Interview: Jeremy Irons on TS Eliot, Burnt Norton and Trashed

PUBLISHED: 17:00 28 July 2015 | UPDATED: 17:03 28 July 2015

Jeremy Irons

Jeremy Irons

© Thousand Word Media

Katie Jarvis attends a fundraising event for the Mulberry Bush School, at Burnt Norton house near Chipping Campden. And as Jeremy Irons reads to guests from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets – in a straw boater, on a perfect day, beside an Earl-Grey lawn - the only thing missing is Aloysius

Guests listen to Jeremy Irons reading poetryGuests listen to Jeremy Irons reading poetry

Hush! The songbirds are trilling amongst the sweet chestnut trees in the garden at Burnt Norton. Even the tight-furled roses are paused, listening; awaiting their cue to appear centre-stage in a soliloquy of heaven-scented blooms: a tangle of pink, red, yellow… But not yet; not yet. Underfoot, star-shaped wild geranium is part of the scenery, twining with the serious blue of forget-me-nots and the delicate sweetness of herb robert.

We almost tiptoe, the 70 guests and I, around this garden of perpetual possibility, as if respectfully walking through a cathedral or a gallery lined with the brushstrokes of Caravaggio and Rubens. A powder-sprinkled Velázquez or a painted butterfly in Flyte? No matter: beauty is beauty.

Lady Caroline Harrowby, wife of Conroy – 8th Earl of Harrowby – whose ancestor, Sir Dudley Ryder, bought this estate back in 1753 (Time past), is showing us over the grounds. There, she points, was found a Roman coffin, complete with skeleton, from times when the ancients grew their vines on surrounding land now thickly wooded. The skeleton is in a museum; the coffin is still here, filled with vivid geraniums. Yonder, just beyond the gates, is where stood a Middle-Ages village, huts of mud and straw; poached rabbit on the spit.

And here, on the lawn in front of the old house, is where a tragedy played out. In the early 18th century, the Keyt family lived in this country seat: Sir William, 3rd Baronet of Ebrington, respectable MP for Warwick; his wife, Anne Tracy (from one of the oldest, most aristocratic families in the land), and their children…

And then that wench Molly Johnson - a pub landlord’s daughter from Warwick! - served Sir William drinks and caught his eye: and that was the moment when his life began to unravel. “He brought Molly Johnson back here as his wife’s ladies’ maid… I mean, excuse me!” Lady Harrowby tells us, in semi-mock outrage. In the novel, Burnt Norton, in which she retold these events (she’s also an author who writes under the name Caroline Sandon), Lady Harrowby depicts Molly as a victim, “Though in Chipping Campden, they consider that Molly was a scheming little minx.”

On this same empty lawn once stood the magnificent new manor that the infatuated Sir William built for Molly, until the money ran out along with his barmaid. Bankrupt and despairing, Sir William swigged from a bottle, picked up his silver candlesticks, locked himself into his bedroom and ignited the curtains, as his frantic butler hammered futilely on the door outside. “Whenever I had writer’s block, I would come out here and imagine the scene: Sir William at the window mouthing, ‘God forgive me’”, Caroline shudders.

If all time is eternally present

Jeremy Irons with Katie JarvisJeremy Irons with Katie Jarvis

All time is unredeemable.

And then she leads us to a lower part of the grounds, through a gate from the rose garden, down a flight of stone steps.

For this is also what we’ve come for.

So: In practical terms, we’re here for a fundraiser for the Mulberry Bush School: a charity; a residential school in Standlake, Oxfordshire, for children whose traumatic lives desperately need the calm, understanding and security it magnificently offers. When the school’s fundraiser, Jane Smiley, asked Caroline and Conroy if they’d host an event, the two of them said ‘Yes!’ without hesitation. But we’re not just here to picnic (though the creamy chicken salad and carrot cake goodie-baskets are delicious).

For you need to know this. The house is also famous thanks to a trespasser, who slipped into the grounds one innocent day back in September 1934. Wandering around the woods of Chipping Campden, the poet TS Eliot, and his companion Emily Hale, meandered off the public track and into the garden of a private house: Burnt Norton. In front of them was a barren pool, not filled with coolly-refreshing water but dry, empty and brown-edged, until a burst of sunlight filled it with a shimmer of beams. From this scene of transformation arose the first of Eliot’s Four Quartets, Burnt Norton.

As we guests wander down to that same pool – still waterless but sun-kissed with buttercups - there’s another man standing there. A man in a straw boater with black ribbon, a sprig of something wild lodged in the band. I saw him earlier, in his cream jacket, louchely lounging on the lawn, smoking a hand-rolled cigarillo. But now he’s holding a book. The audience falls still and silent, apart from the bumble bees that swing from nectar-cups, the flutter of pure white butterflies, and the dandelion seeds skimmying past, afloat on the slightest of breezes.

And he begins to read, conversationally, like a philosopher running past you an idea he’s just had about the nature of the universe:

Jeremy IronsJeremy Irons

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable

Jane Smiley, organiser of this wonderful event; fundraiser for the Mulberry Bush School, knows I’d like to meet Jeremy Irons. So she directs me to a wooden bench, in a shaded corner of Burnt Norton’s glorious gardens, and instructs me to wait.

I watch him, discreetly, as he finishes chatting to fellow guests. He loves TS Eliot, I know that. That’s partly why he’s here to do this reading for us. He first began reading Eliot poems out loud to audiences at the request of his friend, the late novelist Josephine Hart. For that initiative alone, she was a genius: because Irons reads Eliot – to us; in his recordings – as naturally as he breathes. Valerie, Tom Eliot’s fiercely protective widow (who died in 2012) wanted Irons to read all of her husband’s work. “You get it!” she told him, “Which is interesting,” Irons tells us, “because I’m not intellectual.” His own approach, he says, was not to study, but to come to Eliot as a layman; to find out what was in the writer’s head.

Jeremy IronsJeremy Irons

And as I watch Irons, I realise that here – in the grounds that inspired Eliot – is as perfect a place to understand poetry as any reference library full of critics who quote Yeats and Dante or the Bhagavad-Gita. “I’m imagining TS Eliot walking through that gate,” Irons tells us, “and discerning history beneath his feet; before his eyes.”

And, suddenly, there he is (Jeremy Irons, I mean), walking across this cucumber-and-Earl-Grey lawn towards me and my shaded bench.

“Shall we sit in the sun?” Jeremy Irons asks, in his deep, rich, coffee-smooth tones. And he slips his arm through mine, as if we’ve done this a million times before, and we stroll towards a cascade of balustraded steps, chrome-yellowed by the warmth of overhead beams. Heaven.

And, as we walk, I can see my inner self looking on with tightly pursed lips, mouthing, ‘Pull yourself together. You’re meant to be a journalist!’ And when we sit on the steps, and he says to me, mid conversation, ‘I love your necklace’, and I murmur, ‘This cheap old thing?’ my inner self rolls its eyes, mouths at me, ‘You’re pathetic’, and flounces off through the trees. (But my inner self can take a running jump. I never liked it.)

What I’m trying to say is this. I couldn’t, if you paid me, ask Jeremy Irons Daily Mail questions. Whether he regrets his comments about gay marriage (ages ago; and clearly misinterpreted). Whether his own marriage is lasting and happy.

Instead – in the magic of Burnt Norton; talking to a stranger in a straw boater as if we once studied Ovid together at Balliol - I languidly ask him things such as, “Are all great works of art flawed because the artist is trying to reach dizzyingly impossible heights?”

And he replies, “Of course, imperfect. Eliot is always saying, through those four poems, that words fall short. He says, ‘It’s so difficult to say what I mean’. The words are like imperfect oars trying to row us through the sea. They do all right but he really wants to be a fish…

“And yet, of course, as Leonard Cohen says, it’s the cracks where the light comes through. It’s the imperfections that actually move you.”

And as we talk, I suddenly realise that he is Sebastian and I am... Well, I guess, slightly disappointingly, that I am Charles Ryder. And Aloysius must be lightly buttering cucumber sandwiches back at Hertford, or whatever bears do when their owners are tied up aesthetically. (I’m not mocking our conversation. Far from it. I love it. It’s the most Brideshead-y one I’ve ever had.)

It’s the first time that Irons has visited Burnt Norton, despite loving the poem it inspired for so long. Has the visit changed his view? Added a new dimension?

“No,” he says, rolling another of those cigarillos, “because I had a very strong picture in my mind of how it was from the poem. And it was actually pretty much like that. I thought the rose garden was nearer the pool; and I thought we might see the ruin of the [William Keyt] house. So some things were different…

“But, actually, it was very special, reading it here. Seeing the gate through which he came. And getting a feel of the place. It is extraordinary because it is so far away from anywhere. And so peaceful and so… The sort of place where you could have some of those thoughts.”

…Through the first gate,

Into our first world, shall we follow

The deception of the thrush?

It is a wonderful, interesting poem. For Eliot, the empirically linear nature of time is problematic; eternity, where all time meets, is the ideal.

“Very Buddhist,” Irons says.

But it’s almost as if science, with its current ideas that time isn’t simply a beginning, a middle and an end, is catching up with Eliot, I say. And it’s places like this – the mellow, away-from-it-all Burnt Norton – that make you intuitively aware of that.

“I think they do,” he agrees. “It’s very interesting that all those four poems – the Quartets – were sparked by actual places. Scientists prove things we instinctively know...”

He thinks for a moment, before touching a hand to his chest. “We know that it’s the heart that makes us what we are – it’s not the brain. People have heart transplants and they change.”

(I’ve read about this, too. Anecdotal evidence of patients receiving not just the organs of the departed but some of their characteristics, too.)

“I mean,” he continues, “why does our stomach go when we get nervous? The brain I sort of see as being the exchange. The processor. But it’s not the thing that governs us.”

Jeremy Irons has spoken, in the past, about seeing the Four Quartets as a meditation. What does he mean by that?

“I think, especially when it’s conjoined with the other three, you see that Eliot is trying to get inside himself to that still place that he talks about. When you meditate, you try to find that centre of yourself which, as he says, is not fixed but which dances and which is a bright light. I think that’s what he’s attempting to do, through his life. And that’s why he put those four poems together: because they’re four failed attempts to try to describe that place – that still, dancing centre.”

We talk about the various charities Irons supports, such as the Prison Phoenix Trust, and how meditation – practised by prisoners and their warders – helps cut recidivism dramatically: “It makes them realise that externals need not govern them. That their normal reactions of anger, which come from their pain, needn’t be their normal reactions. I think it’s tremendously curative.”

And then – because I’ve so little time (this is a fleeting conversation, made longer by my refusing to let him go) – I throw in a question about Trashed, the documentary he took part in, investigating waste and rubbish in our throwaway society. Since then, he’s made several appearances in Stroud, backing the campaign against a new incinerator at Javelin Park.

“Strangely enough, I was travelling the other day across North Wales, when I saw a banner by the road saying, ‘No to the anaerobic digester!’ Anaerobic digesters are pretty small – just a few tanks, which turn food-stuff and natural vegetation into compost and gas. That’s a great way to get rid of it; what our stomachs do naturally. And yet people don’t want that. Well, what do they want?”

He sighs. What we really need to do is to change our lives. To realise that ‘things’ don’t make us happy; that spending isn’t a solution, “Though the economists would scream if they heard that.

“I’m proud that all my cars are over 12 years old (although ‘all my cars shows’ that I have more than one). Nevertheless, I get joy from repairing; I get joy from repairing clothes; I get joy from composting, spreading that on the garden and watching it help stuff grow.

“We have to find a way, I think, of running a burgeoning economy without so much buying of things. In this country we could lead the world.”

I tell him, still unable to escape Brideshead (I know it was ages ago; I know he’s probably sick of it; but the setting and the boater don’t help) that I once read a book by the Dalai Lama which distinguishes between pleasure and happiness.

“Ah, yes,” he finishes, thoughtfully. “The things that bring us momentary pleasure won’t necessarily bring us lasting happiness.”

Though I have to say, in some isolated instances, they do. They really do.


There will be more about the Mulberry Bush School and its work in the September edition of Cotswold Life:

For more on Caroline Sandon and her writing, visit

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