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The lamentable gap between writers and academics


Poverty, Indian restaurants and the Great Unmentionable
Doris Lessing Writer
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In those days we didn't have any money, and it never occurred to us that we should have money; we sort of pottered along somehow. I mean, all the people I met when I came to England, they were writers and artists and all commies – everyone was either a communist or had stopped being a communist; it was either one or the other. So you were in that atmosphere all the time of violent debate about the Soviet Union and communism generally.

And so there we all were, as I say, we didn't have a penny, any of us, and never thought about it particularly, if you can imagine that. I mean, now I look back, it's not that we were hungry or doing without anything, it's just that we didn't have... we didn't need things somehow... we didn't have them. So... and it took me 20 years – no, not... 10 years, it took me 10 years – to have reached the point where I earned as much as the... what the average labourer earned, which I've now forgotten, because somebody said to me, ‘Have you ever worked out what you actually earn?' So they... a chap... did this for me and said, ‘You're earning what the average labourer earns now, which was 10 years later'. And I'd been working very hard all that time.

And at that point we all seemed to get much better off, and I look back with amazement – what happened was that England was so grim and poor and unpainted, which was the thing that I minded so much. Nothing had been painted for that entire time of the war, and, oh God, it really was... And then suddenly there were window boxes with flowers in them! I'll never forget it – it was just such a miracle. And suddenly there were coffee bars, thanks to the Italians, which were then regarded as extremely seditious, and young people were not supposed to be in them because they were so wicked – I don't know why, just the police liked to think of anything as wicked. And the food began to be better, courtesy of the Indians, because everyone who ate, ate out, we ate... ate Indian because you couldn't afford the... the proper... you see, there were proper restaurants with proper food, but none of us could afford it.

And then they had... the wartime restaurants were still going, which people have forgotten – the wartime subsidised restaurants which we ate in because they were so cheap, had this menu – the menu was beef... roast beef, a stew, batter pudding, unspeakably awful vegetables cooked in water, and the most wonderful puddings you can imagine, an English pudding, all going for – what's... what's the equivalent now? – a couple of quid. This is the subsidised wartime restaurant.

Well, so there was that, and then there was a proper restaurant, and then came the Indian restaurants which saved us, and England began to cheer up. And something else happened, which was that the young people – the new generation – didn't want to talk about the war, and... because when I arrived everyone talked about the war, day and night. Either they had been in the Blitz, they had done all that and survived all that bombing, or they had just come back from the various fronts, or they had just opened concentration camps. It was a very grim conversation we used to have, as I recall, most of them.

But then suddenly, around about '56 or so, which coincides with Hungary and all that, there was a new generation who thought the war was very boring. Now, I wasn't at all surprised by that, because I was going back to my father – the First World War – because the old soldiers had this grim joke about the Great Unmentionable. They came out of the trenches, whole or not, and people wouldn't talk about the war. So when this young lot wouldn't talk about the war, I said, well, okay, this has happened before. People can't bear to talk about it. Either they can't bear to talk about it, or they find it happened in... again in some... in the liberation war in Zimbabwe... suddenly I found when I first went out, everyone talked about the war day and night, black and white, all of them. And then suddenly there was this lot of young people who said: ‘We don't care about your war! We don't care what you suffered' – I'm quoting – ‘We don't care about all that, we're going to enjoy ourselves'. So this is what happens, you see. It's no good being upsetting... upset about it, because this is what happens.

So there I was, by then I had moved, and it was time to write The Golden Notebook. No, it wasn't, because I had written Martha Quest in the meantime.

British writer Doris Lessing (1919-2013) 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: England, World War II, Zimbabwe

Duration: 5 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2007

Date story went live: 21 October 2011