Iris – An Appreciation

One day 23 years ago I was in Evesham Public Library, when a brochure caught my attention. It was very simply produced, but with distinctive artwork, and attractive combination of qualities. This was my first contact with the Simon de Montfort Society – and with Iris. As it happened, the annual battlefield walk was only days away, so I made a point of going, and introduced myself, and straightaway made a whole new circle of friends – most notably Iris.

When it turned out that she had been the creator of that distinctive artwork, it didn’t surprise me, because her personality was just as distinctive. You could never mistake her for anyone else, and her sense of energy matched those mobile drawings. Figures in motion, swirling movement and action – her restless art style was like her character, ever pressing onward, full of ideas and inventions.

Yet there was also a measured stillness: she was a good listener, and a good mediator. The Simon de Montfort Society has always been a collection of mavericks and volatile thinkers: Iris’s great ability was to smooth ruffled feathers and persuade people to cooperate. Her gift of leadership was remarkable, and it sprang from a rare combination of qualities, and of energy contained.

One treasured memory, is of the time when a group of us convened in the Gateway Café for a discussion with the historian Michael Wood. Only a fragment of footage made it to the resultant TV programme, but what I remember best is Iris, speaking quietly and clearly against a background of falling rain, saying so much more than any of the rest of us, while using fewer words than the rest of us put together!

I was first attracted to the Society because of my love for the 13th century, with its matchless art and architecture, and the amazing soap-opera of its history. I’ve never understood why it’s been so neglected. To me, Iris’s greatest gift to the rest of us was co-founding a Society devoted to this fundamental segment of European history, which we neglect at our peril! The lively debate about Simon himself is the yeast which keeps things bubbling, with no sense of complacency or of required thinking. It’s not even obligatory to admire Simon all that much – personally, I confess to finding him a bit of a monster, albeit an extremely interesting one (and nothing like as bad as his dad!). I used to enjoy many a stout exchange on the subject with the late great Stanley English! But it was Iris’s chairmanship which allowed this kind of debate, and which created a healthy atmosphere in which it flourished: tolerant, yet robust!

Iris’s home was hospitable – an old Worcestershire cottage with a sturdy timber frame: the ideal setting for her! Many a cup of strong tea has been consumed there, and many a guest has searched in vain for a place to put the cup, amid learned books and erudite papers and drawings in progress.

There were aspects of Iris’s life which we de Montfort colleagues saw little of – she was a leading expert on Beatrix Potter, for instance. And her distinguished teaching career is a subject in itself. I remember begging her to write her memoirs! – I wish she had (perhaps she did …)

Having heard her voice over the phone just days before she died makes it seem all the odder that she’s gone. I suspect it’ll be some time before we all realise the sheer scale of our loss.

TIM PORTER   

Uniting History and Action