I AM hugely chuffed. After many years of book-collecting, I have obtained my personal holy grail: a signed copy of Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net.
OK, it’s a sixth impression, and is missing much of the dust wrapper, but it is still a first edition — and, what is more, bears the ownership signature of another luminary, the theologian E. L. Mascall.
Dame Iris and Mascall were both contributors to an enlightened Oxford University enterprise, the Socratic Society, founded by the poet and student pastor Stella Ardwinkle under the presidency of C. S. Lewis in 1941. It was intended to be a forum for discussion between Christians and non-Christians.
Writing about it later, Lewis described it thus: “In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university, there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into ‘coteries’ where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumour that the outsiders say thus and thus.
“The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other groups can say.”
He concluded, rather charmingly: “At the very least we helped to civilise one another.”
In these days of fake news and alternative truth, it sounds like an echo of a bygone, saner age.
Not too serious
I NEVER met Mascall, but he comes over as one of those idiosyncratic Anglo-Catholic big hitters who are altogether rarer these days. He was a theological heavyweight (he was Professor of Historical Theology at King’s, London), but his collection of nonsense verse, Pi in the High, points to a whimsicality that leavened a formidable intellect. In the foreword he commented: “To take oneself too seriously is bad theology.” I couldn’t agree more.
I ENCOUNTERED Dame Iris briefly at a book-signing during a Charleston Festival, in 1995. She was in a discussion with the writer Victoria Glendinning, who had told Dame Iris of her Jewish and Roman Catholic antecedents.
“My dear,” she had said, “aren’t you lucky? You have so many paths to God.”
Talking to her afterwards, I told her that I was a priest. “What interesting conversations we could have,” she replied with real warmth. She signed a book for me, adding a little cross-and-fish rebus that I’ve seen subsequently in other books she has signed, and take to be a Christian fellow-traveller sign.
Sadly, in retrospect, in the pauses and in the struggling for words, the Alzheimer’s she famously battled against was becoming evident; but I still treasure the encounter.
Lost and found
A HORRIBLE thing happened a couple of Sundays ago.
I was with some of my parishioners from St Michael’s, Horsted Parva, walking from the Laughing Fish pub (a hostelry I know well) in the village of Isfield to the delightfully named Owlsbury Farm, on our annual church blackberry walk. You can’t get more bucolically English than that.
I suddenly realised that Sophie, my black Labrador dog, had vanished. As I have said before, she has a sort of muscular dystrophy, which she has had since she was a puppy, and which means that she’s not used to going on walks. I thought she would be OK staying with our group of dogs and children, but, in the 30 seconds my eyes were off her, she disappeared.
We wandered around the place we had last seen her, calling her name. I thought about accounts of dogs that are never seen again; I thought about the river with its steep banks; and I thought about those forlorn “lost” posters you see around lamp posts. My stomach contracted into a hard little ball of fear.
Then, after 45 minutes, a phone call came through: she had been found sitting by a house on the main road, happily watching the cars go by. A kind couple had picked her up and taken her to the Laughing Fish, where I duly collected her.
Very pleased with herself after her jaunt, she was fine. I was traumatised.
Episodes like this jolt us out of our complacency and put into perspective all the little annoyances and inconveniences that we (well, certainly I, anyway) normally moan about.
I CAST my mind back to that Dame Iris interview. Someone asked her a question about putting people she knew in her novels. She never did, she said; but, after a moment, she went on to say that she sometimes put in dogs that she knew.
I would never aspire to be a Murdochian character (she has some dodgy clergy in her novels, but I would never presume), but I can imagine Sophie doing rather well.
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in Chichester diocese.