Peter spent 1963-4 as a Middlesex Hospital medical student and another year (1967-8) on a Kibbutz. He also read English literature at UEA, Sussex, then UCL and taught at South Bank Polytechnic, the University of Colorado at Boulder, UEA, Kingston University where he was head of department, and the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, during two turbulent years after the Berlin wall fell.
In 1997 he left Kingston University, where he is now Emeritus Professor, to write freelance; and in 2010 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. With his civil partner of some 38 years, Jim O’Neill, he lives both in London and in Radnorshire, where he loves to garden and hill-walk. He has co-edited since 2007 the Transactions of the Radnorshire Society and is a Trustee of the Bleddfa Centre for the Creative Spirit.
Peter J Conradi has written or reviewed for the TLS, New Statesman, FT, Spectator, Independent and Guardian. His BBC appearances have included Radio 3 Nightwaves, Radio 4 Front Row, Something Understood and The Today Programme, and a special edition of BBC TV’s Omnibus.
Peter introduces his major works below.
Chris Bigsby and Malcolm Bradbury, who edited this innovative series, maintained that it pioneered exploration of ‘post-Modernism’.
‘Peter Conradi offers a dense study of John Fowles… which subversively conveys that Fowles may be not so much a spokesman for his age as a trendy opportunist. Such kicking against the pricks must be all to the good.’
John Fowles (Methuen: Contemporary Writers series, 1982)
An account of the great novelist that – unusually – makes clear how darkly funny he is.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (Macmillan: Modern Novelists series, 1987)
This monograph relates the breakdown suffered by Angus Wilson, my teacher and friend, to the creative breakdowns suffered by his main characters.
Angus Wilson (Northcote House: Writers & Their Work series, 1997)
Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature by Iris Murdoch
Originally conceived of as a 70th birthday tribute to Dame Iris, which we hoped might be published together with a Festschrift.
‘Of all the postwar English novelists, Murdoch has the greatest intellectual range, the deepest rigour…. [Much] gives Existentialists and Mystics an extraordinary interest. This book, which gathers Murdoch’s uncollected writing on fiction and philosophy, is surely one of the most substantial, rigorous and suggestive collections to have been produced by an English novelist.’
‘Existentialists and Mystics describes the intellectual journey of a life-time. This book is Murdoch’s key. Even readers …who have difficulty grasping the problem will find much here to stimulate, entertain and edify.’
—Hilary Spurling, Daily Telegraph, 26 July 1997
‘This is that rare achievement, a collection of writings by a great mind that is not only fascinating, but accessible. Murdoch reveals herself to be an enviably fine essayist and critic…These essays are models of their kind, achieving a clarity of thought and lightness of style probably rivaled only by Isaiah Berlin’.
‘These essays, even more than the novels, changed me and the way I looked at the world. It is very good to have them, finally, in one volume. They have been sensitively edited by Peter Conradi, a thoughtful critic of her work…What s finally most moving about these essays is their extraordinary eloquence. It is an eloquence not of rhetorical decoration, but of truthfulness.’
—A.S.Byatt, The Literary Review
‘…Rich and far-reaching essays, And the lesson to be drawn from them is of the first importance for our time, when our culture has been swallowed by fantasy, and the prizes are awarded not to those who have mastered the art that renews human virtue, but to those who know only how to excite our basest desires’.
—Roger Scruton, The Times
‘Murdoch is a fascinating study. In an age of rampant selfishness, she preaches a climb from the dark Platonic cave of human delusion to the sun of goodness’
‘It was a good idea of Peter Conradi to collect into a single volume all the most important of Iris Murdoch’s essays and lectures on philosophical themes. This book thus serves as a guide to the development of Iris Murdoch’s thinking’
— Noel Malcolm Sunday Telegraph
‘Murdoch, a wondrous writer and a careful student of the history of thought, is endowed with a rare talent for philosophical writing – she offers, in accessible prose, insight into some of the great questions that have preoccupied thinkers for centuries’
—San Diego Union
Existentialists and Mystics (Penguin Books, 1997)
Cold War, Common Pursuit: British Council Lecturers in Poland, 1938-98
Both Stoddart (‘Chip’) Martin and I spent two years teaching in Poland immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We commissioned a dozen distinguished British writers – including Denis Hills, Frank Tuohy, Derwent May and Gary Mead – to contribute essays about what it was like to be foreigners teaching in Poland’s universities and watching the progress of ‘the Christ of Nations’ through its agony of pre- and post-War periods, the Cold War and the tricky new era following the collapse of Communism.
‘For over forty years, mostly young, rather dazed Britons, some of them distinguished names today, used to spend a couple of years in Communist Poland teaching English... The personal accounts collected in the volume edited by Stoddard Martin and Peter J Conradi are unphilosophical direct reactions to human misery… George Hyde points out in another superb piece in the Conradi/Martin collection that the unreality of everyday life chimed perfectly with the absurd and playful literary world he knew best… As a century of bizarre political experiment and cultural waywardness ends…these are two fascinating books to mark the moment.’
Cold War, Common Pursuit (co-edited with Stoddart Martin, Starhaven, 1999)
Iris Murdoch: A Life. The authorized biography
A full and revealing biography of one of the century’s greatest English writers and an icon to a generation, this biography of the British author and philosopher Dame Iris Murdoch was chosen as a Book of the Year by John Updike (Guardian), Paul Binding (TLS), Anne Chisholm (Sunday Telegraph), Margaret Drabble (Guardian), P.D. James (Independent), Tim Page (Washington Post), Miranda Seymour (Sunday Times), Hilary Spurling (Daily Telegraph), the Evening Standard and the Scotsman.
Dame Iris Murdoch has played a major role in English life and letter for nearly half a century. As A.S.Byatt notes, she is ‘absolutely central to our culture’. As a novelist, thinker, and private individual, her life has significance for our age. There is a recognisable Murdoch world, and the adjective ‘Murdochian’ has entered the language to describe situations where a small group of people interract intricately and strangely. Her story is as emotionally fascinating as that of Virginia Woolf, but hitherto less well known; hers was an adventurous, highly eventful life, a life of phenomenal emotional and intellectual pressures, and her books portray a real world which is if anything toned down as well as mythicised. For Iris’s formative years, astonishingly, movingly and intimately documented by meticulous research, were spent among the leading European and British intellectuals who fought and endured World War II, and her life like her books, was full of the most extraordinary passions and profound relationships with some of the most inspiring and influential thinkers, artists, writers and poets of that turbulent time and after.
Peter Conradi was very close to both Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, Iris’s husband, whose memoir of their life together has itself been the subject of an enormous amount of attention and acclaim. This extraordinarily full biography is fed by vast resources in diaries and papers and friends’ recollections, and while it is a superlative biography it is also a superb history of a generation who have profoundly influenced our world today.
When the writing was finished Natasha Spender asked, “Was it terrific?”: she meant to ask how much terror was entailed. Plenty; and disorder too. The dozens of boxes of accumulated papers, letters and journals finally filled three rooms in the house, so that my partner had to buy a working flat to continue work as a psychotherapist.
‘There would be no need to complain of literary biographies – so often superfluous, bloated and carping – if they were all as good as Peter J. Conradi's Iris Murdoch: A Life. Conradi offers a real expansion of our sense of the pre-eminent English novelist of the second half of the twentieth century; he brings to the table personal and literary intimacy with his subject, and a treasure lode of hitherto unpublished journals plus caches of her letters’
—John Updike, New Yorker. John Updike also chose the biography as his Book-of-the-Year in The Guardian, December 2002
‘This book fulfils the purpose of literary biography – to illuminate the subject's work...Conradi has succeeded in showing the reader how often, and how deeply, Iris Murdoch's seemingly fantastic plots and characters are true to life’
—Anne Chisholm, Sunday Telegraph
‘[This] splendid new biography... is a marvel of sympathy and intelligence. [Conradi] brings the rarefied milieux of Oxford and Cambridge to vivid life, with thumbnail sketches of some of the finest writers and thinkers in post-war England’
—Tim Page, Washington Post
‘A biography that is both admiring and judicious and that gradually draws you in to the colourful and peculiar world Murdoch inhabited... an observant, delicate and almost complete picture of a woman whose books define her class and time’
—Claire Harman, Evening Standard
‘The book offers not just the story of Iris Murdoch but also a wonderful view of most of a century and its shifting social and political sympathies... Conradi is the best kind of biographer... a scrupulously thorough researcher and a graceful stylist’
—Brian Mcfarlane, Sydney Morning Herald
‘Intellectually, she is now, thanks to Conradi's work on her early years, more easily placed... [His] greatest achievement in this book is so successfully to set the strange circumstances of her life and character against this intellectual background’
—Bryan Appleyard, New Statesman
‘Peter Conradi's book is a rich and affectionate but level-headed account of her life’
—Derwent May, The Times
‘Peter Conradi is an acute and expert reader of both Iris Murdoch and of her art’
—Kathryn Hughes, Independent
‘This is a monumental book. It is also a good read. Peter Conradi is adept at making a coherent story... A new edition of The Saint and the Artist, Conradi’s study of the novels, has also appeared. The most important insight of both books is Iris’s obsession with power and its possible evils’
—Mary Warnock, Oxford Today
‘[Conradi] has uncovered a vast amount of information about her life that has surprised even those closest to her’
—Elaine Showalter, Chronicle of Higher Education
‘The triumph of this magisterial biography is that... different aspects are unified into a coherent view... outstanding in its depth of research, command of complicated evidence and portrayal of social context’
—Good Book Guide
‘Conradi shows us Murdoch in the making and the making of Murdoch the whole range and riches of her mind are charted here this book succeeds admirably in capturing the many Murdochs... exhaustively researched, sends you back, with increased understanding and interest, to the work’
—Niall Macmonagle, Irish Times
‘Conradi is tremendously good at ambience... He is also a dab hand at comedy...[He] delivers passages of narrative that are as gripping as the best of Murdoch's novels...[his] feat is to make her seem even stranger than her fiction’
—Humphrey Carpenter, Sunday Times
‘Extraordinary... dense, exhaustive and utterly fascinating... a masterpiece’
—Brighid McLaughlin, Sunday Independent (Dublin)
‘The book held me enthralled. The story is told so compellingly and with such sympathy and understanding. Conradi really gets to grips with [Murdoch's] multiple selves in all their contradictions’
—Mark Bostridge, Independent on Sunday
‘Moved me as biographies rarely do’
—Paul Binding, Times Literary Supplement Books of the Year
‘Full of deliriously eccentric characters who might have stepped through the exit door of one of her novels’
—Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday
‘One of the literary biographies of the year’
—Michael Kerrigan, Scotsman
Extract from Iris Murdoch: A Life chapter 13
Doubtless she came to fear Elias Canetti as her own darker 'double'. His genius for collecting 'creatures' funds A Flight from the Enchanter and, more darkly, A Fairly Honourable Defeat; hers lies behind Morgan's feckless emotional greed in the same novel; and behind the figure of Hannah Crean-Smith, Anglo-Irish half-ascetic, half-vamp, centre of a court of admirers in The Unicorn. Both Iris and Canetti were secretive, leading complicated private lives, keeping friends and lovers in compartments. ... she complained that Canetti 'has no right to deceive me for my own peace of mind. It is a deep offence'. ... [and] months later she lamented 'that I have told lies to all those I loved most deeply, not once but continually'.
Both loved animals. Both were spell-binding enchanters who elicited intimacy by holding themselves intact, aloof. To the hostile, 'wreckers', who 'ate people up'. ... Of Anna Quentin in Under the Net, Iris wrote : ' to anyone who will take the trouble to become attached to her she will give a devoted, generous, imaginative and completely uncapricious attention, that is still a calculated avoidance of self-surrender'. Anna was one aspect of Iris. ... The love-victims of Anna Quentin become resigned to the liberal scope of her affections while remaining 'just as much her slave as ever'. How was love-energy to be purified so that one did good, rather than enslaving? What distinguished her love-affairs from his?
The Saint and Artist: A Study of the Fiction of Iris Murdoch
The biography came out at the same time as the third edition of The Saint and Artist: A Study of the Fiction of Iris Murdoch, (1st edition, 1986, hailed by the New York Times Book review as ‘brilliant’) enabling me to siphon off some of the literary criticism and so releasing space.
‘Peter Conradi's brilliant new book, Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist’
—New York Times Book Review
‘More than ample as an introduction to Murdoch’s work ... Conradi also usefully enumerates and exemplifies Murdoch’s distinguishing features: her fondness for male first-person narrators, her celebration of London, the careful charting of such emotional states as erotic obsession and happiness’
—British Book News
‘Conradi has a lively, curious, energetic mind and his enthusiasm for his subject is warming. It is abundantly clear that he has mastered the Murdoch canon and even [someone] whose acquaintance is limited to one or two of her books should be able to use his book and come away from it with something worthwhile’
—Studies in the Novel
‘The “Saint” of Conradi’s title is the much-loved teacher ... but refers also to her preoccupation with the nature of goodness, something for which she platonically yearns in a universe of dark contingency. Herein lies the fruitful tension of her work’
The Saint and Artist (3rd Edition, HarperCollins, 2001)
Going Buddhist: Panic and emptiness, the Buddha and me
About thirty years ago, Peter Conradi's life hit the bumpers, and he began suffering from terrifying panic attacks. This book is his account of the new life-journey he embarked on back then, when, with the help of his friend and mentor Iris Murdoch, he began to explore Buddhism. Full of wise comedy, this is a self-help book for cynics, which explains the beauty of Buddhism, a religion now more relevant than ever to Westerners, perishing from the nihilism of the age.
I did not want to proselytise or convert, or to write sociology of religion, but simply tell the inside story of why so many professional people in the West – no longer only hippies – have recently found Buddhist meditation helpful. The ox-herding pictures made charming illustrations.
‘Though I doubt I shall ever be a co-religionist, I was moved by Going Buddhist by Peter J Conradi, by its intertwining of the personal and the metaphysical’
—Paul Binding, Thirty writers select their International Books of the Year, TLS, 2004
"What he offers, in a spirit of friendly detachment, is part autobiography, part primer for beginners, part lightly drawn philosophical and social criticism... Conradi takes the uninformed reader for an invigorating stroll round the ramparts of this most peaceable and pragmatic of world religions. Peaks and crumbling facades are described – the destruction of Tibet is despatched, movingly, in a couple of paragraphs... the four noble truths laid out like an avenue of unfamiliar but grandly arching trees. Holy platitudes, comic as well as tragic history and the author’s often farcical experience of meditation combine to make Conradi a quirkily persuasive guide."
—Claudia Fitzherbert, Spectator, 20 March 2004
"An admirably brisk and stimulating book... [Buddhism can] amount to a vocation in itself, a complete life, and have a noble quality. It is certainly very pleasing to imagine the effects of meditation on Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld…As Conradi seems to say, the effort is worth making. Whether successful or not, [Buddhism] can amount to a vocation in itself, a complete life, and have a noble quality, that is rare in these intellectually self-satisfied and politically confusing times.’
—Pankaj Mishra, New Statesman, April 2004
‘In Going Buddhist, Peter Conradi has provided a map drawn up by a practitioner…who, therefore, is able to speak with greater insight, and often, as in his account of his time in Bhutan, with great poetry. His book is essential reading for all who have set out on this journey.’
—James Roose-Evans, The Tablet, April 2004
"His credentials are impeccable; but his focus is original... the book moves serenely from topic to topic"
—Suzi Feay, Independent on Sunday
"A great combination of autobiography, biographical insights (into Iris Murdoch), philosophy, psychology and religion... It is beautifully written, beautifully presented, and manages to deal with a difficult subject in a way that is always eminently readable and absorbing…There are few books that I can say I wish I had written. This is one of them’
—Pure Land Notes, Spring 2005
‘Accounts of personal search run the risk of being cloying and overly zealous. Conradi’s is an inspiration. Elegantly and humorously, he takes us step-by-step through his own experiences with meditation…a short, sweet and enchanting book’.
‘Peter J Conradi writes his little book on Buddhism with the deftest of touches. In a style so disarmingly simple that it appears almost casual, he describes the philosophy’s key principles, the differences between its sects, its recent world history and his own conversion to the religion, all in 170 pages.’
—Daily Telegraph, Pick of the Paperbacks, 2005
‘A rare delight’
‘Going Buddhist is mercifully spare both of biographic detail and of self-congratulation…The real heart of the book, and the reason to read it, is what it has to say about meditation. Going Buddhist is the clearest account I’ve read of the mysterious business of “sitting” and I’ve read many. This is a serious, subtle and intelligent book and is a good and challenging read for anyone whose interest in Buddhism ecxtends beyond Tibetan sky burials and chanting Om in yoga class.’
—Evening Standard, 9 Feb 2004
‘Finding a better way’
—London’s Best-sellers February 2004, Evening Standard, February 2004
‘A finely tuned, ruminative and cultured essay on what it is like to be a Western Buddhist’
—Justin Wintle, The Wednesday Book, Independent, 4 Feb 2004
‘His “self-help book for cynics” outlines the basic tenets of the faith…this is a stimulating, comprehensive book, suited both to those well-versed in Buddhism, and also those looking for an introduction to the dharma’
—Irish Times, March 2005
Going Buddhist (Short Books, 2004)
At the Bright Hem of God: Radnorshire Pastoral
A deeply personal book (another is Going Buddhist): I learnt a huge amount about the secret history and culture of the Welsh March over the past 800 years that would otherwise have stayed undiscovered. How absolutely different Radnorshire is, not just from north Wales, but from anywhere else on the planet. Simon Dorrell’s pen-and-ink drawings at the head of every chapter are a delight. I’m happy that the book, which is a love-letter to mid-Wales, found – and continues to find – its audience.
‘Radnorshire boasts more than 100 peaks exceeding 1500 feet. Literary peaks abound, too: poets and writers who were born here, sojourned here, or just dreamed of visiting. Conradi weaves them all into Radnorshire’s warp to create a stunning tapestry, injecting familiar names with fresh insights…Kilvert is Radnorshire's supreme ambassador, caught marvellously by Conradi. ’
‘Conradi writes thoughtfully and non-judgementally even when dealing with contentious matters of Welsh politics and cultural identity. He is glad to quote Bidgood’s declaration that she did not come to this area to escape the world: “This is the world.” Completed by Simon Dorrell’s exquisite pen-and-ink miniatures, it is the perfect primer to this quiet stretch of Wales.’
‘Mr Conradi is a Londoner, but loves this area more deeply than any other, and has had a cottage here since 1965. “Its very name,” he says, “like the glimpse of a lover, has the thrilling power to stop the mind”. He brings the passion of the incomer, the curiosity about every detail, the longing to belong… Like anyone in love with remote and marginal places, Mr Conradi disputes the dismissive adjectives. This is not the edge; it is the forgotten centre…. 'You never enjoy the world aright,' [Thomas] Traherne wrote, 'till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars, and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world.' And, one might add, till you know that Radnorshire matters.’
‘The title of this book comes from R. S. Thomas, about whom Peter Conradi writes with some daring, leaving us with a kind of last portrait. In a brilliant early chapter, he reminds us that "Wales" comes from the Old English adjective wealh – foreigner, which he interprets as "other.”…At the Bright Hem of God is a scholarly, lyrical, autobiographical guide to the March. Conradi is witty, dreamy and gossipy by turn. “Houses fall into ruin and die. So do poets. The landscape of good poetry itself recalls mid-Wales, each time depopulated when the old voices ‘go down’ like houses. Later new talents invade and colonise.” He is one of them.’
At the Bright Hem of God: Radnorshire Pastoral review, Country Life, August 5 2009
Adam Nicolson admires an elegiac account of remote Radnorshire History
PETER CONRADI'S beautiful title is from a verse of Welsh folk poetry, translated by R. S. Thomas:
Let the stranger, if he will,
Have his way with the glen;
But give us to live
At the bright hem of God
In the heather, in the heather.
That, as an epigraph, embraces it all. Mr Conradi's subject is the strange way in which his chosen stretch of country, what was once the county of Radnorshire in the Welsh March, now a sub-division of Powys, has, over the centuries, in the minds of one writer and visionary after another, occupied a peculiar and private condition, both marginal and somehow illuminated, impoverished but rich in ways far beyond all the worldly goods the valley can offer. It is a great subject, full of mystery and inheritance, landing on one bright pearl after another. How does a place, he repeatedly asks, have the power to summon the transcendent? And how is it that from the objective realities of hedge and hill the numinous repeatedly seeps out like an early summer mist?
Mr Conradi is a Londoner, but loves this area more deeply than any other, and has had a cottage here since 1965. 'Its very name,' he says, 'like the glimpse of a lover, has the thrilling power to stop the mind'. He brings the passion of the incomer, the curiosity about every detail, the longing to belong. Being Jewish, he says, recalls being Welsh: the sense of being different in which pride and shame are usually indistinguishable, the ferocious presence of your family, the endless, cousinly connections that stretch across the miles and years, the claustrophobia you both hate and need.
Like anyone in love with remote and marginal places, Mr Conradi disputes the dismissive adjectives. This is not the edge; it is the forgotten centre. It is all too easy to think of such landscapes as widows or orphans, appendices, half-derelict leftovers from the life that matters. But Radnorshire – at least this version of Radnorshire – is not like that. It is its own middle. It conserves its own ways of life and mind, whose centrality somehow consists in the deepest of privacies: 'Just here's the middle of a silence that/Has already sung the centuries like a gnat,' as the modern poet Roland Mathias has put it. The story stretches from the medieval to the modern, and through all of it this idea of the marginal middle endlessly circles around itself, from Geoffrey of Monmouth, to Kilvert, Eric Gill, David Jones and Bruce Chatwin. It is a hymn to the importance of the unimportant. Nowhere, however, does this theme reach greater heights than in the miraculous 17th century trinity of George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Thomas Traherne, the three greatest religious poets in the language, all of whom lived in this tiny province. 'You never enjoy the world aright,' Traherne wrote, 'till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars, and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world.' And, one might add, till you know that Radnorshire matters.
Writers in the landscape
Peter Conradi is the biographer of Iris Murdoch. In 1997-98, she and John Bayley stayed with him in Radnorshire for an aggregate of eight months (left). When it was hot, they all went swimming: 'Iris sat regally in a white chair by the water's edge, dragonfly darting and hovering around her head. John stripped down to an astonishing vest that had so many loops, strands and holes you could no longer tell which were the arm-openings. His index-finger to his lips, he whispered owlishly, "Mustn't let the moths think they are winning".
Iris Murdoch: A Writer at War: Letters & Diaries 1938–1946
These never before published writings comprise Iris Murdoch's passionate wartime correspondence with two early intimates: the poet Frank Thompson, brother of the historian E.P. Thompson, who was killed in 1944, and David Hicks, with whom she had a dramatic affair, engagement, and breakup. It also includes the journal that Murdoch kept as a touring actress during August of 1939. The selection sheds new light on a brilliant young mind ("sharp and polished as a sword" as Frances Wilson describes it), while painting a vivid picture of life during the Second World War.
Iris chronicled as a young student her tour of the Cotswolds in the fortnight immediately before WW2 broke out with a group of student actors who called themselves ‘The Magpies’. This is followed by two surviving war-time letter-runs, the first to Frank Thompson, whom she is said to have loved because he was nicer than she was; the second to David Hicks, the first of a series of male egotists to whom she was in thrall, and to whom she was briefly engaged to be married. That series went on to include Thomas Balogh and Elias Canetti.
‘[This] publication still adds something to our picture of the vivid, unsettling, paradoxical nature of the young Iris Murdoch… We can see here the evolution of the novelist from the jejune chrysalis of her student experiences…her dominant subject as a novelist – the interplay between intelligence and eros, reality and illusion, false magic and true – reached down into the intensity of her early adult relations… Murdoch grows up in the course of the two correspondences that follow, and they exemplify the combination of idealism and pragmatism that makes her so compelling.’
‘The selection [of writings] sheds new light on a brilliant young mind (“sharp and polished as a sword” as Frances Wilson describes it), while painting a vivid picture of life during the Second World War.’
‘The diary and letters demonstrate how deeply Murdoch mined her own life for the dilemmas, milieu, and emotion that emerge in her novels.... Conradi has done an excellent job of editing and introducing these pages; what one ultimately takes away from them is a portrait of a complex young woman in the process of becoming a formidable artist.’
—Laura Albritton, Harvard Review, February 8, 2012
Iris Murdoch: A Writer at War (Short Books Ltd, 2010)
A Very English Hero: The Making of Frank Thompson
This is the tale of the elder brother of the great hero of the Peace Movement, EP Thompson. Frank was a gifted poet, a linguist speaking many languages, and an idealist, converted at Oxford to Communism in 1939 by Iris Murdoch, like him studying the Classics, and with whom he was in love. Frank was murdered in Bulgaria in June 1944 fighting with the Partisans, and the biography is in part a tragedy. I made a memorable trip to Bulgaria with Philippa Foot to meet Frank’s surviving Partisan General (he died 14 days later) and to meet an eye-witness to his execution who had been 12 in 1944. I also collected around a thousand images and pages copied in the National Archives (where researchers can photograph freely now) concerned with his capture and murder and their aftermath. Writing the last three last chapters took seven grief-stricken months and – perhaps partly because of this expenditure of blood, sweat and tears – it remains a favourite among my books.
‘An outstanding piece of research into the life of his subject and the creation of a Second World War myth’
‘This is a quite wonderful book, marked by elegant prose and sharp historical judgements... I suffer from Second World War fatigue myself; this was temporarily banished by Conradi, who manages to illuminate in a fresh and exciting manner a perhaps excessively studied period’
—Ramachandra Guha, Financial Times
‘Reading Peter Conradi’s riveting book, one must constantly remind oneself of just how young Thompson was… Mr Conradi has written a powerfully moving story, a tragic biography, and an invaluable history of the partial unmaking of an old order - a cause to which Frank Thompson had devoted his short life.’
‘Spin-off biographies are dangerously tempting. Researching a major subject always reveals rabbit holes down which the biographer could happily disappear…But if the author is as accomplished as Peter Conradi, then it's a journey worth taking’
—Alan Judd, Literary Review
‘Impeccably researched... “Since we cannot enjoy his company in the flesh,” Conradi concludes, “biography is one way of enjoying him in spirit”. It is a fine description of the biographer’s role, and generous quotations from Frank Thompson’s letters and poems recreate his bulky, restless, energetic presence. But it is Conradi’s own more subtle presence that locks the reader into the narrative... A pensive, moving and very personal book’
‘A compelling portrait of a generation . . . A generous and perceptive rescue of a personality and talent that his friends and family could never forget . . . Perhaps, as he and his friends suspected, he was not made for the “long littleness of life”: but Conradi's moving portrait makes one wish that he and we had at least had the chance to find out’
—David Crane, Spectator
‘Peter Conradi handles this material extremely well’
—Jeremy Harding, London Review of Books
‘It’s impossible to put down Conradi’s impressive and moving account of Thompson’s life without a feeling of regret. The figure who emerges from these pages is engaging, passionate and noble ... He was the epitome of a rare and precious type of distinctly English hero’
—Simon Griffith, Mail on Sunday
‘Frank Thompson is fortunate in his biographer. Peter Conradi [...] has a profound understanding of his world and his worldview – encapsulated here in character assessments, at once pithy and compelling, that verge on apothegms ... Conradi is excellent on his fatalism and his laughter, and marvellously acute on his "devout internationalism"’
—Alex Danchev, Independent
‘With his habitual diligence, Peter Conradi creates a vivid image of his world, at home, at Oxford, and his war’
—Jane Shilling, Evening Standard
‘Inspiring ... Intensely absorbing, steeped in human interest and peppered with outlandish characters’