Photograph by Derry Moore
It’s difficult to remember when I first met Iris and John – in my experience, they were inseparable. I am certain we met in the late summer of 1968 at the Oxford house in Charlbury Road of Lord and Lady David Cecil– though it’s just possible that we had met earlier, in 1963, with a gaggle of Oxford philosophers at a party at Edith Grove, World’s End, in Chelsea. David and Rachel Cecil considered themselves in loco parentis to me; I had only just returned to England on a Harvard Travelling Fellowship, leaving behind their middle child, Hugh, my best friend, whose Harkness Fellowship had one more term to go. Alongside the unselfconscious traces of the beauty she had been when younger, the impression Iris made in the 1960s was of a strong person with some softer edges, someone who – was I surprised, having read all her novels? – was relaxed, and good at small talk. (One of the signs of her dementia was that she began conversations with a regal “Have you come far?”, and repeated the question after an alarmingly short interval.) John and Iris were close to David and Rachel Cecil; John was David’s pupil, as well as his successor at New College. Iris liked a glass or two, and a joke. The Cecil’s cook, Olive, was adequate rather than accomplished; once that autumn, Rachel seated me next to Iris at dinner. I was fiddling a bit with my plate; Iris noticed, and asked, in a subtle way, if something was wrong. I whispered that I was finding the chicken a bit difficult to cut up. “That’s because it’s Olive’s pheasant,” smiled Iris, who did not cook at all. (In my Independent obituary I wrote: “Iris was not much of a cook, though she was proud of her stifado, a Greek dish of beef, olives, tomatoes, wine and vinegar.” I cannot imagine where I got that nugget – I can’t recall a single morsel of food cooked by Iris.)
After David arranged a place for me at Oxford the following year, the Bayleys and I saw a good deal of each other, at Cedar Lodge, Steeple Aston or during weekends at the Cecil’s Red Lion House in Dorset. Though I was nominally a DPhil Student at Nuffield College, I was in truth a PhD candidate at Harvard, and indeed already had a contract for my book on G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles, which I submitted in lieu of a dissertation. Iris took a genuine interest in this, right from its beginnings; I managed to procrastinate nearly ten years, but Iris read the chapters as I painfully produced them, and then the entire typescript, even writing a generous, long, “selling” puff for the dust-jacket.
When I moved to the beautiful 17th century Yarnton Manor in 1971, only a few miles from Oxford, I could at last return hospitality to Iris and John, who had known the place when it was owned by George Kolkhorst. Its website says Iris visited as part of a touring theatre troupe, which I had not known; in the three years I lived there, with Joel Fadem, my Oxford housemate, and Penelope Marcus, my wife-to-be, we had some regular fixtures with John and Iris. Every Easter we lunched or dined and then played charades, dumb crambo, sardines or murder. Were John and Iris the most senior guests? I don’t think so, as I can remember Frances Partridge being with us – but Iris took part with gusto. One Easter, the other tenants having moved, we briefly had possession of the entire house, and there was a game of sardines in which Iris joined the other players on a bathroom window-ledge at least ten feet above the bathtub. There was no ladder in evidence; she must have been hauled up by the others, with someone in the bath assisting. Iris could get angry – a foolish remark about Ireland or Irish politics always lit a very short fuse – but she adored the odd bout of silliness, and would lift her chin, grin and throw her short hair back in glee.
After another such lunch, all of us having drunk too deeply, someone mentioned that Garsington Manor, the former home of Lady Ottoline Morrell and the Bloomsbury Group’s favourite resort, was opening its gardens for charity, so we piled into a car, arrived, paid our pound or two entrance fee, and marvelled at the Italian garden and the pond. On the way out, John suddenly recalled that he knew the owners, the Wheeler-Bennetts, and he knocked on the door near the loggia. When there was no reply, he knocked more vigorously, eventually banging his feet as well as his hands. Lady Wheeler-Bennett opened the door to John, as the rest of us made our blushing excuses and tried to dissolve into the shrubbery.
You could just about imagine swimming in the algae-covered tank-thing at Steeple Aston, but it became difficult to eat comfortably, once you had seen the second kitchen’s sink, full of coppery pots and pans turning the water blue-green. John did all the cooking, and Iris was full of praise for his skills and imagination. She was quick to say that John was the best cook she’d ever known, and claimed she had endowed Charles Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea with John’s “culinary talent.” Actually, Arrowby cooks horrifyingly disgusting meals for himself (the menus were, they both said, suggested by John, who would shock people by pretending to find the food perfectly nice).
In the early 1980s Iris asked me to explain the French nouvelle cuisine movement (I was food & wine editor of The Observer), and when I came to the emphasis on novel ingredients and pairings, she said it was just as she had suspected, John had got there first. It was true that he did unexpected things with kippers. Iris seemed to enjoy meals in our foodie household – she had, after all, been a guest at the 1984 Dorchester Hotel launch of The Official Foodie Handbook by Ann Barr and me, and she radiated joy, sitting at my table, with Terence Conran on one side of her, and Pierre Troisgros on the other. The concept was a touch alien to her, but she saw the fun of the whole business, and appreciated Anton Mosimann’s creation of the seafood sausage filled with oysters, scallops and lobster, though she probably couldn’t have described it the next day. In 1985 we managed to give lunch to 20-odd people in our kitchen, for an occasion called “doctors wear scarlet,” celebrating the simultaneous honorary D.Litts London given to Iris and to the artist, Howard Hodgkin.
Iris was a superb hostess, filling the drawing room at Steeple Aston with three or four round tables, and taking a lot of trouble with the place à table. She and John took pleasure in arranging things so that you sat, not necessarily with old friends, but with someone whose company you would relish. At Steeple Aston you might be introduced, and sit next to at a meal: Antony and Lady Violet Powell; J.B. Priestley and Jacquetta Hawkes; Roy and Jennifer Jenkins; Philippa Foot; Isaiah and Aline Berlin; Asa Briggs; Patrick and Susan Gardiner, Stuart Hampshire, Herbert and Jennifer Hart, Denis and Edna Healey; David and Anne Pears; Tony and Marcelle Quinton; Peter and Ann Strawson; Noel and Gaby Annan; Janet Stone; Anthony and Catherine Storr; Rachel Trickett; or Borys and Audi Villers. There was not a trace of snobbery in either John or Iris; indeed, John assumed that everyone knew everyone else. Once at lunch there in late 1973, John had been on the phone in the room just off the drawing room, and told me he was being consulted about a collection of memories of W.H. Auden’s last days at Oxford. “You should be writing something for it,” said John spontaneously. He could scarcely credit my saying that I’d never even encountered Auden.
In 1981, Iris agreed to be an atheist godmother to our first daughter, Tatyana, which unorthodox role she carried out with imagination. She had a much senior godson, the Times columnist and superb spy-story writer, Ben MacIntyre; and I think I also remember an African godchild. She gave imaginative presents – a gold bracelet too heavy for the slight Tatyana to wear, and copies of her books at appropriate junctures of childhood and adolescence. Iris even came to see Tatyana in the Dragon School play. Was it Iris, or did John give me the not quite oval, oversized, glittering, grey pebble, streaked and veined with white marble, weighing 615g and about 11cm diameter? It is fairly smooth, polished only by years of handling it, while it sat on her writing table.
A terrible taste of what was to come was the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 1994. John elected to drive, which was itself a memorable event; though despite him looking more often at the back-seat passenger (me) than at the road, he was a perfectly safe driver. It was at dinner that night that I realised that Iris’s increasing vagueness was slipping over into dementia, as she returned repeatedly to the same topics. Ralph Steadman was artist-in-residence for the 1994 Festival, and did portraits of all the chief speakers. In a touching post-script to the Guardian obituary [10 Feb 1999], he wrote: “They shuffled in like bewildered refugees. Iris Murdoch was dishevelled and childlike and John Bayley was attentive and concerned. I was not aware of her condition and, fearful of charging my memory with false impressions, I would say that she enjoyed our encounter as a child would enjoy a game, which of course it was.” John and Iris were advertised as having a “conversation,” which had attracted a huge audience. No one seemed to notice that while their questions were directed to Iris, John fielded every single one of them – in an unselfconscious manner so skilful that you couldn’t tell that Iris had scarcely spoken.
There were some bad times, as when Iris would quietly slip out the front door of the North Oxford house to which they’d moved when they left Steeple Aston, and wander, in the way so many Alzheimers’s patients do. That she always got safely home is a tribute to the alertness and kindness of the neighbours. Eventually Iris had to go to the wonderful Oxford care home where she, literally, turned her face to the wall. Penny and I were at the home with Iris the day before her death, doing what we could to keep her lips moist; John was staying in Wales with Peter Conradi, Iris’s biographer. It was a great relief when we heard John’s voice, talking to a nurse in the corridor; for Iris died soon after. Later on the evening she died, I was trying both to write the obituary of Iris and to prepare supper for John, Peter and us. We decided the writing would have to wait, and with a bottle or two, we sat round as Peter played the piano and, prompted by John, sang songs for Iris.
There was a touching postscript when the 2001 movie Iris was filming in Oxford; Penny happened to pass, and saw Judi Dench in costume. Penny managed to get word to the wardrobe mistress that she would be glad to help by lending some of Iris’ own clothes, which she had been given by John. (A version of this blog was published in Iris Murdoch: A Centenary Celebration,ed. Miles Leeson, 2019)