims to read only books by and about Murdoch and about Elvis, and the Czech ladies and one more, we had an amazing discussion, led by the U3A ladies and their leader. It was fabulous, a real highlight. I blabbed on about my research, but they were interested in it of course, and we also met a friend of theirs who was taught by IM herself (not pictured below – they all started rushing around and it was hard to pin them down).

Then it was back to the Academic Building ground floor for a final cuppa and look at the book table (all of my books had sold! I was still being overwhelmed by people asking me to sign them: I had not expected that and was very unprepared). Then it was the final plenary, given by James Jefferies, who in his spare time and as a labour of love has produced an app which maps the London locations of IM’s novels and characters, using Cheryl Bove’s walks book and character list as a basis and using technology and coding to make this amazing website.

His enthusiasm for IM came over beautifully, he felt (as another alternative type) very welcomed by us all, and I urge everyone to go and have a look at it here.

As I’ve finished my project, I’m hoping to be able to provide some typing/checking support for this amazing project in the future.

Miles said a final piece, and it was goodbye – oh no! Always sad, and you can never find everyone to say goodbye to. I thanked the students who’d run the book stall, said goodbye where I could and took one last photo of the chapel:

and a cheeky selfie with Rebecca.

She and I headed back up to the railway station, buying our dinner in Marks and Spencer’s (the man at the till had read “The Bell”) and then getting trains in opposite directions to end up about 20 miles away from each other. I had a brief chat with Cheryl on the platform (mainly about how many of IM’s books our respective husbands had read), and then it was train-tube-train-bus, home, enlivened by my breaking up a fight and talking about IM so persuasively to  my seatmate that he felt compelled to write her name in his phone.

A lovely, lovely time, thank you to Miles and Frances and the students and the university people for the organisation. One exciting thing that’s come out of it – I’m going to read IM’s novels chronologically from next January. Anyone in for a group read? Just watch this blog or I’ll announce it on the IM Facebook page.

You can find other people’s comments and photos under the Twitter hashtag #IMGandT.

(And in case anyone wanted to buy my book but it had run out, you can find it on all varieties of Amazon, just search for Liz Dexter.)