A divine literary intelligence

In one of the last interviews with Iris Murdoch, Jason Cowley found her still pondering on the space

Late in the summer of 1993, when I worked as a reporter on the Bookseller magazine, I was despatched to interview Iris Murdoch at her large, eccentrically dishevelled house in north Oxford. She had just published The Green Knight, her 25th novel, and I was amazed when my idle request for an interview was granted. As it turned out, it was to be one of the last she ever gave. Not four years away from being an undergraduate, I was gauche and clumsy in her presence, mumbling the word "Dame" several times when she opened the door and stumbling over books scattered across her narrow hallway. My first question, describing one of her characters as "imperiously innocent", was greeted with a sympathetic smile and then a question of her own: "What exactly do you mean by that, young man?"

It was hard, listening to the tape of our conversation again this week, not to read into the gaps and omissions in her sentences - the stumbles and pauses, the memory lapses - early evidence of the Alzheimer's disease that banished her, for the last 30 months of her life, to a twilight realm of memory loss and baffled wonder. That morning, her stomach gently rumbling, she spoke with powerful regret of what she saw as the hard secularism of the modern world. "I think people must make an effort to retain Christianity, but in a non-literal form, as it were - not having to believe in God as a person or that Christ was divine, but to believe in everything that Christ meant. This is something that mustn't be lost . . . I believe it is quite possible to have a kind of teaching of religion which is not just meant for Christians. Some sort of teaching of morals should be present in schools. The problem with so many schools is that they remain under the influence of the free thinkers of 1968; they don't bother about spelling and everyone is into free expression."

Her fiction can be read as a kind of an extended elegy for that lost world of religious certainty of which she spoke, her characters stumbling unhappily in the spaces where God used to be. Her best novels are intricate moral parables, mini-quests on which her always educated creations embark to answer the question posed by Michael in The Bell: "What is the requirement of the good life?" A moral philosopher, Murdoch was genuinely troubled by this question, and she worried away at it, returning again and again to it, as she sought to refine and animate a secular morality. If her writing could be solemn, over-determined and repetitive, it was also surprisingly sensual and hard to forget. Hard to forget because of its very strangeness and eerie rigour. She sounded like no other writer.

Murdoch famously never allowed her work to be edited. It began to show. As she grew older, her novels, particularly the sequence of five beginning with The Philosopher's Pupil (1983) and ending in The Green Knight, became longer, more opaque and mannered: a great continuous symphony, with each work an instrument complementing and commenting on the one that went before. Late-phase Murdoch invariably featured a brilliant charismatic, a Wittgenstein-like figure who exerts a mesmeric hold over a group of people - Lucas or Peter in The Green Knight, Gerald Hernshaw in The Book and the Brotherhood, John Roberts in The Philosopher's Pupil; the characters' love relations are painfully intertwined; there are Shakespearean echoes; there is a mythic or visionary perspective; and death is always the intruder.

Peter Conradi, in his Guardian obituary this week, approvingly compared Murdoch to Dostoevsky. This is an important mistake. Murdoch may have grappled, like Dostoevsky, with moral and theological dilemmas, but there is none of the Russian's urban mania in her fiction, little of his existential extremism or tortured interiority. Reading Dostoevsky you feel that anything might happen; that the author himself, like a racing driver pushing himself and his car to the limit, had no idea where his erratic talent might take him, or what form his novel would take. Murdoch, by contrast, knew absolutely everything about her characters and the form of her novel before she began writing. The hard work was in the thought and planning; there was little to surprise her in its execution. So hers was a controlling, almost divine literary intelligence.

Iris Murdoch's own search for the good life was politically interesting; she metaphorically crossed the floor. Her journey from youthful illusion to disillusionment, from early support of the Communist Party to a kind of inchoate Thatcherism, was a model for her generation. By the time I met her a sad twilight had settled over her; she confessed to being "deeply disillusioned" by the contemporary world, by the cheapening of religion and the failure of progressive educational policies (she considered the comprehensive model a disastrous experiment in social engineering, more extreme than even the educational system of Soviet Russia).

"I became a Marxist at the time of the Spanish civil war: it was an emotional period as those who were against Franco were swept to the left," she told me. "At that time, I read a lot of Lenin and was caught up with the notion of building a better world. But I became quickly disillusioned with Marxism; the ideals were OK but what was being done in its name was awful. I remained on the left for a long time, up until the emergence of Arthur Scargill, really. I don't know where I am now - I feel very distressed by politics."

As a young woman Murdoch met Sartre and was swayed by the radical self- liberation of existentialism; she moved on to embrace a kind of ethical Platonism through which to see the good is simply to see the world as it really is.

To the end, though, she was unable to make that final leap into faith: a theologian in search of a consoling eschatology. "God does not and cannot exist," she wrote. "But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured. That is, as an Idea, and also incarnate in knowledge and work and love."

She and John Bayley, her devoted husband of more than 40 years, had no television. "At intervals," she told me, chuckling, "we get notes from the local authorities saying, 'We see that you have no television set, what is the reason for this?' and I have to reply, 'We don't like television'. I very much agree with Whitehouse and others that indiscriminate television can be very damaging to children, even the very jokey things."

The sadness is that Iris Murdoch, in her last, levelling years of illness, came to like television very much indeed, particularly Teletubbies, which she would watch in a kind of rapture each morning, one of the best minds of her generation entranced by the overlit, technicolour simplicities of La-La, Dipsy, Tinky-Winky and Po.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers

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Happiness is a huge gun: Cold War thrillers and the modern nuclear deterrent

For all that books and films laud Britain's strength, ultimately, they show that our power is interdependent.

Francisco “Pistols” Scaramanga, the ­assassin for hire in Ian Fleming’s 1965 James Bond novel, The Man With the Golden Gun, has invested more than money in his favourite weapon. Bond’s colleagues in the Secret Service have concluded from Freudian analysis that Scaramanga’s golden gun is “a symbol of virility – an extension of the male organ”. It is just one of many phallic weapons in the Bond saga. In Dr No, for instance, Bond reflects on his 15-year “marriage” to his Beretta handgun as he fondly recalls “pumping the cartridges out on to the bedspread in some hotel bedroom somewhere around the world”. Objectively speaking, guns comprise little more than highly engineered metal and springs, but Fleming invests them with an ­extraordinary degree of psychosexual significance.

Size matters in the Bond novels – a point made by a furious Paul Johnson in a review of Dr No for this paper in 1958 (“everything is giant in Dr No – insects, breasts, and gin-and-tonics”). One of the Bond stories’ biggest weapons is a rocket carrying an atomic warhead: the Moonraker, which gives its name to the third Bond novel, published in 1955. The most important thing about the Moonraker is that it is apparently British – a gift to a grateful nation from the plutocrat Sir Hugo Drax. And, like Bond’s Beretta, it is freighted with psychosexual significance. When Bond first lays eyes on it there is no doubt that this is an erotically charged symbol of destructive power. “One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” Bond says, with a “rapt expression”:

Up through the centre of the shaft, which was about thirty feet wide, soared a pencil of glistening chromium [. . .] nothing marred the silken sheen of the fifty feet of polished chrome steel except the spidery fingers of two light gantries which stood out from the walls and clasped the waist of the rocket between thick pads of foam-rubber.

The guns in the Bond books can be seen as expressions of their bearer’s power – or, as with Scaramanga’s golden gun, compensation for a lack of virility. The Moonraker is equally symbolic, but on a far larger scale: an expression of a nation’s geopolitical power, or compensation for its impotence.

As what is known officially as Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent (“Trident” to everyone else) returns to the top of the political agenda, the cultural dimension of the debate will no doubt continue to be overlooked. Yet culture matters in politics, especially when the issue is a weapon. As the guns in the Bond novels remind us, weapons are not merely tools, they are also symbols. Trident is not just a system comprising nuclear warheads, missiles and four Vanguard-class submarines. Its symbolic meanings are, to a great extent, what this debate is about. Trident stands for Britain itself, and it does so for different people in different ways. Your opinion on whether to cancel or replace it depends to a great extent on what kind of country you think Britain is, or ought to be.

The Cold War British spy thriller is particularly topical because it developed in tandem with Britain’s nuclear programme through the 1950s and 1960s. Moonraker was published just weeks after Churchill’s government announced its intention to build an H-bomb in the 1955 defence white paper, and three years after Britain’s first atomic test on the Montebello Islands, Western Australia. These novels drew on technological reality in their plots concerning the theft of nuclear secrets or the proliferation of nuclear technology, but they influenced reality as well as reflected it, with stories of British power that helped create Britain’s image of itself in a postwar world.

The main theme of the genre is the decline of British power and how the country responded. Atomic or nuclear weapons serve this as symbols and plot devices. Len Deighton’s debut novel, The Ipcress File (1962), for instance, concerns a plan to brainwash British scientists to spy for the Soviet Union, and has as its centrepiece an American neutron-bomb test on a Pacific atoll, observed by a British double agent who is transmitting Allied secrets to an offshore Soviet submarine. The novel’s technical dialogue on nuclear technology, and its appendices providing a fictionalised account of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb test and a factual explanation of the neutron bomb, are in the book not merely for verisimilitude: Deighton’s British spies are observers or victims of the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR, agents with remarkably little agency.

A more dour variation on the theme is John le Carré’s The Looking Glass War (1965), in which the prospect of obtaining information on Soviet nuclear missiles in East Germany provokes “the Department”, a failing military intelligence organisation, to try to regain its wartime glory with an intelligence coup. This hubris leads to tragedy as its amateurish operation unravels to disastrous effect, le Carré’s point being that military and economic might cannot be regained through nostalgic wish-fulfilment. These novels situate British decline in the context of superpower domination; their characters recall the technological and operational successes of the Second World War but seem unable to accept the contemporary reality of military and geopolitical decline. For Deighton and le Carré, Britain simply doesn’t matter as much as it used to, which is why, in le Carré’s later Smiley novels and Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy (1983-85), the spymasters are so desperate to impress the Americans.

Fleming is usually seen as a reactionary, even blimpish writer – his England was “substantially right of centre”, Kingsley Amis remarked – and he signalled his own politics by making a trade unionist the ­villain of his first novel, Casino Royale (1953). So it might seem surprising that he was as concerned as his younger contemporaries Deighton and le Carré with British decline. The historian David Cannadine, for one, emphasises that although Fleming may have been aghast at certain aspects of postwar change such as the welfare state and unionisation (opinions that Bond makes no secret of sharing), he simply refused to believe that Britain was in decline, a refusal embodied in Bond’s very character.

Bond the man is more than the “anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a ­government department” that Fleming described to the Manchester Guardian in 1958. He is an expression of the British state itself, demonstrating Britain’s toughness while besting its enemies – the Russian agents of SMERSH and, later, the international criminals and terrorists of SPECTRE. He is supported by a formidable apparatus of technological and logistical capability that mythologises British research and development, which had peaked during the Second World War (a point made more obviously in the film franchise when Fleming’s Armourer becomes the white-coated Q, heir to Barnes Wallis and the ingenious technicians of the Special Operations Executive). And, as Cannadine astutely observes, “this comforting, escapist theme of Britain’s continued pre-eminence” is most evident in Bond’s relationship with the United States. The Americans may have more money, but they cannot spy or fight anywhere near as well as Bond, as is made plain when the hapless Felix Leiter, Bond’s friend in the CIA, literally loses an arm and a leg to one of Mr Big’s sharks in Live and Let Die (1954).

Moonraker, however, exposes a more complex and sceptical side to Fleming’s Bond. It is significant that this emerges in a book that is explicitly about Englishness and the Bomb. The rocket is being built atop another symbol: the white cliffs of Dover, prompting some surprisingly lyrical passages on the beauty of South Foreland coast. And yet, though replete with emblems of English tradition and bursting with hatred of ugly, evil-minded foreigners, this novel has an unmistakable political subtext that undermines its apparent confidence in British power. Drax, it turns out, is a patriot – but a patriot of Nazi Germany, which he had served as an SS officer and plans to avenge with a missile that is pointing not, as everyone believes, at a test site in the North Sea, but at central London, the intended Ground Zero being a flat in Ebury Street, Belgravia (the location, incidentally, of Fleming’s own bachelor pad in the 1930s and 1940s). The missile has been designed and built by engineers from Wernher von Braun’s wartime rocket programme, and its atomic warhead has been generously donated by the Soviet Union, which is looking to bring Britain to its knees without having to go through the rigmarole of fighting a war.

The Moonraker, we are told repeatedly, will restore Britain to its rightful place at the global top table after its unfortunate postwar period of retrenchment and austerity. But the rocket is not British, except in being built on British soil, and the aim of the man controlling it is to destroy British power, not project it. The implication is that Britain is not only incapable of looking after its own defences, but also pathetically grateful for the favours bestowed on it. After the missile is fired, its trajectory diverted by Bond back to the original target (thereby fortuitously taking out a Soviet submarine carrying the fleeing Drax), the government decides to cover it all up and allow the public to continue believing that the Moonraker is a genuinely British atomic success.

One of the ironies of the Bond phenomenon is that by examining the myths and realities of British hard power, it became a chief instrument of British soft power. Of the first 18 novels to sell over a million copies in Britain, ten were Bond books, and Moonraker (by no means the most successful instalment of the saga) was approaching the two million mark 20 years after publication. The film franchise continues to offer Cannadine’s “comforting, escapist” image of Britain (the two most recent pictures, directed by Sam Mendes, are especially replete with British icons), but the novels are altogether more uncertain about Britain’s role in the world. Moonraker is full of anxiety that the myth of British power is nothing more than a myth, that Britain lacks the industrial and scientific wherewithal to return to greatness. It even conjures up an image of the apocalypse, reminding readers of the precariousness of those cherished British values and institutions, when the love interest, the improbably named Special Branch detective Gala Brand, imagines the terrible consequences of Drax’s plan:

The crowds in the streets. The Palace. The nursemaids in the park. The birds in the trees. The great bloom of flame a mile wide. And then the mushroom cloud. And nothing left. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

***

Even though their plots ensure that apocalypse is averted, Cold War thrillers thus made their own contribution to forcing us to imagine the unimaginable, as did more mainstream post-apocalyptic novels such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Nevil Shute’s bestseller On the Beach (1957) and The Old Men at the Zoo (1961) by Angus Wilson. In Desmond Cory’s Shockwave, first published in 1963 as Hammerhead and featuring the Spanish-British agent Johnny Fedora (whose debut preceded Bond’s by two years), Madrid is saved from destruction by a nuclear bomb that the Soviet master spy Feramontov almost succeeds in delivering to its target. As he contemplates his objective, Feramontov muses that, in the “bomb-haunted world of the Sixties”, death in a nuclear fireball “might even come as a release, like the snapping of an overtautened string; and after the rains of death had flooded the Earth, those who survived in the sodden ruins might think of him as a benefactor of the race”.

But where the post-apocalyptic dystopias might be viewed as an argument for nuclear disarmament, later Cold War thrillers such as Cory’s usually accepted the fact of mutually assured destruction – and that British peace and prosperity were guaranteed by US nuclear firepower. Nowhere is this more apparent than Frederick Forsyth’s 1984 bestseller, The Fourth Protocol, which turns the Labour Party’s famously unilateralist 1983 election manifesto into a uniquely party-political espionage plot. In it, the general secretary of the Soviet Union conspires with the elderly Kim Philby to smuggle into Britain a small, self-assembly nuclear bomb that a KGB “illegal” will put together and ­detonate at a US air force base in East Anglia.

Unlike in Moonraker and Shockwave, however, the objective is not to provoke hostilities or prompt military capitulation, but to persuade the British public to vote Labour – by provoking horror and outrage at the risks of US nuclear weapons remaining on British soil. However, the new and moderate Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, will have a scant few hours in Downing Street, as a hard-left rival under Soviet control (such as a certain Ken Livingstone, whom Philby describes as “a nondescript, instantly forgettable little fellow with a nasal voice”) will at once usurp Kinnock and reinstate a policy of unilateral disarmament, leading to the removal of the US missiles.

The ideological force of Forsyth’s novel is clear enough: Britain is beset by enemies within and without, and must arm itself morally and politically against communism. But although this is an insistently, even tiresomely patriotic novel, its plot makes no attempt to conceal Britain’s relative military weakness and dependence on the United States, though disaster is averted by the combined brilliance of MI5, MI6 and the SAS. The Fourth Protocol thus becomes an allegory of this country’s world-leading “niche capabilities”, which maintain Britain’s prestige and relevance despite its declining military and economic might.

Today, the political argument remains on much the same terms as at the start of the Cold War. Whichever way you look at it, Trident symbolises Britain. To its supporters, it is symbolic of Britain’s talent for “punching above its weight”, and its responsibility to protect freedom and keep the global peace. To its opponents, it is an emblem of economic folly, militaristic excess, and a misunderstanding of contemporary strategic threats; it is an expression not of British confidence but of a misplaced machismo, a way for Britons to feel good about themselves that fails to address the real threats to the nation. One academic, Nick Ritchie of York University, argues that Britain’s nuclear policy discourse “is underpinned by powerful ideas about masculinity in international politics in which nuclear weapons are associated with ideas of virility, strength, autonomy and rationality”.

In 1945, shortly after Hiroshima became a byword for mass destruction, George ­Orwell predicted in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb” that nuclear weapons would bring about what he was the first to call a “cold war”. Because an atomic bomb “is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship”, it could be produced at scale only by countries with vast industrial capacity; this would lead to the emergence of two or three superpowers, confronting each other in a “peace that is no peace”.

Orwell’s point about industrial capacity helps explain why Trident is totemic: it is proof that our industrial might has not entirely vanished. Alternatively, it can be seen as a consolation for industrial decline. This may be why the huge cost of the Successor programme – one of the main arguments wielded by Trident’s opponents against replacement – appears to be a source of pride for the government: the Strategic Defence and Security Review proclaims that, at £31bn, with a further £10bn for contingencies, Successor will be “one of the largest government investment programmes”.

Clearly, size matters today as much as it did when Fleming was writing. But Moonraker again helps us see that all is not what it seems. Just as the Moonraker is a German missile with a Soviet warhead, even if it is being built in Kent, so the missiles carried by the Vanguard-class submarines are, in fact, made in California, Britain having given up missile production in the 1960s. The Trident warheads are made in Berkshire – but by a privatised government agency part-owned by two American firms. Trident may be British, but only in the way Manchester United or a James Bond movie are British.

The Cold War spy thriller presciently suggests that true independence is an illusion. Britain may consume the most destructive weapons yet invented, but it can no longer produce them or deliver them without America’s industrial might. British power is interdependent, not independent: that is the Cold War thriller’s most politically prescient message.

Andrew Glazzard is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of “Conrad’s Popular Fictions: Secret Histories and Sensational Novels” (Palgrave Macmillan)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt