21 January 2015

Slandered by Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch
I had got to know J.B. Priestley through Mary Adams of the BBC, and after trying to make use of me to collect quotations for his coffee-table book about time*, he went on visiting me in Oxford and talked about a television programme or series of programmes which might be made about me. Perhaps this had something to do with the possibility that I might lead him into contact with young female undergraduates and postgraduates. After a time, on one such visit, he came into my lodgings looking portentous, and said to me and my two fellow lodgers (one of them being the daughter of Mary Adams), ‘Iris Murdoch says you are lesbians.’

Iris Murdoch was a well-known novelist and former member of the Communist Party, and at the time very much part of the fashionable literary scene. She was also a philosophy don at Oxford, so any gossip she was spreading was likely to be a reflection of the attitudes of the Oxford dons generally. None of the three of us had ever met her.

The allegation of being lesbians was one of many rumours that went round about me and my associates having zero basis in fact. (See also Oxford’s slanders about drug-taking.)

I could not bring myself to deny Iris Murdoch’s alleged slander, as it seemed merely boring to deny something for which there was no foundation, so I made no reply, nor did either of the others. After a pause, J.B. Priestley said, ‘Oh well, I didn’t expect you to deny it,’ as if our failure to deny it was an admission of its truth. After this meeting, he did not visit us again, and the plans for television programmes were heard of no more. In fact what Priestley had gained from Iris Murdoch was not information about our supposed lesbianism, but information about our lack of social acceptability.

When I see detective programmes on the television, I have noticed that the person who most vigorously denies the suspicions against them often turns out to be the culprit. Possibly this is in recognition of the psychological fact that those who have something they need to cover up are motivated to produce an alternative account of the situation, whereas those who have nothing to do with the situation, that is to say, who have ‘nothing to hide’, feel no need to suggest an alternative explanation of the facts. This was, in fact, my position, and if J.B. Priestley were being realistic, he might even have had enough insight to regard our silence as the reverse of incriminating.

Another example of Oxford reacting to us in a way for which there was no justification was provided by an official at the organisation which listed potential landlords who would offer rooms to student tenants. One of my associates who owned a small house, in which I had formerly lived for a short time, applied to this organisation and asked to be placed on their list. No reason for their refusal was given, but the official looked shocked and exclaimed, ‘Oh no!’ on sight of the address, as if it was well known as a house of ill repute, or something of the sort.

* Man and Time, Aldus Books, 1964.
Photograph of Iris Murdoch by Jane Bown.