To visit writer and biographer Peter J Conradi, you turn off a byway deep in Welsh border country and drive more than two miles up a one-track, no through road until you reach the converted schoolhouse he shares with his partner, James O’Neill (a psychotherapist), and their young and puckish border collie, Max. It’s a secluded, soul-soothing location, and one that plays a significant role in Conradi’s forthcoming memoir, Family Business (Seren).
Born in London in 1945 into a large and impressively cosmopolitan Jewish family, Conradi first came to the Welsh Marches as a student in the 1960s. "It was the beginning of a love affair with this place," he tells me over home-produced apple juice. In an earlier book for Seren, At the Bright Hem of God: Radnorshire Pastoral, Conradi explores the history of this smallest and most sparsely populated of counties as a place of contemplation, exploration, creation and retreat. "This part of Wales stayed independent for 500 years because of the Marcher kingdoms, which are not replicated anywhere else in the world. There were around 40 of them and each one had its own currency and laws, and minted its own coins. But despite its extraordinary history and character, it seemed to me that this part of Wales hadn’t been depicted very often."
In the late 1990s, the Radnorshire house he moved to in 1974 also became a place of safety for Dame Iris Murdoch and her husband, John Bayley, as her brilliant mind succumbed to Alzheimer’s. The Dublin-born novelist and philosopher’s work had long been a source of profound inspiration for Conradi, but during her final few years, he and O’Neill also acted as her carers during the times she and Bayley took refuge with them in Wales.
After her death in 1999, Conradi’s official biography of Murdoch was published, and then in 2001, the film "Iris" came out. Starring Dame Judi Dench and based on Bayley’s own memoir of his wife, it charted their relationship, and her subsequent mental decline. While Conradi was a consultant on the film, he was uneasy with its legacy. "It’s a very moving film, but it doesn’t have a single word in it that she ever said or wrote", he tells me. Later, at the opening of an art exhibition one evening, he overheard two women who were looking at a portrait of Murdoch. "One of them said: ‘Who’s that?’ And the other replied: ‘That’s the writer who went mad’. And I thought, that’s not how she should be remembered."
In the third and final part of Family Business, Conradi does a magnificent job of resurrecting Murdoch’s achievements in this year which marks the centenary of her birth, explaining why he became her disciple long before he came to know her personally. Family Business also charts Conradi’s own chequered journey to coming out, and his gay activism. He credits Murdoch—who was bisexual—with writing some of the first gay-friendly fictions, for example her 1958 novel The Bell, with its "homosexual hero who refused to believe that God could have allotted him a nature that He simultaneously condemned". More personally, he writes that her fiction "helped me negotiate both my sexuality and my spiritual urges". Both Conradi and O’Neill became Buddhists after reading Murdoch’s moral philosophy. He tells me: "I was kidnapped, and still am, by her argument that God and the afterlife are childish bribes. Instead you have to be good, as she put it, for nothing, without hope of reward."
Aside from the Murdoch centenary and the 20th anniversary of her death, the writing of Family Business was also prompted by the process of going through a large cache of family papers, and by the death, from cancer, of Conradi’s sister Prue, to whom the book is dedicated. "I promised her I would write it, and it was a promise I wanted to honour." His memoir, Conradi tells me, naturally fell into three parts during the writing. The first part is an amusing and moving account of his childhood and school years, which were clouded by his warring parents (who eventually divorced), and by his difficult relationship with his father. We also encounter Florence, his grandmother, a doughty, cultured and adventurous woman, raised on the Upper West Side of New York in the early 1900s. "She was to be, while I was growing up, my closest friend," Conradi writes. The second part of Family Business bears comparison with Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes in its settings and scope, and delves into the fascinating history of his forebears, notably his great-grandparents who fled Paris for London with their children in 1870 to escape the Franco-Prussian War.
Conradi’s explanation for this multifaceted approach to his memoir is interesting: "Leading more than one life is what we all do; finding common threads can hopefully illuminate the whole." And indeed, throughout Family Business runs the unifying theme of Conradi as an anxiously solicitous "knight-errant". "It dawned on me that I had spent my first 35 years protecting my mother against my father; and my next 35 years protecting Iris Murdoch from the whole world," he writes.
This year is set to be a significant one both for Conradi, who will participate in a host of events marking the Iris Murdoch centenary, and for O’Neill, whose début book Undressing (like Family Business, a non-fiction Editor’s Choice of mine) is published by Short Books this summer. The couple met 42 years ago after Conradi placed a personal ad in Time Out, and have been together ever since. After reading Family Business, and visiting them in Radnorshire, a phrase from a Dame Iris Murdoch lecture, quoted by Conradi in his book, comes irresistibly to mind: "We must learn to love other people... and perhaps dogs."
This piece is part of The Bookseller's country focus on Wales. For more in the series, click here.
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