Magazine article The Spectator

No-Good Boyo Scores Elegantly

Magazine article The Spectator

No-Good Boyo Scores Elegantly

Article excerpt

THE KICK by Richard Murphy Grants, L20, pp. 379, ISBN 1862074577

It is possible to flinch on hearing that a writer has stored up millions of journal words from which a book has been extracted. The good news in the poet Richard Murphy's case is that the book is a success, untroubled by irrelevance, with too many names in it perhaps, but with many interesting stories to tell. None of them is likely to have lost anything in the extraction.

I can be a little more sure of this than I would otherwise be, since I have heard him tell some of them in the course of conversation. This is not to catch him out. It's one of the secrets of the book's appeal that it so often sounds like the kind of thing that someone wants to tell people, have them know. It can seem both oral and careful but less premeditated than his poems. He says that he has made quite hard work of composing his verse, mulling it over in lone shielings and anchorite cells, and on holy islands, and it would appear that his journal prose has been a different matter. He speaks ill of gossip, when he mentions that conversations with the poet Lowell would drift into that condition at two or three in the morning. There was no need for him to be sad. Gossip has done a power of good, and his book has lots of it.

He grew up in the West of Ireland, as an Ascendancy sprig, and has remained attached to the region, but he went to school in England, and was a chorister at Canterbury cathedral. In Ireland, when he was young, the houses he was aware of were enclosed in 'demesnes'; he has since made a habit of building houses for himself in this place and that, like some member of the restless rich. His people were officers and gentlemen, and ladies who sometimes felt it to be unladylike to get married. He kicked one of them, a great-aunt, in his very early days (Sylvia Plath later kicked him, under the table, during an estrangement from Ted Hughes, and a journalist has had to be assured that this was not the kick referred to in the title of his book). His parents were 'imperialists', his father a colonial governor. His mother, who continued to fascinate and madden him for the rest of her long life, is portrayed as queen of the indomitable Anglo-Irishry. He once introduced her to his friend Seamus, who helped him, he explained, with his boat, and Seamus was told by Lady Murphy that if he were to proceed to the kitchen he could expect a cup of tea.

Richard Murphy was thought 'strange', `no good', when he was a boy. He comes across at that point as a kind of O'Fauntleroy, destined to become an Anglican Irish patriot and a Shelley, a sensitive plant. But `the poet Murphy', as he has been known to his watchers, is a sensitive plant who has walked with ambassadors and moved mountains on behalf of the victim poor. A sister thinks of him as a `conventional rebel'.

After Oxford, in 1954, he went to Paris, where

I kept my spirits high and low by trying to fulfil two deviously related desires: to write poetry that might be accepted by T. S. Eliot at Faber; and to meet among strangers on the Left Bank a young soldier, sailor or gypsy who would give my poetry the passion and inspiration it lacked.

Shortly afterwards he married Patricia Strong, a clever, unhappy, rich South African drinker, by whom he had a daughter who was to become a shining light and a steadying influence in his life. His attempt to understand himself sexually was jolted at the outset when he was approached by a raincoat in Piccadilly Circus underground station and then blackmailed by someone purporting to be a plain-clothes policeman. …

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