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Full transcripts appearing online for the duration of Telepoetics (27 May – 5 June 2020) have been reduced to excerpts of approx. 750 words.
AB Hi Nick.
NR Hi Andrew.
AB How you doing?
NR I’m doing all right.
AB Good. I’ve just been reading your book, your memoir – which I thought was wonderful, actually.
NR Thank you.
AB Beautifully written. And I wanted…I had some questions about it.
AB Have you got a few minutes?
NR I’ve got a few minutes and it’s a pleasure to be able to talk to you.
AB I mean, one of the things I was interested in was the way in which your memoir of your mother was constructed in part around phone calls. There seem to be a number of quite significant phone calls. I wondered if you wanted to say anything about that?
NR Yeah, I’m not sure exactly which moments you’re thinking of, but certainly there are a couple of instances that come to my mind. There’s one close to the beginning. When I’m talking about my mother’s reading of a novel by Iris Murdoch called The Sea, the Sea.
And she’s deeply immersed in this book and she’s been immersed in it for a couple of days and she’s close to the end and I ask her how it is, what she thinks of it. And she says ‘drivel’. And you know, that’s one of her keywords, one of her colloquialisms or whatever that I always found enchanting, and it was also for me an extraordinary verdict on Iris Murdoch, on the book she was reading, and also I suppose it was illustrative of a peculiar perversity – to have invested so much time in reading a book that nevertheless she considered drivel. So there are various complicated things going on in that single word. But it’s illustrative in turn of the process of memoir-writing as itself a sort of immersion in telephony, in a kind of literary or memorial telephony. It was a space in which I never felt, as I was writing, that I was simply recounting or recalling. I was also at the same time stumbling upon new memories or another voice or another voice track. So that moment in the book where I recount my mother’s reading of Iris Murdoch triggered this memory of Iris Murdoch and her husband, John Bayley, because John Bailey was my PhD supervisor and I hadn’t remembered this for ages, but it triggered the memory of phoning John and Iris at their house in Oxfordshire, and I only did it on a handful of occasions, phoning to talk to my PhD supervisor.
And it was always a very strange, surreal, poignant, comical kind of experience, because every time I did it, I always had to wait several minutes before one of them picked up the phone. There was no sense that it was always Iris who picked up or always John, but it was always a long time. And there’s something about that experience of waiting for somebody to answer the phone and the kind of, I don’t know, patience, suspension of life, suspension of feeling, a stoicism or strange languidness that went with phoning that number, knowing that probably sooner or later, one of them was going to answer and then I realised that was actually what it was like to phone my own parents. So I discovered as I was writing that phoning Iris and John was, in fact, strangely in correspondence with phoning my own father and mother because they also never picked up the phone in a hurry, they always, as it were, had a kind of duel, a stand-off in which they waited for the other one to pick up the phone.
So there was there was that and then there was also, I suppose, as part of the ‘drivel’ of that moment, of the trigger of memory and the feelings manifested by it, there was also this reminder or reinforcement or reiteration for me of the extent to which this memoir that I was writing was about my mother’s voice – not just in my memory, but in my own voice, and in the way in which I hear the world, if I can put it like that.
AB There’s a kind of humour and perhaps a nostalgia involved in phoning Iris Murdoch and John Bailey, and your mother and father, and that seems to be connected with the telephone technology in some way. You talk about the ‘marvellous lethargy preventing anyone from journeying to the phone’ in the Murdoch-Bayley household, and you contrast that with what you call the ‘integrated pseudo-urgency and command’ of telephoning today. I’m wondering about nostalgia, nostalgia for some kind of telephone call.