If you know your Peter Conradi from your Peter J. Conradi, you’ll also know that the former is foreign editor at the Sunday Times, while the latter is a professor emeritus at the University of Kingston and the authorised biographer of the late Iris Murdoch, of whom he was a devoted friend and disciple.
It’s Peter J. who has written this crisp memoir, and he gets the doppelgänger confusion over with early on: ‘We two Peter Conradis have never met,’ he writes, ‘but we share an optician, who once offered me his new spectacles instead of my own, so the world was out of focus.’
Family Business is partly about Conradi’s strained childhood and his Jewish antecedents, and partly about his relationship with Murdoch and her husband John Bayley, who came to stay with him and his partner Jim O’Neill in Wales for a total of eight months in 1995, just as Iris’s dementia was setting in.
Even if you don’t think you want to know about Conradi’s forebears, and aren’t particularly keen on raking over various niggling confusions and clarifications to do with his 2001 biography of Murdoch, I recommend this book, because he writes thoughtfully and well. Born on VE Day, he has clearly been thinking too hard, and worrying too much, since the age of about two. Growing up as the son of warring parents, he writes:‘I acquired a lifelong tendency to hyper-vigilance: looking for danger.’ He quotes Henry James: ‘I have the imagination of disaster.’
His father sounds dismally small-minded. Waugh-like, Conradi sums up the littleness of his father’s horizons in a few withering examples. He used to carbon-copy his letters to all his four children at boarding school, informing them of some new acquisition, such as an electric carving knife, that ‘has revolutionised our lives’. And he was prone to say ‘I fail to understand why she thinks that’, or ‘I simply cannot believe she behaves like that’. Conradi writes
“Failure to understand and inability to believe were presented as badges of authenticity or tokens of good faith: it was the world’s fault rarely to render itself comprehensible, never our responsibility to widen our grasp of the possible.
His mother, meanwhile, to whom he was close, had such a Blitz spirit and was so long-suffering and uncomplaining that when she was on her deathbed, about to sink into her final coma, she said: ‘It could be a lot worse.’
It can’t have been easy growing up gay in such a stifling household, although Conradi doesn’t say much about his parents’ reaction to his homosexuality. But he adored his American paternal grandmother, and when he tentatively mentioned to her that he might be gay, her instant response was: ‘What they do is disgusting. But they all have perfect manners.’
Two inventions are mentioned. An ancestor created the Leibniz biscuit (for which we thank him). But Conradi’s grandfather, an electric wholesaler in London, failed to recognise another great innovation. He received a visit from a Scottish engineer, asking for substantial investment in his new device, a ‘seeing wireless’. Emil Conradi dismissed this as ‘a bad idea with no possible future’. ‘So, none the better for his visit, James Logie Baird departed into the afternoon with his pioneer television set undemonstrated.’
Conradi clearly felt like a rare aesthete in a business family — his other grandfather founded a successful scrap-metal company, Cohen & Co — and he quotes Thomas Mann’s depiction of business families throwing up writer-aesthetes as a kind of final and unhealthy biological ‘sport’. It pained him that the books in his Cohen grandparents’ Edwardian villa, 3 Frognal Lane, Hampstead, were all behind glass-fronted cabinets — ‘that surefire badge of philistinism’. The whole house, he writes, ‘was given more to smoking than to reading’.
‘My family might be reconciled to “the long littleness of life”: I was not, and hungered for more.’ A devourer of Iris Murdoch’s novels from a young age, Conradi was ripe for Murdoch discipleship — or ‘voluntary enslavement’, as he puts it. ‘I fitted the profile of a number of her friends: gay seeker, spiritually hungry and confused.’
They met at a lunch party in Norwich in 1981, when Conradi was 36 and writing a PhD on Platonism in her work. Iris, collecting an honorary doctorate from UEA, arrived asking for string to tie up her suitcase that had burst open on the journey, ‘spilling a miscellany of items onto the floor, an image of order and privacy foregone’. (That’s the first of two string-related anecdotes; the second is that when Iris and John came to stay in Wales, they all swam in the pond, and John ‘stripped down to an astonishing vest that had so many loops, strands and holes you could no longer tell which were the arm openings’.)
‘Her gaze and her questions invigorated like cold water,’ Conradi writes of that first meeting. They became firm friends, although it was ‘an asymmetrical friendship’, she ‘catechising’ him about his life, he too respectful to reciprocate. He paints a touching portrait of the growing friendship between the two couples, as Iris became increasingly confused, and they helped to bathe her and wash her hair. ‘What is a friend?’, Conradi asked John Bayley. ‘Someone you don’t have to bother about at all,’ he replied.
All very well — but fondness made things tricky when it came to writing an unbiased biography. ‘I took it as an axiom that a biographer may not knowingly cause hurt to the living.’ The final section of Family Business gets a bit mired in justifying various innocuous bits of his biography. For example, Philippa Foot asked him to damp down Donald MacKinnon’s quote that Iris was ‘an evil woman’ to ‘there was real evil there’, and he did. There are a few digs at A. N. Wilson, too, such as that, according to Bayley, Iris ‘dropped him’ as her biographer because he was gossiping too much, and according to Philippa Foot, ‘he would have made us all feel dirty’ if he’d been the official biographer.
I liked the John Bayley stories best. After Iris’s death, he had a happy 15-year-long marriage to Audi Villiers. On their tenth wedding anniversary, she asked him: ‘Why is this day special?’ ‘Let me think,’ said John. Then, after a minute or so: ‘The murder of Richard III on Bosworth Field.’
Family Business: A Memoir
Author: Peter J. Conradi
Page count: 300