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Keeping Busy

If an Irishman’s home is his castle—or his coffin, in Leopold Bloom’s mordant variation on the old saw—then certainly the poet Richard Murphy has seen more crenelations rise and fall than most of his fellow countrymen. Murphy comes from the Anglo-Irish upper middle class, those Protestants “planted” in Ireland in Cromwellian times and earlier, a people for whom the house, and especially the Big House, was less a place of shelter, comfort, and privacy than a symbol in stone and brick of a separate and stubbornly enduring culture.

He spent his early childhood among the mansions of the west of Ireland, with repeated long intervals in Ceylon, where his father was the colonial mayor of Colombo, and where his mother did good works among the sick and saved the lives of thousands during a malaria epidemic. In adulthood he returned to the west, living in an isolated cottage, making himself into a poet, and earning his living from the sea; later he set out on restless wanderings in Ireland and abroad, building or renovating a series of houses, large and small, which in succession he left or lost, one of them to fire.

The place that dominates the earlier sections of The Kick, his elegant if inelegantly titled memoir, is the place of his birth, Milford, his maternal grandfather’s house on the Mayo–Galway border, built in 1625:

We were surrounded at Milford by dark mysterious old woods, where none of us dared to walk alone at night, full of hair-raising creatures that made weird sounds. Beyond the garden wall, too high to climb, an immense bog stretched as far as we could see, from the upstairs study window through the branches of a yew tree, to the pale blue hill of Castlehacket on the horizon.

Instead of building a house for his wife and children in Ireland, Murphy père had converted the former servants’ quarters and kitchens at Milford to make a self-contained home, known rather grandly as the East Wing; there was no electricity, gas, or telephone, and scant running water, but the five seasons that Murphy spent there with his mother and siblings and grandparents, which he describes without romantic frills, were an idyll, despite “our predicament as an Anglo-Irish family, isolated under the aegis of a Protestant clergyman on a remote demesne in neutral Eire, dominated by Roman Catholic priests and threatened by German invasion.” It is a predicament from which Murphy, like so many of his Anglo-Irish brethren, has never quite escaped. He retains that ambivalent attitude toward his ancestry which is the subject of many of the finest essays of Hubert Butler. Here is Murphy describing his mother’s antecedents:

Her parents may not have had two pennies to rub together, as they used to say, but both had Anglo-Irish pedigrees, going back on her father’s side to King Charles II and his mistress, Lucy Walters, through the brother of Patrick Sarsfield; while on her mother’s family tree there dangled a French marquis, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and at the tip top—could you believe it?—William the Conqueror!

The ping! of that exclamation mark is the uncertain note that sounds repeatedly throughout these pages.

The figure of his mother commands the opening and the closing of the book. The early pages, in which Murphy, preparing to write his memoir, probes this formidable ninety-four-year-old’s still sharp memory a year before her death, are a sort of overture weaving together in subtle and deliberately blurred fashion many of the themes that will be elaborated upon later. In a tea chest full of family papers, collected by his mother “in seven countries and preserved through two world wars,” he had found a diary which she had begun in 1914, at the age of sixteen.

She was born in Galway in 1898, and after she had married, ceasing to be Betty Ormsby and becoming Mrs W. Lindsay Murphy, she would sign her nationality on official forms as “British and Irish,” thus neatly attesting to a duality not only of nationality but of tribal allegiance. “She was proud and ashamed of being Irish. Proud of the Irishmen, especially her relations, who had given their lives in Britain’s wars; ashamed of Ireland’s neutrality, and the bombing of Britain by the IRA before the Second World War.” One thinks of the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, another tough-hided Anglo-Irish lady whose deep and enduring love of Ireland did not prevent her doing a bit of low-level spying on the country for Britain during the Hitler war, and who always insisted that she belonged most authentically somewhere in the middle of the Irish Sea, halfway between her two beloved shores.

Murphy labored—that seems the word—under another kind of duality, signaled early on when he recounts a dispute at his Church of Ireland christening in the Mayo village of Kilmaine between his grandfather, Reverend Thomas Ormsby, and the officiating clergyman, over whether the child was a boy or a girl; his grandmother put an end to the argument by asking, “Why don’t you look?” He was to be no sissy, however, and was always able to stand up for himself. At the end of a tea party given by his Aunt Bella—Dr. Isabella Mulvany, bluestocking and educator, known to friends in her youth as “the Chief” and bearing in Murphy’s memory of her a strong physical resemblance to her Anglo-Irish contemporary, Oscar Wilde—the child Richard, urged to say thank you, crossed the room instead and delivered the grande dame a smart kick, just for devilment.

Like so many boys who have difficulty locating their true sexuality—he refers to himself in adulthood as “androgynous”—Murphy was in his earliest years extremely close to his mother, displaying so much affection toward her that she called him her “kissing son,” and addressed him in her letters to him at his first boarding school, at Baymount in Dublin, as “My own K.S.” When the eight-year-old Murphy revealed the secret of the code to a boy whom he considered a friend, he was immediately made a target of ridicule. He found a truer friend in Bernard Dobbs, in later years to be British ambassador to Laos, who in bed after lights out “used to whisper to me about women’s breasts.” These late-night anatomy lessons were about the extent of the instructions the pre-pubertal Murphy received in what used to be called the facts of life. “The worst fault of Baymount was that women didn’t add up to much in our masculine equations, with the result that my mind was poorly prepared for the later equations of sex.”

From Baymount he went with his brother Chris to the Canterbury Cathedral Choir School, where he was happy, but where one of his schoolfellows, catching a glimpse of Mrs. Murphy on a visit, insisted she looked too young and beautiful to be the boys’ mother, and “spread a hurtful rumor that Chris and I were adopted.” The war and its dangers brought them back for a time to Milford, and the care of private tutors, one of whom, Miss Sarah Stokes, stirred young Richard’s interest in poetry—“It was enough for her to say that Milton was a great poet for me to want to capture the greatness of Milton.” But life in and around the East Wing had its practical side also. With a loan from his mother, Richard went into the poultry business, rearing a flock of Rhode Island Reds and selling the eggs, while Chris bought a herd of wild goats in Connemara and herded them by road and ferry to Milford, “where he milked them and made some good cheese, but little profit.” Richard, it seemed, was the more successful entrepreneur: “My poultry were so profitable that the family expected me to become a businessman, in contrast to Chris.”

Back at school in wartime England, now at King’s School in Cornwall, Murphy continued to undergo his never more than mournful sexual awakening. Here at night in the dormitory an older boy “attacked me with fists before lights out and seduced me with whispers when five other boys who shared the room had fallen asleep,” and climbed into his bed in the dark “for the sake of a spasm of manual relief.” The boy was a monitor’s “kick,” meaning one whom the monitor romantically fancied. At King’s, the word could be applied to anything that produced excitement or pleasure, not necessarily sexual. “The guilty kick I got at night made me hunger for purification through history, literature and music during the day.” The scene was set for—yes, you guessed it—Oxford.

Murphy applied for a scholarship to Magdalen College, along with Kenneth Tynan—“He played with his fingers and sniffed like a horse nosing at a trough”—and, again along with Tynan, was awarded what was known as a Demyship, after undergoing a viva voce conducted by C.S. Lewis, “a short plump man who was sitting on a sofa smoking a pipe.” Lewis was to become both Murphy’s and Tynan’s tutor, and both have written of him in tones of unashamed adulation.

My Oxford,” Murphy admits, “was a better preparation for a memoirist than a poet.” He gathered the usual quota of famous, colorful, or eccentric acquaintances, including some, such as the future Faber editor Charles Monteith, who were to remain friends for life. On the day that he won his scholarship he was accosted in the street by John Simopoulos, the son of a former Greek ambassador to England, who was to be to Murphy what Antony Blanche was to Charles Ryder in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, inviting him to his rooms to listen to Bach and smoke Balkan Sobranie ciga-rettes, after which they lay down together and “I let him unbutton my trousers while he unbuttoned his….” Almost at once, however, Murphy flees, and next day in terror consults a doctor in the fear that he has contracted syphilis. “Thereafter I went to chapel every day and read the lesson so well that I won an award.”

In the summer of 1946 Murphy returned to Milford suffering from depression. If “mad Ireland” had, as Auden suggested in his great memorial poem, hurt Yeats into poetry, the country had an opposite effect on Murphy the nascent poet. “Going to school and university in England,” he writes, “had allowed the west of Ireland, that mournful, impoverished, tempestuous country, to remain in my imagination as the most beautiful place in the world. Ireland would be my cure.” He did some serious reading that summer, finding in Yeats a favorite to displace Wordsworth, and before long had returned to full health. By now his parents had moved from Ceylon to Nassau, where his father succeeded the Duke of Windsor as governor of the Bahamas, and he went out to join them for an extended holiday. Suddenly, as it seems, the great world began to open before him:

The news that I had passed my degree with Second Class Honours reached me in New York on the eve of my twenty-first birthday. That night Peter Hoguet, a playboy whose parents were friends of mine in Nassau, took me to a party at a nightclub on the roof of the St Regis, given by the daughters of Joseph Kennedy. I was on my way to the Bahamas.

Ireland, however, was to call him back from the glitter of café society, via a stint as an unlikely insurance clerk in London, where after office hours he began to write poetry reviews for the Spectator. He was continuing to work hard at his own verse, and in 1951 he won the AE Memorial Award, which brought with it a £100 prize, in those days a not inconsiderable sum.

Almost immediately he moved to a remote cottage in Rosroe near the mouth of Killary Harbor in County Mayo, one of the most beautiful seascapes in all Ireland. A former tenant of the house he was renting had been “a German translator of sorts,” according to neighbors, who had fed the birds roundabout until they were so tame the cats could catch them without effort. Lying in bed one day, Murphy spotted a wad of paper wedged between the rafters and the corrugated iron roof to stop the roof from rattling, and taking down the paper discovered two letters, one addressing “My dear Ludwig” and the second “Dear Professor Wittgenstein.”

The first of a number of fairly menial jobs that Murphy took was that of water bailiff for a neighbor who had been in Ceylon and whom he had known there; his job was to guard the salmon from night poachers along an eight-mile stretch of river that the neighbor was renting from Lord Sligo. It was at this time too that he fell in love with the pookaun, or púcán in Irish, a type of small fishing boat, nimble and quick, but hard to handle and dangerously unstable in bad weather. Later, Murphy was to purchase another kind of boat, a forty-year-old Galway hooker, in which he was for some years to earn his living, ferrying tourists on fishing trips in the often treacherous waters around the shores and islands of Mayo and Connemara. Murphy writes about the sea with the passion of a natural sailor, although he is painfully, and sometimes comically, honest about the many mishaps and near disasters that he experienced.

On the island of Inishbofin at the end of the 1950s Murphy met the man who, as one can read between the lines of The Kick, was to be the unrequited love of his life. Tony White was a highly talented but unsuccessful actor on the London stage who had thrown up the theatrical life to live on Ireland’s west coast, a place that he loved with an almost violent and jealous passion—the friendship between the two men nearly foundered over Murphy’s venture into ferrying tourists, which White believed would destroy the purity of this stretch of wild, unsullied coast. A tinge of real tragedy inflects the otherwise highly measured tone of the book, in the account of White’s premature and avoidable death from an embolism following an accident in which he broke his leg badly in an amateur football match. Although he does not say so, it is possible that White’s death soured the west for Murphy, and led to his leaving there for the more tranquil Wicklow and Dublin.

In 1955, surprisingly, perhaps, Murphy married. His wife was Patricia Strang née Avis, whom he first met in Paris in 1954, when they were both staying at the Cité Universitaire, and Avis pushed a note under his door announcing herself as a fellow poetry-lover, asking if he would like to meet her, and signing herself “George Sand.” The daughter of an eccentric, domineering South African businessman, Avis already had the start of a brilliant career behind her. At seventeen she had got into Oxford when it was ten times harder for a woman to do so than a man, and had read medicine so as to have an excuse not to return to South Africa and her impossible father for seven years. Before she could qualify she had married a high-born Englishman, Colin Strang, had suffered seven miscarriages, and had found her way into a fast literary circle that included Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, with the latter of whom she had a brief affair. She and Murphy were married in London in 1955, and a year later they had a daughter, Emily. The following year Patricia suffered a late miscarriage. Murphy’s account of burying his stillborn son is a fine example of the quiet power that he can bring to his writing, which is not at all a “poet’s prose,” but is prosaic in the best and most solid sense, and all the more effective for that:

As clouds are dimming the moonlight, I shine a torch. He looks like me. Yet also like a figurine moulded from clay and fired thousands of years ago. Having dug deep enough, I tip the body from the bowl, gently, and look at him as he lies in the earth: head with a high forehead, full of intelligence; nose and chin, mouth and ears like mine in a photograph my mother has kept from my infancy, the eyes closed. After touching my tongue, I inscribe on his forehead with my forefinger the sign of the tree, and recite in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, though I do not believe in them. I bless him in his grave as I was blessed in childhood; then bury my unborn son.

The marriage was an open one, which inevitably led to tensions and recriminations. One of Patricia’s lovers was a civil servant in the perhaps aptly named Irish Department of External Affairs, who was also the author of a book on French Catholic writers. This was Conor Cruise O’Brien. The three met first for dinner at the Red Bank restaurant near the offices of the Irish Times. The account of the evening and O’Brien’s subsequent behavior is a fine example of Murphy’s quiet ferocity in the skewering of those who have wronged him. “Conor sat facing us, often breaking into French to impress Patricia. I thought he was showing off but she was awed by his brilliance.”

Then he seemed to recognize and smile at a friend at the far end of the bar. Again and again he did this, usually after a witticism in French. I wondered whether we might ask the friend to join us, another sophisticate who might have amused Patricia. But in a quick glance over my shoulder I caught sight of Conor in a mirror on the far wall of the bar, smiling at himself.

According to Murphy, his wife never recovered from the stillbirth of her son. They were living at one of Murphy’s many houses, Lake Park, a Regency fishing lodge in County Wicklow, which they had bought, with money grudgingly donated by Patricia’s father, from Ernest Gébler, who had lived there with his wife, Edna O’Brien—in the way of most literary memoirists, Murphy seems never to have encountered anyone who was not someone—but now Patricia, bored and unhappy, wanted to move back to London. She traveled to South Africa to get her father’s permission to sell Lake Park, but almost immediately wrote to Murphy from Johannesburg asking for a divorce. Murphy sought, and got, custody of his daughter, but his attitude toward his wife was, and is, stark: “I hated her for wanting a divorce.” Much later in her sad life, far gone in drink and despair, Patricia was to commit suicide.

Indeed, suicide is a recurring theme in The Kick. Patricia’s brother had already done away with himself, as had one of Murphy’s school friends. And then there was Sylvia Plath. Murphy had met Plath and her husband, Ted Hughes, in the early 1960s, and it was when the couple were staying with him at his house in Cleggan in 1962 that Sylvia delivered that by now well-known “gentle kick” to Murphy’s leg under the table. “This alarmed me because I didn’t want to have an affair with her, or break up her marriage, or be used to make Ted jealous….” Plath, however, was already on the downward spiral that would end with her taking her own life the following year, and was desperately searching for help in all the wrong places. A few days later, Hughes went off on his own to County Clare, leaving Sylvia with Murphy, who panicked, he tells us, and asked her to leave the next day by taking a lift to Dublin with the poet Thomas Kinsella, whom Murphy had invited to come and help him entertain his fascinating but unpredictable guests. Murphy seems to harbor a residual sense of guilt for his inability to help Plath in her desperation, but surely she was even then beyond saving. Years later, Hughes admitted to Murphy that he had been cruel to leave Plath alone in Cleggan, and wondered if he had acted more quickly in the final week of her life would her suicide have been avoided. A bleak admission, an unanswerable question.

The Kick is more an account of a life in the busy world than the chronicle of the making of a poet. Murphy is unassuming in the matter of poetry in general—a description of a verse- reading “contest” with James Dickey is comic and mercilessly accurate; he is disparaging of his early work, and admits to the difficulty he has always found in the making of verse. One has the impression from these pages that he does not consider himself a “born” poet, and certainly he is no celebrant of life’s happinesses, as he considers his colleague, Seamus Heaney, to be, although he does wonder, somewhat slyly, whether Heaney is really as happy as he seems. At the end, after giving an account of his mother’s death—her last words to her nurse were, “Well, it’s dark outside. Can’t you come part of the way?”—Murphy hands on the metaphorical baton to a new generation. At the old lady’s funeral, his daughter Emily reports, her own daughter, three-year-old Theodora, was overheard remarking to a younger cousin, “Aren’t we lucky, Isabella, that we’re not old: it’ll be a long time before we have to die.”

The book is a fine, considered, and fascinating memoir of a life lived as close to the full as possible. If in places it is a little self-serving, well, the self that is served is not undeserving of the attention. Murphy treats warmly those whom he loved, and fairly those he did not, while yet missing no opportunity to settle scores that he considers in need of settlement. Sorely missing are an index, and photographs; surely in that tea chest of papers kept by his mother there must be a cache of family snapshots, a selection of which could be included in subsequent editions.

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