Iris Murdoch's Beermats

By Miles Leeson and Anne Rowe

‘The pubs were closing and I put down as much whiskey as I could in the last ten minutes’.

Biography | Non fiction
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After her death, a fascinating discovery was made in Iris Murdoch’s Oxford library. Amongst the many volumes containing the wisdom of the world’s most esteemed writers and thinkers was an old black net shopping bag containing dozens of dazzling but well-worn beermats: ‘Young’s Ram Rod Bitter’, ‘Royal Ancient Whiskey’, ‘Bass Pale Ale’, ‘Mackeson Stout’.

Their presence was unexpected but fitting: Iris Murdoch loved pubs. She loved the solidity of their mahogany bars and their cheery staff; she loved the dim lighting and the smell of smoke mixed with beer. She sought out pub atmospheres at every opportunity, not just to meet colleagues, friends and lovers, but to sit quietly and people-watch, gathering fuel for the authenticity of her characters and the twists and turns of her plots. Covertly, she would slip the odd memento into her capacious handbag, saving it for that old shopping bag that would hang on her study door. 

This book is a celebration of Iris Murdoch’s love of pubs, and centres around her own collection of beermats. Colour illustrations are accompanied by maps of where to find the London and Oxford pubs she most frequently haunted. Extracts from her private letters and journals inform discussions on how Murdoch’s use of pubs fits into the tradition of the public house in English Literature and the nature of their guest appearances in almost all of  her twenty-six novels: The Pillars of Hercules, The Skinners Arms, The Black Lion, The Pack Horse, The Barley Mow – pubs feature in her novels not only as landmarks but also crucial plot devices. It is there that Iris Murdoch’s characters fall in love, quarrel, reflect, make plans, make fools of themselves, drown sorrows and get horribly drunk. 

The magical ambience and richness of humanity she found in pubs fuelled her creative imagination and make her novels compulsive reading. ‘I can’t understand your passion for pubs’, says one of two old friends on a country walk in The Book and The Brotherhood (1987). In defence, ‘they are universal places, like churches, hallowed meeting places of all mankind, and each one is different’ replies the other.  

The universal desire for company materialised in miniature: these beermats would prove invaluable to the creativity of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.

‘Tim and Daisy loved all pubs the way some people love all dogs’ (Nuns and Soldiers, 1980). 

‘At last the pubs opened. I had a drink’  (Under The Net, 1954).

 

A collaboration between Unbound, the Iris Murdoch Research Centre at the University of Chichester and the Iris Murdoch Archive Project at Kingston University.

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  • Miles Leeson avatar

    Miles Leeson

    Anne Rowe avatar

    Anne Rowe

    Miles Leeson is the Director of the Iris Murdoch Research Centre at the University of Chichester and co-editor of the 'Iris Murdoch Today' Series with Palgrave MacMillan. He's published widely on Murdoch's life and work and has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, and Books Ireland and appeared on the BBC's 'In Our Time' discussing Murdoch's work. He also hosts the Iris Murdoch Society's podcast, which you can find here: https://irismurdochsociety.org.uk/. If you want to know which Murdoch book to read next, take a look at his interview with Five Books: https://fivebooks.com/best-books/iris-murdoch-miles-leeson/

    Anne Rowe is Visiting Professor with the Iris Murdoch Research Centre at the University of Chichester and Emeritus Research Fellow with the Iris Murdoch Archive Project at the University of Kingston. She has published widely on Iris Murdoch over two decades, including most recently, Iris Murdoch: Writers and Their Work with Liverpool University Press, which is an ideal introduction to the life and work of Iris Murdoch. She contributes regularly to the Iris Murdoch Review, the annual publication of the Iris Murdoch Society, has appeared on Radio Fours’s In our Time series discussing Iris Murdoch’s novels and has written for Times Literary Supplement. She is regular contributor to the Iris Murdoch Society Podcasts.

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