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White mistresses and menservants

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Well, The Grass Is Singing was my first book. It was written in Southern Rhodesia... that is... Southern Rhodesia was before Mugabe and Zimbabwe. Now, I had been saying and behaving as if I were a writer; all I had done was in fact to write some short stories for South African magazines, and they weren't very good... they were rather smart and glossy, because that's what the magazines were like. And yet, the interesting thing people treated me as if I were really a writer; they were always bringing me their manuscripts, and things like that. And I would pronounce on them quite well, I suppose, really. That was only because of the amount I read. So there was a point at which I thought, well, enough of the talk, let's do it!

Now, at that point I was working in a lawyer's office, not earning very much... it's a question of my... you know, what was I going to live on? Anyway, I marched in to my boss, Mr Hill, and said, 'I'm going to resign, and I'm going to write a novel'. Well there were hearty gales of laughter, of course, because why not? And at that point I was married to Godfrey Lessing. He was earning a living in a large variety of amazing ways, like the tobacco auctions in Salisbury. They're still going. People would get out there about five in the morning to work for the tobacco auctions... you earned a bit of extra money. And... we were all like that... we were all precarious earning money in various ways. So he said, what... he said, what a good idea!

So I then got work at a... a profession which no longer exists... shorthand writers would go into the parliament – it was the same as our parliament – for 20 minutes, record what was said and come out and dictate to typists, one of whom was me... there was a bank of typists, and... which you earned quite a lot of money, actually. And then also, the same idea, the same shorthand writers would go into government commissions and dictate to typists. One of these men was a man called Mr Lamb, who... now there you are, you see I'm going off into the distant past of... of South African history suddenly... Milner's Kindergarten, I bet you've never heard of Milner's Kindergarten. He had a bank of very bright young men, of whom Mr Lamb when young was one, and he'd ended up as a shorthand writer in the parliament – a very erudite, well-read man. People like that were so... stuck out like sore thumbs in that culture, I can tell you.

Anyway, he would... I would go up to his house and type. A government commission on the recruitment of native labour, for example, the government commission on tsetse fly, the government commission... this kind of thing. Oh, the funniest one was the Kariba Dam, because half of the experts on the Kariba Dam said you couldn't build a Kariba Dam because there would be deep clefts in the earth, and the water would just go gurgling away down into the depths of the world and vanish completely. I mean, I typed all this stuff!

British writer Doris Lessing (1919-2017) was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her novels include 'The Grass is Singing', 'The Golden Notebook', and five novels collectively known as 'Canopus in Argos'. She was described by the Swedish Academy as 'that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny'. Lessing was the 11th woman and the oldest ever person to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: The Grass Is Singing, Southern Rhodesia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Salisbury, Milner's Kindergarten, Kariba Dam, Robert Mugabe, Godfrey Lessing

Duration: 4 minutes, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2007

Date story went live: 21 October 2011