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So Long, Clive Murphy

June 18, 2021
by the gentle author

My friend and inspiration Clive Murphy died on Wednesday aged eighty-five

Above a curry house in Brick Lane lived Clive Murphy like a wise owl snug in the nest he constructed of books, and lined with pictures, photographs, postcards and cuttings over the nearly fifty years that he occupied his tiny flat. Originally from Dublin, Clive had not a shred of an Irish accent. Instead he revelled in a well-educated vocabulary, a spectacular gift for rhetoric and a dry taste for savouring life’s ironies. He possessed a certain delicious arcane tone that you would recognise if you have heard his fellow-countryman Francis Bacon talking. In fact, Clive was a raconteur of the highest order and I was a willing audience, happy merely to sit at his feet and chuckle appreciatively at his colourful and sometimes raucous observations.

I was especially thrilled to meet Clive because he was a writer after my own heart who made it his business to seek out people and record their stories. At first in Pimlico and then here in Spitalfields through the sixties and seventies, Clive worked as a “modern Mayhew, publishing the lives of ordinary people who had lived through the extraordinary upheavals and social changes of the first three-quarters of the century before they left the stage.” He led me to a bookshelf in his front room and showed me a line of nine books of oral history that he edited, entitled Ordinary Lives, as well as his three novels and six volumes of ribald verse. I was astonished to be confronted with the achievements of this self-effacing man living there in two rooms in such beautiful extravagant chaos.

Naturally, I was immediately curious of Clive’s books of oral history. Each volume is an autobiography of one person recorded and edited by Clive, “ordinary” people whose lives are revealed in the telling to be compelling and extraordinary. They are A Funny Old Quist, memoirs of a gamekeeper, Oiky, memoirs of a pigman, The Good Deeds of a Good Woman, memoirs of an East End hostel dweller, A Stranger in Gloucester, memoirs of an Austrian refugee, Endsleigh, memoirs of a riverkeeper, At the Dog in Dulwich, memoirs of a struggling poet, Four Acres and a Donkey, memoirs of a lavatory attendant, Love, Dears! memoirs of a chorus girl and Born to Sing, memoirs of a Jewish East End mantle presser. The variety of subjects is intriguing and bizarre, and Clive explained his personal vision of creating a social panorama, “to begin with the humblest lavatory attendant and then work my way up in the world until I got to Princess Margaret.”

Much to Clive’s frustration, the project foundered when he got to the middle classes, and he coloured visibly as he explained, “I found the middle classes had an image of themselves they wanted to project and they asked to correct what they had said, afterwards, or they told downright lies, whereas the common people didn’t have an image of themselves and they had a natural gift of language.” I was curious to understand the origin of Clive’s curiosity, and learn how and why he came to edit all these books. And when he told me the story, I discovered the reasons were part of what brought Clive to England in the first place.

“I lived a sheltered life in Dublin in a suburb and qualified as a solicitor before I came to England in 1958. My mother wanted me to be solicitor to Trinity College where her father was Vice-Provost but I had been on two holidays to London and I’d fallen in love with the bright lights. I wanted to see a wider variety of people. So as soon as I qualified I left Dublin, where I had been offered a job as a solicitor at £4 and ten shillings a week, and came to London, where I got a job at once as a liftman at a Lyons Corner House for £8 a week and I have lived here ever since.

I was staying in Pimlico and there was a retired lavatory attendant and his wife who lived down below, and they invited me down for supper. He had such a natural gift for language and a quaint way of expressing himself, so I said ‘Let’s do a book!’ and that was Four Acres and a Donkey. Then I was living in another house and by complete chance there was another retired lavatory attendant, a woman who had once been a chorus girl, so I did another book with her, too, that was Love Dears!

At that time there was an organisation called Space which let out abandoned schools and warehouses to artists. In 1973, I answered their letter in The Times and they found me an empty building, it was the Old St Patrick’s School in Buxton St. I lived in the former headmaster’s study and that’s where I recorded my first East End book. I had nothing but a tea chest, a camp bed and a hurricane lamp. There was no electricity but there was running cold water. Meths drinkers used to sit on the doorstep night and day, and at night they would hammer on the door trying to get in. I was a bit frightened because I had never met meths drinkers before and I was all alone but gradually three artists came to live in the school with me.

Then I had to leave the school house because I was flooded out and, after a stint on Quaker St, I saw an ad in Harry’s Confectioners and moved here to Brick Lane in 1974. The building was owned by a Jewish lady who let the rooms to me and a professor from Rochester University who only came to use his place in vacations, so it was wonderfully quiet. There was a cloth warehouse on the ground floor then which is now the Aladin Restaurant. Every shopfront was a different trade, we had an ironmonger, an electrician and a wine merchant with a sign that said ‘purveyors to the diplomatic service.’ The wine merchant also had a concoction she sold exclusively to the meths drinkers but that wasn’t advertised.

I thought when I came here to Spitalfields I was going to be solely a writer, I had taught at a primary school in Islington but very soon I became a teacher of children with special needs here. Occasionally, I used to go in the middle of the night to buy food from a stall outside Christ Church, Spitalfields called ‘The Silver Gloves.’ I had no money hardly and I used to live off the fruit and veg thrown out by the market onto Brushfield St. But I found it exciting to be here because I found lots of people to interview. I had already written two novels and I was busy recording Alexander Hartog and Beatrice Ali, and I was happy to be learning about them, because I did lead a very restrictive life before I came to England.”

Clive was a poet at heart and there is an unsentimental appreciation of the human condition that runs through all his work. He chose his subjects because he saw the poetry in them when no-one else did and the books, recording the unexpected eloquence of these “ordinary” people telling their stories, bear witness to his compassionate insight.

As a writer writing my own pen portraits, I was curious to ask Clive what he had learnt from all his interviews with such a variety of people. “The gamekeeper said to me, ‘You mean you don’t know how to skin a mole?'” Clive recalled with relish, evoking the gamekeeper in question vividly, before returning to his own voice to explain himself, “I am amazed that we are all stuck in our little worlds – he really thought everyone would know that. It wasn’t just the knowledge that I learnt from people, it was their outlooks and personalities.”

Clive gave me copies of his two East End books and, as we sliced open a box I was delighted to discover “new” copies of books from 1975, beautifully printed in letterpress with fresh unfaded covers and some with a vinyl record inside to allow the reader to hear the voice of the protagonist. I could not wait to go home and read them, and listen.

I will never be able to walk down Brick Lane without thinking of Clive Murphy, who once lived above the Aladin Restaurant, as a beacon of inspiration to me while I am running around Spitalfields pursuing my interviews.

Clive Murphy in his kitchen

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A Walk With Clive Murphy

38 Responses leave one →
  1. June 18, 2021

    I just drank a toast to your mentor ( it is late night in my time zone), and send you my condolences. He must have been a lovely person.

  2. Amanda Bush permalink
    June 18, 2021

    I’m sorry that you have lost your friend.

  3. June 18, 2021

    A wonderful eulogy to a fascinating character and writer, he sounds like a modern day John Aubrey. Thank you GE for introducing me to this man, I shall investigate and discover more about him and his work.

  4. Nicola J permalink
    June 18, 2021

    A very moving tribute – what a wonderful character.

  5. Susan permalink
    June 18, 2021

    Judging from the book-ish clutter in his kitchen, he was a man after my own heart.

    It must be very difficult for you, gentle author, to lose so many friends and inspirations. It seems so many of the interesting people are getting old and passing away. I feel sad for you, and for the neighbourhood.

  6. Laura France permalink
    June 18, 2021

    Just reading this before retiring for the night in California, where it has been unreasonably hot. What a lovely look into this gentleman’s life, and I am indebted to you for sharing it so fondly.
    And I must say that you, and all the characters, places, remembrances, and meanings you continue to share have been a sublime source of consolation and invigoration for much more than the past 18 months.
    These worlds and their residents overlap in a musicality that leaves me speechless.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  7. Herry Lawford permalink
    June 18, 2021

    Loving humanity in its simpler forms as you do. Inspiring.

  8. June 18, 2021

    Mr CLIVE MURPHY (1935 – 2021) — R.I.P.

    Without doubt a great artist.

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  9. Christine Chambers permalink
    June 18, 2021

    What a wonderful man and a beautiful tribute. I would love to read one of those books. I hope his work is preserved. Thank you for your work too. You never fail to serve pearls.

  10. Gerry permalink
    June 18, 2021

    Thank you for this piece – Clive was a very special man.

  11. June 18, 2021

    Oh how very sad he was a very pleasant man whom I met at bishop’s gate library RIP Clive

  12. J Woolf permalink
    June 18, 2021

    What an amazing man. I very much hope you will be able to republish his books. I would absolutely love to read them and also hear the voices of those whom he interviewed. Do you think there are copies in the British Library? They really should not be forgotten. I’ve looked and can’t find any copies for sale.

  13. June 18, 2021

    Here Clive is, in 1974 soon after he moved into his Brick Lane flat https://bit.ly/3xpcBkm

  14. Suse permalink
    June 18, 2021

    Adding my thanks for sharing this portrait of Clive, and through him, lives unknown to me.

  15. Sally permalink
    June 18, 2021

    What a lovely tribute to your friend. He sounds as if he must have been a fascinating man. Thank you for sharing your memories.

  16. June 18, 2021

    I love your moving tribute to your friend, Clive. What a grand human being he was and will continue to be, in the memories of those who loved him. He loved the stories that made the people he encountered. He gave them a voice. He gave them presence. RIP Clive Murphy – may you continue revelling in the stories of others wherever you may be now.

  17. Milo Bell permalink
    June 18, 2021

    Sounds like a fascinating chap. I wish i had met him.

  18. June 18, 2021

    i’m sorry for your loss – what an extraordinary gentleman he must have been x

  19. June 18, 2021

    ‘You mean you don’t know how to skin a mole?’
    that got my day off to a good start!

    lovely tribute, thank you.

    Four Acres and a Donkey —
    appears to be a copy out there, at the algorithmic price of US$1,002.
    perhaps Clive’s books could be brought together in one omnibus volume?

  20. June 18, 2021

    A wonderful piece, and I so understand the appeal of recording the voices of lives of people who lack self consciousness and the need to ‘present themselves.’ Is there any possibility that his books might be reprinted and sold? I was especially interested that he’d recorded the voices as well-it’s the only way accents and personal vocabulary can be preserved and passed on.

  21. June 18, 2021

    A Dublin accent and a well-educated vocabulary are not mutually exclusive.

  22. Linda Granfield permalink
    June 18, 2021

    So sorry that you’ve lost another of your neighbourhood friends. What a character!

    I’ve gone back and re-read your other pieces about Mr. Murphy–yes, I agree, a compilation of his writing would be welcomed.

    And the photos of Clive Murphy in the 1970s (see link above) are splendid. The clutter of life obviously accumulated over decades!

  23. Peter Hart permalink
    June 18, 2021

    A fascinating story of a wonderful man. Thank you s much GA

  24. June 18, 2021

    Condolences on the loss of your friend. Sounds like he was a wonderful person.

  25. Annie Haigh permalink
    June 18, 2021

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful story of Clive, a special person whom you wrote with such kindness and insight

    How I enjoy all your stories, especially Mr Pussy ( the tears ran down my cheek) – you captured and described the quiet love felt by a fellow animal lover

    Big warm hug

    Annie

  26. Adele Lester permalink
    June 18, 2021

    GA, so sorry for the loss of your friend.

  27. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    June 18, 2021

    I think he might say you have done him justice; both with this elegy and with your career following his example. What a gift this man was!

    I am sorry for your loss; he lives in his writing and in your heart.

  28. Dolores Nanson permalink
    June 18, 2021

    Truly a man who has lived a full and interesting life and one who has managed to get into the real nature of his subjects. Sorry to have learnt he has been in our midst for so many years and we missed meeting him. Did Clive Murphy leave any family?

  29. Patrick permalink
    June 18, 2021

    Thank you so much for writing this beautiful piece. Clive was a remarkable man.
    For those who would like to read Clive’s books. Some of them are still available via the contact page of his website which is overseen by the webmaster who was also a good friend of Clive’s
    http://www.clivemurphy.org/index.php

  30. Ann V permalink
    June 18, 2021

    How sad your friend Clive has died. I wish I had met him and chatted to him about ‘ordinary’ people. What a pity there aren’t more people like him. I look forward to reading his books some day.

  31. June 18, 2021

    My dear Clive Murphy; I am glad Patrick and I got to see you yesterday. Also I am glad you are not suffering anymore. You are now in your own heaven.
    Dear readers,,
    I read Clive’s Tarot cards when we met. 22 years ago. We fell in love with each others stories and with proper full on Love. We, as partners had such an ace time everywhere he took me.
    22 years is a third of my life and I must say I discovered myself with the help of Clive.
    I became the subject of his last unfinished biographies. The Life of a Trans Woman. Yes ‘Ordinary lives!
    However, it took 2 years to complete the recordings as our sessions often ended up just drunk and playing games and lots of enjoyment.
    I started to visit Clive every Saturday for his last two years before he went into care. Luckily the Covid restrictions came so Both Patrick and I could visit him there. In those last 2 years we talked about all his hallucinations. He was fascinating. I will miss him so much. x x x

  32. June 18, 2021

    What a wonderful tribute to your dear friend and a fascinating character.
    Rest In Peace Clive.

  33. LizinOregon permalink
    June 19, 2021

    What a lovely tribute to your friend. We should all be so fortunate to have someone like Clive Murphy in our lives.

  34. June 19, 2021

    My condolences. I love that in what looks like chaos, Clive had space for fresh tulip flowers

  35. David Gooding permalink
    June 19, 2021

    What on earth will happen to all of Clive’s books and other belongings? Hopefully, not lobbed into a skip.

  36. June 20, 2021

    We had the pleasure of meeting Mr Murphy in 2018, on a visit to Spitalfields. We shared a table over breakfast in a cafe off Brick Lane. At the time we had no idea who he was but he was a charming and fascinating conversationalist. It was only after we returned to the house on Fournier Street, where we where staying and looked through the books there, that we made the connexion.

  37. June 20, 2021

    A lovely memoriam. Thank you.
    I bought 2 of his poem books in 2014 when you wrote about him, and today ordered Stranger In Gloucester and Summer Overtures.
    I shared that 2014 profile with a friend, and he responded enthusiastically:
    —————————–
    For just a second, until I focused on the creature in the center of the photo, I was wondering how the devil you came up with a picture of my headquarters! (And I am not kidding.) … P.S. — Over there, just beyond what looks like the empty chair to his right, is that a (rather hefty) pot to piss in? The thing is in the same place, and this time Mr. Murphy is in the aforementioned, now-not-empty chair, in one of the photos at https://spitalfieldslife.com/2010/04/03/clive-murphy-writer/

    That, my friend, is the model of industry. This guy has to be one of my principal heroes in life. Plus he scribbles ribald rhymes in his spare time.

    Ah, indeed, you have BRIGHTENED my day and I’m still just slurping the top of Coffee No. 2!

  38. July 5, 2021

    I have just heard the sad news from one of Clive’s friends. I worked with Clive on his poetry books and enjoyed chatting to him: he was always entertaining and very kind and thoughtful. Yours is a lovely tribute to this fascinating writer and he will be very missed.

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