Bringing our celebration of Granta’s 40th anniversary to a close, here we have an excerpt of a piece by none other than Doris Lessing. ‘The Roads of London’ first appeared in Granta 58: Ambition, and later became part of the second volume of Lessing’s autobiography, Walking in the Shade, which is available via 4th Estate.
Don’t miss our Granta event at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, which promises to combine a look back at the magazine’s achievements with practical advice of how to get your work published in literary magazines.
Denbigh Road,03 W11
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.
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 only known 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, subsidized 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 civilized 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, 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 not made tired by war. They did not talk about the war, or think about it.
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 realize 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 heatwave, 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. My son, 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’ and 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 per cent 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.
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 writer. My ignorance was absolute. They thought I was taking my success for granted.
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—and 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 know 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 people see advertisements for a novel on the underground, they are seeing reserves being sent to a successful sector of the battlefront. They are seeing a bestseller being created from a novel that is already a success.
Inspired by the atmosphere of the Caprice, I told Michael Joseph that if there was one thing I adored above all else, it was chocolate éclairs, and no sooner had I got back to my slum than a long black car purred to a stop outside it, and a pretty pink box was delivered by the chauffeur. It contained a dozen chocolate éclairs. These were added to the already bounteous family supper downstairs.
Nothing I experienced in that household matched what I had expected to find, which was rationing, a dour self-sufficiency, even semi-starvation. I had sent food parcels to Britain. The woman of the house, Italian, was one of the world’s great cooks. I don’t think she had ever seen a recipe book. She took six ration books to a shop in Westbourne Grove, then a slummy road. But she always got three or four times the rationed amounts of butter, eggs, bacon, cooking fat, cheese. How did she manage it? She was scornful when I asked. It’s time you knew your way around, she said. There were a couple of bent policemen, always dropping in and out, who were given butter and eggs from her spoils, in return for turning a blind eye. Did I share in this lawlessness? Yes, I did: our two ration books were given to her to manage. To make little shows of morality in that atmosphere would not only have seemed absurd but would have been incomprehensible to these amiable crooks. Besides, the newspapers were already clamouring for the end of rationing. There was no longer any need for it, they said. Never have I eaten so well. The rent did not include food, but like most fine cooks, our landlady could not bear not to feed anyone around who would sit down at her table. I ate downstairs two or three times a week, Peter most evenings. She asked for money for shopping when she ran out. Hers was an economy that absorbed not only me but other people in the house in complicated borrowings, lendings, cigarettes, a dress or shoes she fancied.
When I told middle-class acquaintances about the bent policemen and the butter and eggs and cheese, they were cold and they were angry. ‘Our policemen are not corrupt,’ they said. They saw my sojourn on that foreign shore—the working class—as a whimsical foray for the sake of my art, for Experience. They waited for little anecdotes about the comic working classes, in the spirit of the snobbish Punch cartoons about servants.
From then until decades later, when it was admitted by Authority that all was not well with our policemen, I was treated by nearly everyone with the hostile impatience I was already earning when I said that South Africa was a hell-hole for the blacks and the Coloureds—for this was still not acknowledged, in spite of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, which had just come out, a little before The Grass is Singing—and even more when I insisted that Southern Rhodesia was as bad and, some blacks thought, even worse than South Africa. Only reds and malcontents said this kind of thing.
In the household in Denbigh Road, Southern Africa was not of interest. Nothing was, outside this little area of streets. They talked of going up to the West End, a mile or so away, as a serious excursion.
The exuberance, the physical well-being of that household was certainly not general then. They were a tired people, the British. Stoical. The national low vitality, that aftermath of war, as if the horrors or endurances of war are eating away silently, out of sight, swallowing energy like a black hole, was balanced by something very different. That is what strikes me most about that time, the contrast. On the one hand, the low spirits, a patient sticking it out, but on the other, an optimism for the future so far from how we are thinking now it seems almost like the symptom of a general foolishness. A New Age was dawning, no less. Socialism was the key. The troops returning from all over the world had been promised everything, the Atlantic Charter (seen sardonically at the time) was merely the summing-up of those Utopian hopes, and now the people had returned a Labour government to make sure they would get it. The National Health Service was their proudest achievement. In the Thirties, before the war, an illness or an accident could drag a whole family down to disaster. The poverty had been terrible and had not been forgotten. All that was finished. No longer was there a need to dread illness and the dole and old age. And this was just a beginning: things were going to get steadily better. Everyone seemed to share this mood. You kept meeting doctors who were setting up practices that would embody this new socialist medicine, who saw themselves as builders of a new era. They could be communists, they could be Labour, they could be Liberals. They were all idealists.
And now . . . what was I going to write next? What the publishers wanted was a novel. What I was writing was short stories. All of them were set in The District—Banket, Lomagundi—and they were about the white community and how its members saw themselves, preserved themselves, saw the blacks around them. I would call it This Was the Old Chief’s Country. Juliet O’Hea said if that is what I wanted to do, then of course, but no publisher would be delighted at the news of short stories, which did not sell. In fact, I proved them wrong, for they did sell, and very well—for short stories—and have gone on selling ever since. But it was a novel I should be thinking about. And so I did think hard and long about the book that would be Martha Quest.
I started to write Martha Quest while still in Denbigh Road, and it was going along at a good rate, but I had to interrupt myself, I had to get out of that house, that street—which for a long time now has been a fashionable area. Sometimes I drive or walk through it and see those discreetly desirable residences, and I think, I wonder what you people would say if you could see how these houses were and how carelessly they were ‘done up’ by War Damage.
The trouble was the little boy, Peter, was happy there, and I knew I would not easily find anything as good. For him, that is.
By chance I went to an evening party, in the flat of the brother of a farmer in Southern Rhodesia, who was the essence of white conformity. But this brother was left-wing and pro-Soviet, as was then common. He had an elderly girlfriend, who had once been beautiful, as the photographs that stood about everywhere averred, and whom he called Baby. Baby, with her great dark eyes in her painted pretty old face, her little ruffles and bows, dominated the scene, but there was another focus of attention, a vibrant, dark-eyed, dark-haired stocky young woman, who at first I thought was French. She wore a tight black skirt, a white shirt, and a cheeky black beret. We talked; she heard how I was living; she at once responded with practical sympathy. She had herself been a young woman with a small child in one bed-sit room in New York. She had been rescued by a woman friend, with the offer of a flat in her house. ‘You can’t live like this,’ she had said. And now Joan Rodker said to me that she was getting rid of an unsatisfactory tenant, and she had been thinking for some time how to help some young woman with a child. There was a small flat at the top of her house, and I could live there, provided she liked Peter. So on the next Sunday I took Peter to see her, and they liked each other at once. So you could say that it was Peter who solved my housing problem for me.
And so I moved into Church Street, Kensington, an attractive little flat at the top of the house, where I lived for four years. It was summer 1950. But before I left Denbigh Road I saw the end of an era, the death of a culture: television arrived. Before, when the men came back from work, the tea was already on the table, a fire was roaring, the radio emitted words or music softly in a corner, they washed and sat down at their places, with the woman, the child, and whoever else in the house could be inveigled downstairs. Food began emerging from the oven, dish after dish, tea was brewed, beer appeared, off went the jerseys or jackets, the men sat in their shirtsleeves, glistening with well-being. They all talked, they sang, they told what had happened in their day, they talked dirty—a ritual; they quarrelled, they shouted, they kissed and made up and went to bed at twelve or one, after six or so hours of energetic conviviality. I suppose that this level of emotional intensity was not usual in the households of Britain: I was witnessing an extreme. And then, from one day to the next—but literally from one evening to the next—came the end of good times, for television had arrived and sat like a toad in the corner of the kitchen. Soon the big kitchen table had been pushed along the wall, chairs were installed in a semicircle and, on the chair arms, the swivelling supper trays. It was the end of an exuberant verbal culture.
Doris Lessing (1919-2013) is the author of more than twenty novels. In October 2007 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.