Remembering Iris Murdoch, Sunday Times, January 2010
Time and place: Sunday Times, January 31, 2010 Ruth Padel
Interview by Hilary Whitney
The great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin recalls gazing at the river from her tiny flat in Chelsea
“I moved to Flat 7, 7 Embankment Gardens, in Chelsea, in 1979,” says Ruth Padel. “There was something magical about it, not least because it cost £11,000, which was exactly the sum I had inherited from my grandfather. I could afford to buy it outright.
“I had recently finished my PhD in ancient Greek tragedy at Oxford and wanted to live in London. The flat was small. It was on the second floor of an Edwardian mansion block and was basically one room, with an archway that led into a tiny kitchen, then a bathroom. It was in a bad state when I bought it, with a nasty fitted carpet and drab, oyster-coloured walls. I painted the walls white, ripped out the carpet and had bare floorboards. Luckily, it had quite high ceilings, and a friend built a platform for me to sleep on, which gave me some extra space.
“What made the flat so special was that it overlooked the river. I would sit by the window and look at the necklaces of light on the water. I felt hugely privileged to have that view.
“My favourite place to work has always been in bed, with a keyboard on my knees, but it wasn’t comfortable on the platform, so I would sit at a table by the window, trying not to get distracted by what was going on outside.
“I was incredibly busy, studying for an MPhil in modern Greek at King’s College, London, and teaching ancient Greek both at Corpus Christi, Oxford, and King’s College, Cambridge, so every week was a constant triangle, but I still had a hectic social life.
“The writer JG Farrell was a good friend; he lived nearby in a basement flat just off the Old Brompton Road, and we had plans to cycle to India together. But I decided to go back to Greece and he moved to Ireland and died just a few months later.
“Despite the lack of space, I could squeeze 30 people in for a party, which I did several times. On one occasion, a couple of friends of mine, who’d had a lot to drink, discovered that they’d missed the last Tube home. Instead of coming back to the flat, they somehow managed to climb over the high railings that surround the Royal Chelsea Hospital, and slept in the grounds. They awoke to find themselves surrounded by several rather bemused Chelsea Pensioners.
“It was an intense, fun time, but then I split up with a boyfriend and decided to go back to Greece, where I’d lived on and off for a few months at a time when I’d been on archaeological digs; it’s always been a place of renewal and replenishment for me. I thought I’d go back, turn my thesis into a book and teach English to support myself while I wrote poetry.
“This meant I had to sell the flat. I didn’t mind at the time — I was young, and I wanted to be free to travel — but what a mistake. It must be worth a fortune now.
“One evening, shortly before I moved, Iris Murdoch, whom I’d befriended in Oxford, came to say goodbye. We sat by the window as dusk fell, and had something to drink. Eventually, she said: “Ruth, is there anything at all to eat in your flat?” All I could find was a cauliflower, so we sat nibbling raw cauliflower as the lights came on along the Embankment.
“Iris grabbed a scrap of paper and scribbled down the telephone number of an old friend of hers, a Greek writer called Kay Cicellis, whom she said I must look up. Kay and her husband became two of my closest friends and deepened my knowledge and love of Greece immeasurably.
“You know,” said Iris, who was always protective towards me, “everything’s going to be all right. You’re going to have a great time.” And she was right. But I do regret selling that flat.”