Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography--1949-1962, p.1Doris Lessing
Walking in the Shade
Volume Two of My Autobiography
I used to walk in the shade
My blues on parade
Now this rover
To the sunny side of the street
“ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET”
The individual, and groupings of people, have to learn that they cannot reform society in reality, nor deal with others as reasonable people, unless the individual has learned to locate and allow for the various patterns of coercive institutions, formal and also informal, which rule him. No matter what his reason says, he will always relapse into obedience to the coercive agency while its pattern is with him.
IDRIES SHAH, CARAVAN OF DREAMS
Denbigh Road WII
Church Street, Kensington W8
Warwick Road SW5
Langham Street WI
About the Author
Other Books by Doris Lessing
About the Publisher
HIGH ON THE SIDE OF THE TALL SHIP, I HELD UP MY LITTLE BOY and said, ‘Look, there’s London.’ Dockland: muddy creeks and channels, greyish rotting wooden walls and beams, cranes, tugs, big and little ships. The child was probably thinking, But ships and cranes and water was Cape Town, and now it’s called London. As for me, real London was still ahead, like the beginning of my real life, which would have happened years before if the war hadn’t stopped me coming to London. A clean slate, a new page—everything still to come.
I was full of confidence and optimism, though my assets were minimal: rather less than £150; the manuscript of my first novel, The Grass Is Singing, already bought by a Johannesburg publisher who had not concealed the fact he would take a long time publishing it, because it was so subversive; and a few short stories. I had a couple of trunkfuls of books, for I would not be parted from them, some clothes, some negligible jewellery. I had refused the pitiful sums of money my mother had offered, because she had so little herself, and besides, the whole sum and essence of this journey was that it was away from her, from the family, and from that dreadful provincial country Southern Rhodesia, where, if there was a serious conversation, then it was—always—about The Colour Bar and the inadequacies of the blacks. I was free. I could at last be wholly myself. I felt myself to be self-created, self-sufficient. Is this an adolescent I am describing? No, I was nearly thirty. I had two marriages behind me, but I did not feel I had been really married.
I was also exhausted, because the child, two and a half, had for the month of the voyage woken at five, with shouts of delight for the new day, and had slept reluctantly at ten every night. In between he had never been still, unless I was telling him tales and singing him nursery rhymes, which I had been doing for four or five hours every day. He had had a wonderful time.
I was also having those thoughts—perhaps better say feelings—that disturb every arrival from Southern Africa who has not before seen white men unloading a ship, doing heavy manual labour, for this had been what black people did. A lot of white people, seeing whites work like blacks, had felt uneasy and threatened; for me, it was not so simple. Here they were, the workers, the working class, and at that time I believed that the logic of history would make it inevitable they should inherit the earth. They—those tough, muscled labouring men down there—and, of course, people like me, were the vanguard of the working class. I am not writing this down to ridicule it. That would be dishonest. Millions, if not billions, of people were thinking like that, using this language.
I have far too much material for this second volume. Nothing can be more tedious than a book of memoirs millions of words long. A little book called In Pursuit of the English, written when I was still close to that time, will add depth and detail to those first months in London. At once, problems—literary problems. What I say in it is true enough. A couple of characters were changed for libel reasons and would have to be now. But there is no doubt that while ‘true’, the book is not as true as what I would write now. It is a question of tone, and that is no simple matter. That little book is more like a novel; it has the shape and the pace of one. It is too well shaped for life. In one thing at least it is accurate: when I was newly in London I was returned to a child’s way of seeing and feeling, every person, building, bus, street, striking my senses with the shocking immediacy of a child’s life, everything oversized, very bright, very dark, smelly, noisy. I do not experience London like that now. That was a city of Dickensian exaggeration. I am not saying I saw London through a veil of Dickens, but rather that I was sharing the grotesque vision of Dickens, on the verge of the surreal.
That London of the late 1940s, the early 1950s, has vanished, and now it is hard to believe it existed. It was unpainted, buildings were stained and cracked and dull and grey; it was war-damaged, some areas all ruins, and under them holes full of dirty water, once cellars, and it was subject to sudden dark fogs—that was before the Clean Air Act. No one who has known only today’s London of self-respecting clean buildings, crowded cafés and restaurants, good food and coffee, streets full until after midnight with mostly young people having a good time, can believe what London was like then. No cafés. No good restaurants. Clothes were still ‘austerity’ from the war, dismal and ugly. Everyone was indoors by ten, and the streets were empty. The Dining Rooms, subsidised during the war, were often the only places to eat in a whole area of streets. They served good meat, terrible vegetables, nursery puddings. Lyons restaurants were the high point of eating for ordinary people—I remember fish and chips and poached eggs on toast. There were fine restaurants for the well-off, and they tended to hide themselves away out of embarrassment, because in them, during the war, the rigours of rationing had been so ameliorated. You could not get a decent cup of coffee anywhere in the British Isles. The sole civilised amenity was the pubs, but they closed at eleven, and you have to have the right temperament for pubs. Or, I should say, had to have, for they have changed so much, no longer give the impression to an outsider of being like clubs, each with its members, or ‘regulars’, where outsiders go on sufferance. Rationing was still on. The war still lingered, not only in the bombed places but in people’s minds and behaviour. Any conversation tended to drift towards the war, like an animal licking a sore place. There was a wariness, a weariness.
On New Year’s Eve, 1950, I was telephoned by an American from the publishing scene to ask if I would share the revels with him. I met him in my best dress at six o’clock in Leicester Square. We expected cheerful crowds, but there was no one on the streets. For an hour or so we were in a pub but felt out of place. Then we looked for a restaurant. There were the expensive restaurants, which we could not afford, but nothing of what we now take for granted—the Chinese, Indian, Italian restaurants, and dozens of other nationalities. The big hotels were all booked up. We walked up and down and back and forth through Soho and around Piccadilly. Everything was dark and blank. Then he said, To hell with it, let’s live it up. A taxi driver took us to a club in Mayfair, and there we watched the successors of the Bright Young Things getting drunk and throwing bread at each other.
But by the end of the decade, there were coffee bars and good ice cream, by courtesy of the Italians, and good cheap Indian restaurants. Clothes were bright and cheap and irreverent. London was painted again and was cheerful. Most of the bomb damage was gone. Above all, there was a new generation who had not been m
The first place where I lived was in Bayswater, which was then rather seedy and hard to associate with the grandeur of its earlier days. Prostitutes lined the streets every evening. I was supposed to be sharing a flat with a South African woman and her child: I wrote about this somewhat unsatisfactory experience in In Pursuit of the English. The flat we were in was large and well furnished. Two rooms were let to prostitutes. When I discovered this—I did not realise at once who these smartly dressed girls were who tripped up and down the stairs with men—and tackled the South African woman, because I did not think this was good for the two small children, she burst into tears and said I was unkind.
I spent six weeks looking for a place that would take a small child. There was a heat wave, and I couldn’t understand why people complained about the English weather. My feet gave in on the hot pavements, and my morale almost did, but then a household of Italians welcomed the child and me, and my main problem was solved. This was Denbigh Road. Peter had been accepted by a council nursery. Circumstances had taught him from his very first days to be sociable, and he loved going there. When he came back from the nursery he disappeared at once into the basement, where there was a little girl his age. The house, dispiriting to me, because it was so grim and dirty and war-damaged, was a happy place for him.
We were at the beginning—but literally—in a garret, which was too small for me even to unpack a typewriter. I sent some short stories to the agent Curtis Brown, chosen at random from the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, and Juliet O’Hea wrote back what I later knew was a form letter: Yes, but did I have a novel or was I thinking of writing one? I said there was a novel, but it had been bought by a Johannesburg publisher. She asked to see the contract, was shocked and angry when she saw it—they were going to take fifty percent of everything I earned, as a reward for risking themselves over this dangerous book. She sent them a telegram saying that if they didn’t at once release me from the contract she would expose them as crooks. She then sold the book over the weekend to Michael Joseph.
Pamela Hansford Johnson was Michael Joseph’s reader. She wrote an enthusiastic report but said that these and those changes should be made. Since I had spent years writing and rewriting the book, I did not feel inclined to make changes, particularly as I had broken my shoulder. How? It cannot be regarded as anything less than a psychologically significant event. I was in Leicester Square, seeing Les Enfants du Paradis with a young man. We had been most romantically in love when he was in the RAF in Rhodesia. Our lives had already taken dramatically different routes: he was about to join the Federation of British Industry, and I was still, if uneasily, a Red—though not a member of the Party. I came out of the cinema and walked straight into slippery tar painted on the street by workmen who said I should have looked where I was going. Gottfried had arrived in London, where he proposed to live, and was staying with Dorothy Schwartz from Salisbury in a large flat near the Belsize Park underground station. He took Peter for six weeks, while my shoulder mended.
Hindsight has given a jaunty tone to my memories of that time, for if it was difficult, I was coping with it all. This little scene paints a different picture: I am standing on the platform at Queensway underground station. My left arm is in a sling, and my yellow wool jacket is buttoned over it. A button flies off, a draught lifts the jacket off my left shoulder, I stand revealed in my bra. In London you could walk down Oxford Street nude and earn hardly a glance, and my embarrassment is unnecessary. I try futilely to get myself covered. A woman emerges from the crowd, turns me to her, takes a large safety pin from her pocket, pins my jacket onto the sling. She stands examining my face. ‘Broken it, ’ave you? Well, a break takes forty-two days or six weeks, whichever is the shortest.’ I can’t speak. ‘Cheer up. The worst may never happen.’
‘This is the worst,’ I manage. She laughs, that anarchic, gruff, well-what-can-you-expect laugh still heard from people who lived through the Blitz.
‘Is that so? If that’s the worst you can manage, then.…’ She gives me encouraging little pats, then shoves me gently towards the train and helps me onto it. ‘You just go and get yourself a nice cup of tea and cheer up,’ I hear, as the doors grind shut.
I sent The Grass Is Singing back to Michael Joseph in the same parcel it arrived in. I got a letter from them, congratulating me on the valuable changes I had made. I never enlightened them.
Soon Alfred Knopf in New York said they would take the book, if I would change it so that there was an explicit rape, ‘in accordance with the mores of the country’. This was Blanche Knopf, Alfred’s wife, and the Knopfs were the stars of the publishing firmament then. I was furious. What did she know about the ‘mores’ of Southern Africa? Besides, it was crass. The whole point of The Grass Is Singing was the unspoken, devious codes of behaviour of the whites, nothing ever said, everything understood, and the relationship between Mary Turner, the white woman, and Moses, the black man, was described so that nothing was explicit. This was only partly out of literary instinct. The fact is, I have never decided whether Mary had sex with Moses or not. Sometimes I think one thing, sometimes another. While it was a commonplace that white men had sex with black women, and the continually enlarging Coloured community was there to prove it, I had only once heard of a white woman having sex with her black servant. The penalty—for the man—was hanging. Besides, the taboos were so strong. If Mary Turner had had sex with Moses, this poor woman so precariously holding on to her idea of herself as a white madam would have cracked into pieces. Yes, but she was cracked, she was crazy—yes, but she would have been crazy in a different way: as soon as I say it, the phrases and words appear that would describe that different lunacy. No, on the whole I think she didn’t. When I wrote the book I was sure she didn’t. The episode from which the story grew was this: I overheard contemptuous and uneasy talk on the verandahs about a farmer’s wife on a near farm who ‘allowed her cook to button up her dress at the back and brush her hair’. This was—correctly, I think—described by my father as the ultimate in contempt for the man: like aristocrats permitting themselves every kind of intimate and filthy behaviour in front of servants, because they weren’t really human beings.
I decided that the Knopf demand was hypocrisy: an explicit rape would have the shock of novelty—this was true then. I said I would not change the book. I was supported all the way by Juliet O’Hea, who said of course I should never change a word I didn’t want to, but it was always worthwhile thinking about what they said. ‘After all, my dear, they are sometimes right.’ She thought that this time they were wrong. ‘Don’t worry. If they don’t take it I’ll get you another publisher.’ They took it anyway.*
I had very little money left. The £150 advance from Michael Joseph was at once swallowed up by rent and fees for the nursery school. I took a secretary’s job for a few weeks, where I did practically no work at all, for it was a new engineering firm, with young, inexperienced partners. I had taken the child out of the council nursery and put him in a rather expensive private nursery. How was I going to pay for this? But my attitude always was: decide to do something and then find out the way to pay for it. Soon I knew I was being stupid. I was supposed to be a writer: publishers enquired tenderly about what I was writing. But I had no energy for writing. I woke at five, with the child, as always—he went on waking at five for years, and I with him. I read to him, told him stories, gave him breakfast, took him by bus down to the nursery school, went to work. There I sat about, doing nothing much, or perhaps covertly writing a short story. At lunchtime I shopped. At five I fetched the child from the nursery, went back by bus, and then the usual rumbustious rowdy evening for him, downstairs, while I cleaned the place up. He did not sleep until ten or so. But then I was too tired to work.
I gave up the job. Meanwhile the publishers rang—twice—to say they were reprinting, and that was before publication. I said, ‘Oh good.’ I thought this happened to every wri
Michael Joseph invited me to the Caprice for lunch, then the smartest show business restaurant. I had moved downstairs from my garret and was in a large room that had been once—would be again—beautiful but was now dirty and draughty, heated by an inadequate fireplace. The whole house was cracked and leaking because of the bombing. There was a tiny room, where Peter slept. The Caprice was adazzle with pink tablecloths, silver, glass, and well-dressed people. Michael Joseph was a handsome man, worldly, at home there, and he talked of Larry and Viv, and said it was a pity they weren’t lunching that day. Michael Joseph, for some reason unfit for fighting, had started the firm during the war, against the advice of everybody, for he did not have much capital. The firm was at once successful, chiefly because he had been an agent with Curtis Brown, and Juliet O’Hea, his good friend, saw that he got sent new books. He enjoyed his success, ran a racehorse or two, frequented London’s smart places. He kept greeting the people at other tables: ‘Let me introduce you to our new writer—she’s from Africa.’
The purpose of this lunch was not only because writers were supposed to feel flattered but because he was concerned that this author should not expect him to advertise. He told me exemplary tales, such as that a certain little book, The Snow Goose, by Paul Gallico, published during the war, was reprinted several times before publication on word of mouth alone. ‘Advertising has no effect at all on the fate of a book.’ All publishers talk like this.
In certain military academies is set this exercise: The examinee is to imagine that he is a general in command of a battlefront. In one area his troops are only holding their own, in another are being routed, in a third are driving back the enemy. With limited resources, where is he to send support? The correct answer is: to the successful sector; the rest must be left to their fate. It seems few people give the right answer; they mislead themselves with compassionate thoughts for the less successful soldiers. This is how publishers think. An already successful or known author gets advertisements, but struggling or unknown ones are expected to sink or swim. When the public sees advertisements for a novel on the underground, they are seeing reserves being sent to a successful sector of the battlefront. They are seeing a best-seller being created from a novel that is already a success.
Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography--1949-1962 by Doris Lessing / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes