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The political passions of Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch in 1963

By Peter J Conradi
Author, Iris Murdoch: a Writer at War

In Iris Murdoch: a Writer at War I've collected her wartime letters to two friends and fellow Communist Party (CP)comrades, Frank Thompson and David Hicks.

The letters reflect the shock and delight of the idealism, romanticism, and violent anti-Fascism that once moved the best of her generation towards the far Left. And of that generation few remain.

Lord Healey, born in 1917, is by now a lone survivor of that heroic generation. Murdoch mentions him three times in A Writer at War. First in April 1940, still at Oxford where he took his 'schools' on the same day as Frank Thompson, and never forgot meeting him.

Denis Healey and James Naughtie

Then in early 1945, as he was preparing to stand as Labour's parliamentary candidate for Otley and Pudsey. And finally on 1 June 1945 when she ran into him on the steps of St James's Park tube station "looking bronzed & sleek & tough & handsome & very pleased with himself".

Denis was, Murdoch noted, with Edna Edmonds, to whom he is still married after 65 years, and whom the Today team visited last week to solicit his reminiscences.

Healey and Murdoch came up to Oxford at a time when the British Left was inclined to pacifism; the Tories to appeasement. Any young person dedicated to stopping Hitler - Lord Healey wrote - was easy game for the Communist Party.

Half a century later, Healey remembered Murdoch for her Irishness, her political passion - "a latter-day Joan of Arc" - and for his having loaned her Samuel Beckett's novel Murphy which she loved and put into her first novel Under the Net.

The Oxford Labour Club, dominated by Communists, had more than 1,000 members; nearly all its committee were in the CP.

'Manichean fight'

But then all of the committees of the League of Nations Union, the Liberal Club, the Student Christian Movement, two of the five Conservative Club committee, and even two out of the ten British Union of Fascists committee were also in the CP.

Major Denis Healey Speaks At Labour Pary Conference 1945
Major Denis Healey spoke at the Labour Party Conference in 1945

Robert Conquest, while an open Communist, was a member of the University's Carlton Club, and John Biggs-Davidson, later a Conservative MP and chairman of the Monday Club, was also in the CP. Probably there were dons too.

Not only idealism attracted them. The Labour Club was reputed to have the best women: some men joined to meet them.

Communism and bohemianism were often part of the same anti-bourgeois revolt. Out of more than 200 CP student-members, 30 were "open", among these Denis Healey and Iris.

The final months before the Second World War were a time of intense hope and fear. The young were intensely stirred up, in politics, in friendship, and in love alike.

A Manichean fight against the powers of darkness was imminent, the drum-beat of war unmistakeable. There was constant talk of Nazism, the Treason Trials, marching and raising money for arms for Spain, the bestial pogroms against German Jews, the Sudetenland.

The Spanish Civil War
Many young people joined the CP because of the Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War ended in April 1939 with fascism triumphant. Friends had fought and died there: Healey wrote that "Spain was so real that it hurt".

No other issue ever stirred comparable passions in Oxford, except the city's "Munich by-election" of October 1938, when Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham) - challenged by the claim "a vote for Hogg is a vote for Hitler" - opposed Sandy Lindsay, the first socialist to head an Oxford college (Balliol).

Murdoch, Thompson, Healey and Hicks all campaigned for Lindsay, as did Edward Heath.

A week after the outbreak of war, and after originally supporting a war on two fronts - i.e. against Fascism and Imperialism - the CP finally declared it an imperialist war to be opposed. Iris toed the party line.

Frank Thompson joined up and wrote Iris a furious poem:

Sure, lady, I know the party line is better.
I know what Marx would have said. I know you're right.
When this is over we'll fight for the things that matter.
Somehow, today, I simply want to fight.

That phase ended when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the Russians became our ally.

A Writer at War tells two stories of heart-break. Frank Thompson was an liaison officer in the Special Operations Executive, the secret army formed by Winston Churchill to "set Europe ablaze".

He parachuted into the Balkans and, after an epic march with the Partisans, was captured and shot while in uniform in Bulgaria in June 1944.

David Hicks survived working for the British Council in Cairo and elsewhere and, in 1945, got engaged to Iris. Soon, in panic, he jilted her for someone else.

A post-script: in 1946 Denis Healey and Iris Murdoch both applied to visit the United States. Murdoch was turned down as an ex-Communist under the McCarran Act, and each visit during her life-time necessitated a separate waiver.

The Labour politician Hugh Gaitskell pleaded successfully on Healey's behalf, mentioning the work he had done separating Labour from the CP.

Peter J Conradi is emeritus Professor of English at Kingston University.

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