Denbigh Road 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 as 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 jewelery. 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 cares 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 cares. 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 made tired by the 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 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?
Excerpted from Walking In the Shade © Copyright 2012 by Doris Lessing. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins. All rights reserved.
Walking In the Shade
- paperback: 432 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial
- ISBN-10: 0060929561
- ISBN-13: 9780060929565