I don’t remember the exact date when I went to live in Doris Lessing’s house in Charrington Street, north of King’s Cross. I think of it as being just a few weeks after Sylvia Plath killed herself in early February 1963. The suicide was still very raw and much discussed by Doris’s friends. So at the earliest towards the end of February. In any case it was before Easter, which fell in April that year, because at long last, released from my father’s prohibitions, I went on the Aldermaston March. (‘Ignorant, unwashed mob. You can’t go, you’ll be raped, and that’s that.’ Which was curiously whatever is the opposite of prescient; I’d actually been raped the previous Easter when he’d refused to let me go.) I was quite heavily chaperoned by the responsible, 25-year-old son of Doris’s best friend, Joan Rodker. He kept a watchful eye on me against the CND hordes, and more particularly against one of his womanising friends who, not long after the march, became the first boyfriend to test out the virginal, patiently waiting Dutch cap.
Doris hadn’t liked Sylvia very much; after some friends who had been rerunning the details of her life and death had gone home one evening, she told me she thought Sylvia too ‘pushy’ (‘networking’ we’d call it now) and hadn’t liked what she said were Sylvia’s excessive overtures of friendship. She refused to join in the soul-searching and excited chatter about why the tragedy of Sylvia and her two children had come about. For the first time I heard that moral qualifier Doris used almost automatically and almost always for a man: ‘Poor Ted.’ Over the years the name changed, ‘Poor Roger’ (my first husband), ‘Poor Peter’ (her son), ‘Poor Martin’ (or any other man who she thought had been treated badly by a woman). But as far as I was concerned the death of Sylvia was before my time, if only by weeks, in the same way that the end of the Second World War was before my time at my birth in 1947. The two events marked seminal moments in my life, but, for all that I was surrounded by people intimately involved in both affairs, Sylvia’s suicide and the Second World War felt less real to me than historical events that had taken place centuries earlier. I think it’s a way of avoiding the intolerable fact that the world and the people in it got on, well or otherwise, in the years and days without my presence, as indeed it and they will in my next and final absence.
It was a famously cold winter. I’d come from a snowbound Hove, where I’d spent hours sitting and brooding, wrapped up but shivering on the frozen pebbled beach staring out at an icy sea, writing poetry about seagulls and loneliness (no longer extant, thank heavens, though that’s not to say that I wouldn’t write about seagulls and loneliness like a lightning strike if I once let my guard down). London was cold, too. But Charrington Street was warm. Doris was particularly proud that she had had central heating installed in her new house, which had been bought, I imagine, with the proceeds of The Golden Notebook, published the year before. In the first week or two, friends came and sat around the kitchen table for lunch and supper, for me to meet and for them to meet me, Doris said. We went to movies, first to see Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty with Joan, who had been a staunch friend and fellow Communist Party member, and in whose house Doris had lived, and been looked after, for several years when she got to England with her small son, Peter. Writers, poets and theatre people came to supper, Alan Sillitoe and his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight, Arnold Wesker and his wife Dusty. Naomi Mitchison. Ted Hughes, Christopher Logue (whose recording of poetry and jazz, Red Bird, I’d bought with my pocket money at St Christopher’s), Lindsay Anderson, Fenella Fielding. A Portuguese couple, described to me as ‘a poet in exile and his glamorous wife’, would remain friends of Doris, about the only ones who did, until her death. R.D. Laing was a guest a couple of times. I watched amazed as his wife (the first, I think) actually closed her eyes and dropped into sleep every time he started to speak.
I was thrilled to meet people whose work I’d read or heard of. I’d read all of Sillitoe and taken part in play-readings of Wesker’s work at school. At Doris’s I read Laing’s The Divided Self and The Self and Others, and found a good deal in them that chimed with my experience of a mad nuclear-family life. I was aware of being on show, and was very cautious. I took the opportunity my novelty gave me to find out how to behave among these strangers. Doris made stews, boeuf Stroganoff, salads, trifles, and we drank wine, Algerian red and Portuguese rosé. I sat, watched and listened. On one occasion, Doris took me to lunch with the Sillitoes, around whose table were some visiting Russian literary types, and Robert Graves. I was even more silent than usual, having a marked taste for older, old men actually, and being quite overwhelmed by Graves’s grey curls and the beauty of his pronounced Roman nose, as well as his grave pronouncements about art and life, none of which I remember. I was mortified that he failed to address a single word to me, although I would have stuttered into sawdust if he had. The following day, Alan told Doris that Graves had asked who that attractive young Russian girl was, and what a pity it was that she spoke no English.
For weeks I listened intently to the table-talk, not daring to join the conversation, not having anything to say, and wondering where and how one acquired opinions, so many and that seemed to come so easily. We left cinemas and theatres, Doris and her friends and me tagging along, and before we were out in the street, they were sharing their judgments of what they’d seen. It was a matter of whether things ‘worked’, how exactly they had failed or succeeded. Nothing was expected to be perfect, so the conversation was about the way in which things worked and didn’t and a judgment was made on the balance. Details of mise-en-scène and dialogue were picked out and weighed. On the other hand, Brando was preposterous as Fletcher Christian and wrecked whatever chance there was of it being a good film. How did they know such things? How did they make so many different angles relevant to their final analysis? And how were they so expert and so sure? We went several times in those early weeks to the beloved Academy Cinema on Oxford Street. Memorably, I saw Les Enfants du Paradis for the first of many viewings. Doris and her friends had already seen it, but rhapsodised for my benefit, picking out telling scenes or shots (Vous êtes toute seule, madame?), laughing at the way they’d been made to cry by such sentimental froth. But Les Enfants was too marvellous to be seriously criticised. It was certainly marvellous to me, and I listened to the talk after the viewing trying to find out why, along with The Seventh Seal, Le Mépris, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, it was considered a marvel, and why Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, charming though it was, failed because it was self-indulgent. Self-indulgence was very often the reason for a film or play to fail in the eyes of Doris and her friends. It seemed to be a trap waiting for every maker of every art, and I couldn’t understand how they didn’t manage to avoid such an obvious pitfall, when it was so clear to the viewers. Although I relied heavily on others for instances of brilliance or ruination, surely the makers and artists knew what was good and what wasn’t? Everything was talked about, judged, argued over. None of Doris’s friends just went to the movies or the theatre for fun, however much they enjoyed it. Enjoyment wasn’t enough. You needed to know how what you were seeing and hearing ‘worked’ or didn’t, which sometimes was quite separate from how enjoyable it was. A film or a play was an event that only began with the experience of it. They were the basis for opinions, for conversations and for arguments that went on sometimes late into the night, over red wine, or occasionally a joint of the marijuana that, as an experiment, Doris had grown from seed in the garden the previous summer and which she dried in the airing cupboard with the towels.
Freud, Marx, Foucault, Canetti, Martin D’Arcy, Derrida, the anti-psychiatrists, even the behaviourism of Desmond Morris and Konrad Lorenz were to different extents the background to the chat for some, while others, Doris among them, relied on a belief in their own grasp of the effects of heart and mind on individual or crowd behaviour. But at that time, of all the ways of seeing in the world, understanding unconscious psychological motivation was everything, told you everything, i.e. the truth, while surfaces, behaviour, the overt story were so much gaudy wrapping – false reasoning, self-deceit.
I listened furiously, trying to take all this in and find out how it was done. To start with, I couldn’t understand how it was so easy for them to have a point of view, to know how and why things ‘worked’. ‘Working’, the pivotal valuation, was never defined. There seemed to be too much to learn. I picked up quickly that having opinions wasn’t enough and that it was necessary to have a basis – from reading, from study, from hard conscious thought – from which the opinions were formed. But more important than all the theory, behind and beyond it, there was some ineffable taste or intuitive understanding implicitly agreed on by these talking, always talking, people. I couldn’t imagine ever acquiring the all-important taste. Did you have it or not, from birth? Could you acquire it with diligent study? Many people were dismissed as stupid, especially academics, who apparently lacked good judgment, yet who seemed at least as learned as Doris and her friends. How could they be stupid? At 15, I felt it was already too late. I hadn’t read enough, seen enough, been to enough places, talked to enough people. I felt that nothing of interest had happened to me, not understanding that every life is ordinary to its owner, that looking for interesting events was to search in the wrong direction for something that isn’t absent because it isn’t the point. I felt that I was burdened with a lifetime’s weight of unfinished homework. I would never catch up. Never read enough. See all the movies and plays. Never learn how to think. These people all seemed so finished, so confident. And they wrote and were read, and by doing so they were deities to me, the hopeless unfledged writer whose sentences were never buoyed with confidence.
I stayed shtum. I listened. But I’d always been verbal. When I was researching for my book Skating to Antarctica, I visited an old couple who had lived in the flat next door to ours when I was a child. ‘You never let anyone get the better of you,’ she said. ‘They were all older than you. You were only three but you kept up and answered back.’ Already, when I was three. Protected. Armoured. Using words to get the better of bigger, older children. I learned soon enough around Doris’s table the rudiments of conversation, even if I hadn’t the faintest underlying faith in what I was saying. I knew I couldn’t stay silent for too long, that silence wouldn’t earn me a place round the table at which I was the only one who wasn’t there thanks to their entertainment value, what they did, or how they thought. I gradually stepped into the conversation, like the three-year-old keeping up with the bigger children. First with questions and queries, occasionally with comments and interventions. I set myself to learn, and asking questions didn’t seem to annoy people. Listening carefully, I showed myself, offered myself to them as a young person who was eager and quick to learn. They were happy to teach me. So I learned to speak, rather than sing, for my supper. But I never, at any time, had any confidence in what I said or thought. Like a Calvinist, always already one of the elect or doomed, I couldn’t think of myself as having that elusive and essentialtaste or understanding.