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 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.
Church Street, W8
I had made a life for me and for Peter. That was an achievement, and I was proud of myself. The most important part was Peter, who was enjoying his life, particularly the nursery school in Kensington, and then the family atmosphere with Joan and Ernest. Never has there been a child so ready to make friends. Our days still began at five. Again I was reading to him and telling him stories for a couple of hours after he woke, because Joan’s bedroom was immediately below, and the floors were thin, and she did not wake till later. Or he listened to the radio. We have forgotten the role radio played before television. Peter loved the radio. He listened to everything. He listened to two radio plays based on novels by Ivy Compton-Burnett, each an hour long, standing by the machine, absolutely riveted. What was he hearing? Understanding? I have no idea. It is my belief that children are full of understanding and know as much as and more than adults, until they are about seven, when they suddenly become stupid, like adults. At three or four, Peter understood everything, and at eight or nine read only comics. And I’ve seen this again and again with small children. A child of three sits entranced through the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but four years later can tolerate only Rupert Bear.
I was writing Martha Quest, a conventional novel, though the demand then was for experimental novels. I played in my mind with a hundred ways of doing Martha Quest, pulling shapes about, playing with time, but at the end of all this, the novel was straightforward. I was dealing with my painful adolescence, my mother, all that anguish, the struggle for survival.
And now there arrived a letter from my mother, saying she was coming to London, she was going to live with me and help me with Peter, and – here was the inevitable, surreal, heartbreaking ingredient – she had taught herself typing and would be my secretary.
I collapsed. I simply went to bed and pulled the covers over my head. When I had taken Peter to nursery school, I crept away into the dark of my bed and stayed there until I had to bring him home.
And now – again – there is the question of time, tricksy time, and until I came to write this and was forced to do my work with calendars and obdurate dates, I had thought, vaguely, that I was in Denbigh Road for . . . well, it was probably three years or so. But that was because, having been resumed to child-seeing, everything new and immediate, I had been resumed – partly – to child-time. No matter how I wriggled and protested, No, it can’t have been only a year, it was a year before I went to Joan’s, and I had been there only six months or so when the letter came from my mother.
Yet those months seem now like years. Time is different at different times in one’s life. A year in your thirties is much shorter than a child’s year – which is almost endless – but long compared with a year in your forties; whereas a year in your seventies is a mere blink.
Of course she was bound to come after me. How could I have been so naive as to think she wouldn’t, as soon as she could? She had been in exile in Southern Rhodesia, dreaming of London, and now . . . She and her daughter did not ‘get on’, or, to put it truthfully, had always fought. Oh, never mind, the girl was wrongheaded; she would learn to listen to her mother. She was a communist? She always had disreputable friends? That was all right; her mother would introduce her to really nice people. She had written The Grass is Singing, which had caused her mother anguish and shame, because it was so hated by the whites? And those extremely unfair short stories about The District? Well, she – the girl’s mother – would explain to everyone that no one outside the country could really understand the whites’ problems and . . . But the author had been brought up in the country? Her views were wrong, and in time she would come to see that. . . She proposed to live with a daughter who had broken up her first marriage, leaving two children, had married a German refugee at the height of the war, who was a kaffir-lover and scornful of religion?
Well, how did she see it? Now I believe she did not think about it much. She could not afford to. She longed to live in London again, but it was the London she had left in 1919. She had no friends left, except for Daisy Lane, with whom she had been exchanging letters, but Daisy Lane was now an old lady, living in Richmond with her sister, an ex-missionary from Japan. There was her brother’s family, and she was coming home in time for the daughter’s wedding. Her brother’s sister-in-law had already said, ‘I hope Jane doesn’t imagine she is going to take first place at the wedding.’ (Jane: Plain Jane, the loving family nickname, making sure that Maude didn’t imagine she possessed any attractions.) And had written to my mother saying she must take a back seat.
Over twenty-five years: 1924 to 1950. That was then the term of my mother’s exile in Africa. Now I have reached the age to understand that twenty-five years – or thirty – can seem nothing much, I know that for her time had contracted and that unfortunate experience, Africa, had become an irrelevance. But for me, just over thirty, it was the length of my conscious life, and my mother lived in, belonged to, Africa. Her yearnings after London pea-soupers and jolly tennis parties were mere whimsies.
How could she come after me like this? Yet of course she had been bound to. How could she imagine that . . . But she did. Soon she would toil up those impossible narrow stairs, smiling bravely, walk into my room, move the furniture about, look through my clothes and pronounce their unsuitability, look at the little safe on the wall – no fridge – and say the child was not getting enough to eat.
These days, everyone goes to a therapist, or is a therapist, but then no one did. Not in England, only in America, and even there the phenomenon was in its infancy. And particularly communists did not go ‘into analysis’, for it was ‘reactionary’ by definition, or rather without the need for definition. I was so desperate I went. I went two or three times a week, for about three years. I think it saved me. The process was full of the wildest anomalies or ironies – the communist word ‘contradictions’ seems too mild. First, Mrs Sussman was a Roman Catholic, and Jungian, and while I liked Jung, as all artists do, I had no reason to love Roman Catholics. She was Jewish, and her husband, a dear old man, like a Rembrandt portrait, was a Jewish scholar. But she had converted to Roman Catholicism. This fascinated me, the improbability of it, but she said my wanting to discuss it was merely a sign of my evading real issues. Enough, she said, that Roman Catholicism had deeper and higher levels of understanding, infinitely removed from the crudities of the convent. (And Judaism did not have such higher reaches or peaks? ‘We were talking about your father, I think, my dear. Shall we go on?’) Mrs Sussman specialized in unblocking artists who were blocked, could not write or paint or compose. This is what she saw as her mission in life. But I did not suffer from a ‘block’. She wanted to discuss my work. I did not want to. I did not see the need for it. So she was perpetually frustrated, bringing up the subject, while I deflected her. Mrs Sussman was a cultivated, civilized, wise old woman, who gave me what I needed, which was support. Mostly support against my mother. When the pressures came on, all of them intolerable, because my mother was so pathetic, so lonely, so full of emotional blackmail – quite unconscious, for it was her situation that undermined me – Mrs Sussman simply said, ‘If you don’t stand firm now, it will be the end of you. And the end of Peter too.’
My mother was . . . but I have forgotten which archetype my mother was. She was one, I know. Mrs Sussman would often bring some exchange to a close: she, he, is such and such an archetype . . . or is one at this time. I, for example, at various times was Electra, Antigone, Medea. The trouble was, while I was instinctively happy with the idea of archetypes, those majestic eternal figures, rising from literature and myth like stone shapes created by nature out of rock and mountain, I was hating the labels. Unhappy with communism, I was unhappiest with its language, with the labelling of everything, and the vindictive or automatic stereotypes, and here were more of them, whether described romantically as ‘archetypes’ or not. I did not see why she minded my criticisms, for she liked the dreams I ‘brought’ her. Psychotherapists are like doctors and nurses who treat patients like children: ‘Just a little spoonful for me.’ ‘Put out your tongue for me.’ When we have a dream, it is ‘for’ the therapist. Often it is: I swear I dreamed dreams to please her, after we had been going along for a while. But at my very first session she had asked for dreams, preferably serial dreams, and she was pleased with my ancient lizard dream and the dreams I was having about my father, who, too shallowly buried in a forest, would emerge from his grave, or attract wolves who came down from the hills to dig him up. ‘These are typically Jungian dreams,’ she would say gently, flushed with pleasure. ‘Sometimes it can take years to get someone to dream a dream on that level.’ Whereas Jungian dreams had been my night landscape for as long as I could remember, I had not had ‘Freudian’ dreams. She said she used Freud when it was appropriate, and that was, I gathered, when the patient was still at a very low level of individuation. She made it altogether clear that she thought I was.
‘Jungian dreams’ – wonderful, those layers of ancient common experience, but what was the use of that if I had to go to bed with the covers over my head at the news my mother was about to arrive? Here I was. Here I am, Mrs Sussman. Do what you will with me, but for God’s sake cure me.
I needed support for other reasons.
One of them was my lover. My friend Moidi Jokl had suggested that I should go with her one evening to a party, and there I met a man I was destined – so I felt then – to live with, and to have and to hold and be happy with.
Yes, he had a name. But as always, there is the question of children and grandchildren. Since Under My Skin came out, I have met not a few grandchildren, children, of my old mates from those far-off times and learned that the views of contemporaries about each other need not share much with the views of their children. Whole areas of a parent’s, let alone a grandparent’s, life can be unknown to them. And why not? Children do not own their parents’ lives, though they – and I too – jealously pore over them as if they hold the key to their own.
I say to a charming young man who has come to lunch to discuss his father, ‘When James was working on the mines on the Rand – ‘
‘Oh, I’m sure he never did that,’ comes the confident reply.
To another: ‘You didn’t know your father was a great lover of women?’ A faintly derisive smile, meaning: What, that old stick? So then of course you shut up; after all, it has nothing to do with him.
I will call this man Jack. He was a Czech. He had worked as a doctor with our armies throughout the war. He was – what else? – a communist.
He fell in love with me, jealously, hungrily, even angrily – with that particular degree of anger that means a man is in conflict. I did not at once fall in love with him. At the start, what I loved was his loving me so much: a nice change after my second husband, Gottfried. The way I saw this – felt this – was that now I was ready for the right man: my ‘mistakes’ were over, and I was settled in London, where I intended to stay. All my experiences had programmed me for domesticity. I might now tell myself – and quite rightly – that I had never been ‘really’ married to Frank Wisdom, but for four years we had a conventional marriage. Gottfried and I had hardly been well matched, but we had lived conventionally enough. The law and society saw me as a woman who had had two marriages and two divorces. I felt that these marriages did not count. I had been too young, too immature. The fact that the bouncy, affectionate, almost casual relationship I had had with Frank was hardly unusual – particularly in those war years, when people married far too easily – did not mean I did not aspire to better. With Gottfried it had been a political marriage. I would not have married Gottfried if the internment camp was not still a threat. Then, people were always marrying to give someone a name, a passport, a place; in London there were organizations for precisely this – to rescue threatened people from Europe. But now, in these luckier times, people have forgotten that such marriages were hardly uncommon. No, my real emotional life was all before me. And I had all the talents needed for intimacy. I was born to live companionably – and passionately – with the right man, and here he was.
Jack had been one of thirteen children, the youngest, of a very poor family in Czechoslovakia. He had had to walk miles to school and back – just like Africans now in many parts of Africa. They scarcely had enough to eat or to cover themselves with. This was a common enough story, then, in Europe and in some parts of Britain too: people don’t want to remember the frightful poverty in Britain in the twenties and thirties. Jack had become a communist in his early teens, like all his schoolfellows. He was a real communist, for whom the Party was a home, a family, the future, his deepest and sanest self. He wasn’t at all like me who had had choices. When I met him, his closest friends in Czechoslovakia, the friends of his youth, the top leadership of the Czech Communist Party, had just been made to stand in the eyes of the world as traitors to communism, and then eleven of them were hanged, Stalin the invisible stage manager. For Jack it had been as if the foundations of the world had collapsed. It was impossible for these old friends to have been traitors, and he did not believe it. On the other hand, it was impossible for the Party to have made a mistake. He had nightmares, he wept in his sleep. Like Gottfried Lessing. Again I shared a bed with a man who woke from nightmares.
That was the second cataclysmic event of his life. His entire family – mother, father, and all his siblings, except one sister who had escaped to America – had died in the gas chambers.
This story is a terrible one. It was terrible then, but taken in the context of that time, not worse than many others. In 1950 in London, everybody I met had come out of the army from battlefields in Burma, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, had been present when the concentration camps were opened, had fought in the Spanish war or was a refugee and had survived horrors. With my background, the trenches and the nastiness of the First World War dinned into me day and night through my childhood, Jack’s story was felt by me as a continuation: Well, what can you expect?
We understood each other well. We had everything in common. Now I assess the situation in a way I would then have found ‘cold’. I look at a couple and I think, Are they suited emotionally . . . physically . . . mentally? Jack and I were suited in all three ways, but perhaps most emotionally, sharing a natural disposition towards the grimmest understanding of life and events that in its less severe manifestations is called irony. It was our situations, not our natures, that were incompatible. I was ready to settle down for ever with this man. He had just come back from the war, to find his wife, whom he had married long years before, a stranger, and children whom he hardly knew.
It is a commonplace among psychiatrists that a young woman who has been close to death, has cut her wrists too often, or has been threatened by parents, must buy clothes, be obsessed with clothes and with the ordering of her appearance, puzzling observers with what seems like a senseless profligacy. It is life she is keeping in order.
And a man who has been running a step ahead of death for years–if Jack had stayed in Czechoslovakia it is likely he would have been hanged as a traitor, together with his good friends, if he hadn’t already perished in the gas chambers – such a man will be forced by a hundred powerful needs to sleep with women, have women, assert life, make life, move on.
In no way can I – or could I then – accuse Jack of letting me down, for he never promised anything. On the contrary, short of actually saying, ‘I am sleeping with other women; I have no intention of marrying you,’ he said it all. Often joking. But I wasn’t listening. What I felt was: When we get on so wonderfully in every possible way, then it isn’t sensible for him to go away from me. I wasn’t able to think at all; the emotional realities were too powerful. I think this is quite common with women. ‘Really, this man is talking nonsense, he doesn’t know what is right for him. And besides, he says himself his marriage is no marriage at all. And obviously it can’t be, when he is here most nights.’ How easy to be intelligent now, how impossible then.
Impossible to describe a writer’s life, for the real part of it cannot be written down. How did my day go in those early days in London, in Church Street? I woke at five, when the child did. He came into my bed, and I told or read stories or rhymes. We got dressed, he ate, and then I took him to the school up the street. But soon I put him on the bus, and he took himself the two stops to the school. I suppose now one couldn’t do this. I shopped a little, and then my real day began. The feverish need to get this or that done – what I call the housewife’s disease: ‘I must buy this, ring so-and-so, don’t forget this, make a note of that’ – had to be subdued to the flat, dull state one needs to write in. Sometimes I achieved it by sleeping for a few minutes, praying that the telephone would be silent. Sleep has always been my friend, my restorer, my quick fix, but it was in those days that I learned the value of a few minutes’ submersion in . . . where? And you emerge untangled, quiet, dark, ready for work.
Often when Peter went to the Eichners’ in the country for a few days or the weekend, or my mother had taken him off somewhere, I simply went to bed, sliding into that restorative underwater state where you lie limp, rising towards the surface, just reaching it, sinking, rising . . . You are not really conscious when you are reaching wakefulness, and the sleep itself is lightened by the half-knowledge you are asleep. An hour . . . a day even, if I had become too frenetic. As I grew older, and became cleverer at managing my emotional economy, I began to wonder if the condition of being awake accumulates some kind of substance, which jangles and vibrates, making you tense and sharp, and that this is exaggerated a hundred times if you are writing: but even a few minutes’ sleep, the merest dip into that other dimension, dissolves it, leaving you calm again, newborn.
And now, on the little table that has been cleared of breakfast things, replaced by scattered sheets of paper, is the typewriter, waiting for me. Work begins. I do not sit down but wander about the room. I think on my feet, while I wash up a cup, tidy a drawer, drink a cup of tea, but my mind is not on these activities. I find myself in the chair by the machine. I write a sentence . . . will it stand? But never mind, look at it later, just get on with it, get the flow started. And so it goes on. I walk and I prowl, my hands busy with this and that. You’d think I was a paragon of concern for housekeeping if you judged by what you saw. I drop off into sleep for a few minutes, because I have wrought myself into a state of uncomfortable electric tension. I walk, I write. If the telephone rings I try to answer it without breaking the concentration. And so it goes on, all day, until it is time to fetch the child from school or until he arrives at the door.
This business of the physical as a road into concentration: you see painters doing it. They wander about the studio, apparently at random. They clean a brush. They throw away another. They prepare a canvas, but you can see their minds are elsewhere. They stare out of the window. They make a cup of coffee. They stand for a long time in front of the canvas, the brush on the alert in their hands. At last, it begins: the work.
There are no attempts to write when the child is there, for that only results in irritation on both sides. He is read to, we play board games. He listens to the radio, grown-up plays as well as the children’s programmes. Supper. If Joan or Ernest are there he goes down to see them. He is put to bed at eight, but he has never been a sleeper, and he will lie awake until nine or so – later. Meanwhile Jack arrives. We eat. We talk. Jack works very hard at the Maudsley Hospital. This is the leading psychiatric hospital in Britain, and it is a time of ferment and discovery. Many psychiatric beliefs and practices we now take for granted were being established then. Jack was the kind of doctor probably now obsolete. He illustrated the Maudsley theories and practices, or incidents with patients, with comparisons from music – for he knew a good deal about music – or from composers’ lives, or incidents from literature. A poor man from London’s East End would be matched with a character from Dostoevsky, a mad girl with a story from opera. He suffered over the sufferings of his patients. He was often dubious about the experiments that went on. He described, for instance, experiments in hypnosis. If you take someone – anyone – hypnotize them and ask them to say what happened let’s say on the second of May in some far-off year, when this person was ten years old, or twenty, they will come up with a complete account of that day: ‘I woke in a bad mood, I quarrelled with my husband, I went to the shops, I cooked supper . . . ‘ and so on. It is all stored in the mind somewhere. What we call memory is a tiny part of what is in our brains, and it is easy to think of it as a kind of overspill from the full, real record. ‘What right have we to intrude into another person’s mind like this?’ He told me how he stood in front of him a line of people chosen at random and went along the line, snapping his fingers, and – ‘They’re out! Just like that! You can do what you like with them. No human being should be treated like that.’ He was always saying that human beings should not be treated like this, or like that. He may have been a communist, had been a Stalinist, was still, he said, a Marxist, but he was an old-fashioned humanist, and that was true of all communists with the literary tradition in their blood.
And then we went to bed. The dark, and love.
In the morning he was often off as the child woke. ‘I have to pick up a clean shirt from home,’ was the formula.
‘You could always keep your clean shirts here.’
‘Now come on – why should you have the bother of my shirts?’
This exchange, archetypical between man and mistress, went on, in one form or another, for the four years we were together.
So that’s the outline of a day. But nowhere in it is there the truth of the process of writing. I fall back on that useful word ‘wool-gathering’. And this goes on when you are shopping, cooking, anything. You are reading but find the book has lowered itself: you are wool-gathering. The creative dark. Incommunicable. And what about the pages discarded and thrown away, the stories that were misbegotten – into the waste-paper basket, the ideas that lived in your mind for a day or two, or a week, but haven’t any life, so out with them. What life, what is it, why is one page alive and another not, what is this aliveness, which is born so very deep, out of sight, fed by love? But describing a day like this: I got up, the child went to school, I wrote, he came back, and the next day was the same – that is hardly the stuff that keeps the reader turning pages.
Like all authors, I survived from cheque to cheque. Joan did not mind my weekly rent being paid two weeks or three weeks late. Once, the debt ran on until it was five weeks overdue, and this made me sick with worry, because she did not have much money either. These little sharp memories correct generalizations, like: ‘Having no money did not worry me.’ (I was actually saying this for a time.) There were times when I was worried, all right. I was walking down Church Street, having dropped the child at school, and I was crying because I couldn’t buy food. A man walked rapidly up the street towards me, stopped, and said, Why are you crying? I said, I haven’t any money. He said, Well, cheer up; you will have by this time next week, won’t you? This being true enough, since money always did turn up from somewhere, I did cheer up. I sold my mother’s jewellery. Giving me her heavy gold chain, her gold brooch, her gold bracelets, some Victorian trinkets, was a ritual: mothers hand on their good jewellery to their daughters. I did not want it, asked her to keep it, but she insisted. When I took it to the jeweller’s I was positively asking to be cheated, to be done down, so low was my morale. The jewellery was not fashionable. I remember even pointing this out, apologetically. I was paid less than thirty shillings for what ten years later, when Victoriana became fashionable, would be worth hundreds of pounds. Similarly, I had a Victorian sewing table, from my aunt Daisy. It was very pretty, full of little drawers, fretwork compartments, padded pin-and-needle cushions – a gem of a piece. There was an antique shop downstairs. I begged them to buy it. They refused, said there was no market for it. Soon it was worth a lot of money.
The vicissitudes of a writer’s life mean complicated tax returns. One year I had no money to pay tax. The year before I had earned well. The income tax official came, was sympathetic, but it was no good: I had to pay it. How I don’t remember. Probably I asked for books to review. I don’t think there were allowances then for women in my position – a child, and no support from the father. Even if there had been, I would have scorned to take them; a question of pride.
If you are thinking, But you had a lover; why didn’t he help? I always paid my way with Jack. It was a question of principle. Besides, he had a wife and family to support. Yet, if this was poverty, I can’t remember really going without anything much, pining for something I couldn’t afford.
And we ate well. Joan and I both cooked wonderful meals and invited each other. I made good use of that standby for people during hard times, the soup-stew which was continually added to and became better as the days passed.
Sometimes I must have despaired, though, because I applied for a secretary’s job in Mayfair. Seven pounds a week. I said to the employer that it wasn’t a living wage, and he said apologetically: ‘I am afraid we expect them to live at home.’
I sent short stories to the New Yorker, sold them two, neither of them my best. Nadine Gordimer had had a short story accepted, told them to look out for me (we had not then met). I sent back a batch they had just returned, and they took one.
From the time I met him, I was under pressure from Jack to get myself my own place. ‘You are a big girl now.’ He said Joan bossed me about, but I knew his attitude to Joan was to do with some ‘unresolved conflict’ of his own. The ways in which I had or had not turned Joan into my mother were of course discussed with Mrs Sussman. I thought Jack missed the point, which was that it was good for Peter to be in Joan’s house, for he loved her, and she him, and Ernest was as good as an older brother. Surely Jack could see this. He was a psychiatrist, wasn’t he? This was truly naive, but in those early days psychoanalysts and psychiatrists were considered infallible or at least given credit for insights in ways that would be impossible now: we know they are mere human beings, like the rest of us.
Now, there is no woman in the world whose lover urges her into leaving all others to find a place of her own who does not feel what he says, even if her mind is saying something else, as a promise. I was seeing less of Jack than I had. I thought I would see more of him when I achieved my own place.
I was missing the essential thing. It was not only me but other woman friends of his who were being told they must get their own homes. This was a man who had been very poor all his childhood, in a country and culture where security was a chimera. For a poor person, the first step into security is a roof over one’s head. Decades later, when I was involved with some very poor old women, I heard all the time: ‘a roof over my head’; ‘I got a roof over my head’; ‘You must keep the roof over your head’. Jack’s advice to everyone was to find a house or flat in an unfashionable area, get a mortgage, and be sure there is enough space to let a room or two, which will cover expenses. This is the recipe for survival in hard times. But I had never thought like that, had moved so many times in my life I could no longer remember when or where, felt nervous at the thought of staying in one place. I had been at Joan’s for four years – 1950–1954.
It was not that I had not tried. I had been urged to buy a vast house in Blenheim Crescent, in bad repair, going for £2,500, ludicrously cheap even then. I asked the bank manager for a loan, but he said that house prices were so unreasonably high they were bound to fall, and he would not advise his wife or his daughter to make such a terrible mistake. Experts. (For a time I kept a file, ‘Experts’, but I lost it in one of the moves.) If he had given me this loan, my years-long, decades-long worries over getting and keeping a roof over my head would have ended right at the beginning of my time in London.
Suddenly there was a telephone call from Pamela Hansford Johnson at Michael Joseph, who asked me why I had not put in for the Somerset Maugham Award. It was then £400, with the proviso that it had to be spent travelling for at least three months. This was because Somerset Maugham felt that English writers were provincial, knew only England, and should travel. It was before the tourist explosion. I said that since I had been brought up outside the country, I thought I didn’t qualify. Never mind that, said she. She was always kind to younger writers. (In my experience, older writers are kind to the young ones.) And so I won the Somerset Maugham Award, but I had to promise to spend the £400 out of Britain. This was like being handed an apple when you are starving and told to eat it next month. I needed that £400 badly. This proviso of Maugham’s taught me that if you are going to give something, then don’t make conditions. Previous recipients, also desperate for a roof over their heads, or to eat, had cheated. One had fulfilled the letter of the law by putting the money in a bank and travelling round Italy for three months with his guitar, singing for his supper and sleeping rough. Or with kindly girls.
There was a flat going in Warwick Road, controlled rent, for £250. It was large enough to let rooms. I gave this sum as a deposit to an Australian mother and daughter going back home. I was getting all their furniture, ‘such as it is’, included. I would go to Paris for a month. Peter would go to the Eichners’ for a month, my mother and Joan would cope for a month. Then in his holidays, I would take him to the Mediterranean for a month.
Jack was with me when the telephone call came that I had won the Somerset Maugham prize. I was afraid to tell him – rightly, as it turned out – for he at once exclaimed, ‘And that’s it, that’s the end.’ It came from his depths, from his deep dark male depths. I was so shocked. I was so frightened. I expostulated. I begged. I appealed for justice, but that was the end, and I knew it.
‘You don’t love me; you only care about your writing.’
I am sure there is not one woman writer, ever, at any time in the world’s history, who has not heard these words from her man.
It was unjust. Far from being like George Sand, who rose from the bed of love to write all night by candlelight, while her lover lay alone, I never put writing before love, or before Jack; was infinitely amenable to any suggestions from him, giving up any writing plans for him; and in short was like Jane Austen, writing . . . well, if not under the cover of a blotter, then only when he was not around or expected. But we do touch here on something deeper. A woman writer, putting love before literature, when love lets her down will then make literature out of love. ‘Well, whose fault is it!’
I put myself in a cheap hotel on the Left Bank and set myself to spend as little money as possible. Twenty-five – that’s the age for Paris; young, fancy-free, unworried. I was in my mid-thirties. I spent my days writing, but I was not living the life of a writer in Paris. I sat in cafés trying to understand the talk around me, got into clumsy conversations with strangers but made no attempt to make friends. I was low and sad, and worried, waiting for Jack to arrive, when he would see that I was not having mad passionate love affairs with all and sundry. It is no good saying now I wish I had – what a waste of Paris! Jack came for a weekend. There could scarcely have been a more misused visit to Paris than that one, but it cost very little, which was the point. Then Peter arrived, by plane, and we went down to St-Maxime for the other month. I found an extremely cheap room at the bottom of a house, large and cool, with nothing in it but a couple of mattresses on the floor, two hard chairs, and an electric plate. Small black ants were everywhere. I have never been more bored in my life, but the child, of course, loved every second, because we were out on the beach from six or seven till the sun went down. We ate picnics in our room. There were other children, but they were French and not interested in an English boy. The much reprinted and anthologized story ‘Through the Tunnel’ comes from that holiday, so you could say it paid for itself. Also a little sour story called ‘Pleasure’, about enjoying oneself.
Back in London, it was time to move. Mrs Sussman was supporting me. She always did. I do know how lucky I was to find her, having since seen in action therapists who do more harm than good. She told me, when I said I was worried about Jack, whom I was seeing so much less of, just as I was preparing to share a home with him, ‘But you are married to him.’ I will skip reflections on what being really married means. But probably he was married to more than one of us, apart from his wife. Like me, he had a talent for intimacy. The Shona people say that it may take years for a man and a woman to be really married. By definition, that must mean: within a framework of polygamy.
Going to Mrs Sussman twice or thrice a week, which I did for about three years, saved me. I knew that then; it has not taken the passing of time to tell me. She was a friend. Perhaps if I had had a good older friend, I would not have needed Mrs Sussman. I didn’t care about the ideologies – Freud, Jung and so forth. When she started ‘interpreting’ according to whichever creed it was, I waited for her to finish. For one thing, I had always been at home in these realms.
Joan reached me where it hurt when she said moving would be bad for Peter. I knew that, but the flat was too small. By then he was a vigorous boy of eight. He needed more room. But what he needed most was a father, and Ernest was at least a big brother.
Before leaving Joan’s I wrote to Somerset Maugham, thanking him for the £400. I got a grudging letter back, saying that, first, he had nothing to do with the choosing of prizewinners and, two, he had never read anything I had written and, three, no one before me had ever written to thank him. So much for good manners. ‘You must always write bread-and-butter letters saying thank you.’ Or, ‘Doddis is a good little baba.’ (Under My Skin). This letter from Maugham hurt. It was meant to. But I owed him a roof over my head.
Warwick Road, SW5
The flat was in Warwick Road, a singularly ugly street, where lorries thundered all day and most of the night. It consisted of a large kitchen, a very large living room, and upstairs two decent bedrooms and two small ones. A ‘maisonette’. This was the first place I could call mine, of all the many rooms, flats, houses I had lived in. It was all brown wood and cream paint, twenty years later to be the last word in chic, but then the very essence of dowdy provincialism. I could not have lived with it. I painted it white, all of it, and that took two-and-a-half months. I balanced on ladders, and window sills, on contraptions of ladders and chairs and planks, even over stairwells: I now shudder to think of what I did. A painter dropping in from downstairs, hearing that this female was usurping his place in the economy, looked at the paint rollers, just invented, and said no decent workman would use such rubbish. ‘No one can do a good job with rollers.’ Experts.
The furniture that came with the flat was quite awful. I painted some of it. I put up cheap but pretty curtains. I dyed the ancient carpet green. A friend told me the other day that when she came into the flat and saw I had a black cover on the bed she was shocked. But it was red, surely? I remember dyeing a ‘brocade’ bedcover dark red. At first I took one of the tiny rooms as a bedroom, but then when Jack ditched me, I moved downstairs, and the big living room was where I slept, worked, lived.
When I went into this flat or ‘maisonette’, which was really like a little house, was my approach much different from someone conquering a bit of wilderness? This flat was mine. I was not renting a corner in someone else’s home. We put our mark on new houses, flats, with curtains, colours, furniture, but I did not have the money for all that. What I hung at the windows was not what I would have chosen. It was the dazzling skin of white over every inch of the walls that was my mark. I had thought my kitchen was mine – blue linoleum floor, white woodwork, a red wallpaper – but Jack stood in it, smiling, and said, ‘What a colour box! You share more than you know with my wife. She’s got the same wallpaper in her kitchen.’ In those days there wasn’t so much choice as now, not hundreds of possible kitchen wallpapers, so this was not really so surprising. But deflating, yes.
I could not have afforded this flat without letting a room, at least when I began. The rent was very low, but no one could let such rooms these days, even in the provinces. There were merely adequate beds, dressing tables and wardrobes; painted board floors, everything bright and cheap. The bathroom and lavatory were shared. Peter had one of the big rooms. There was a succession of tenants: I had entered that world of the lost, the lonely, the misfits, the waifs and strays that drift from one let room to another in big cities. It was a nasty experience. It didn’t help that I was a youngish woman, by myself. My highest social point as a landlady was when a couple of minor diplomats from the French Embassy took a big room and a small one. They were charming, affectionate in the caressing French man-to-woman way, and that was certainly good for my morale. They brought me flowers, offered to do all kinds of little jobs I found difficult, like moving heavy furniture. They were good to Peter. They were fascists – I mean, real ones. This was when the French were fighting the rearguard action in Vietnam, and they called the Vietnamese little brown scared bunnies. The two handsome young men staged a rabbit hunt through the four rooms upstairs, frightening Peter because they were violent and vicious, though they were making a joke of it. They were anti-Semitic, in a conventional way. They complained about the black people in the streets: ‘They should go back where they came from.’ So depressing was this experience of letting rooms that after a few months I decided I would chance it and live on what came in, hoping it would be enough. It was, more or less.
Peter was not happy. He had done well at his first school, had enjoyed it, or seemed to, and when it came to choosing the next school, I thought, Well, why not stay with what has worked well up till now? Most of the children from the junior school moved up to its senior school, which was next door, near Notting Hill Gate. Peter at once became sullen and miserable and was at the bottom of the class. Then he said the headmaster had beaten him. No one had ever so much as smacked him before. I went to see the headmaster, who was an unpleasant little bully. He said, Spare the rod, spoil the child, and called Peter ‘Lessing the Blessing’. I knew that Peter was earning – far from the last time in his life – punishments for being my son. The children of the successful can have a hard time of it. He made drawling envious remarks about my books. The worst thing about this man was his cold, sarcastic, cutting voice, the voice which, when I was a child, shrivelled me up. There followed two unsuccessful schools. I thought that this most gregarious child was suffering from being so much of the time alone with me; he still did not sleep until nine or ten, still woke at five or six. He went to a school as a weekly boarder, coming home at weekends, but he hated it. He hated Warwick Road, as much as I did. During the time I had lodgers he was resentful and suspicious of them. He was used to a household with a lively family atmosphere – Joan’s – and now he had to be quiet for fear of disturbing these strangers who were in his home. I made a mistake and refused to buy a television, though he begged for one. Bad enough, I thought, the ‘comics’ which he read for hours every day. So he used to go after school to friends’ houses to watch their television. We became engaged in a battle of wills on this and it seems on every other issue. I knew that what he needed was a father. When Gottfried dropped him, just like that, and he was so unhappy, I made a point of creating a picture of Gottfried as a brave, heroic figure fighting for the poor and dispossessed. This was hardly the truth, but I believed it would be bad for the child to know too much about the failures of communism. I made up stories about how he – Peter – and Gottfried tackled all kinds of difficult and dangerous situations, from solving housing problems in slum areas to fighting landlords (this was the time of the landlord Rachman whose name is still synonymous with the wicked exploitation of tenants) or routing whole divisions of Nazi soldiers. Later, in his teens, when Peter went to visit Gottfried, he found that his father was vilifying me in every way he could and that he had been doing so for years.
There was a child in the flat downstairs for a while, a boy Peter’s age. The parents hoped the children would be friends, as parents so often do, but they did not like each other. One day this happened: I had started Peter off on a stamp album; we bought stamps, sent for stamps, he swapped stamps. The little boy downstairs took the album and stole half the stamps. Peter was miserable, in that frantic resentful way of children who feel themselves trapped by circumstances. I asked the mother to get the stamps back for Peter, but all she said was: ‘Poor little boy’ – meaning her son. Peter was hurt by the injustice of it, and I felt an only too familiar cold discouragement – that so often things went wrong for him and I could not put them right.
I will leave this theme here. Women who have brought up a son without a father will know how difficult it is, and those without the experience will have no idea of it. One may easily describe a single dramatic event – like a traveller arriving at the door with a present for Peter from his father, a plastic whale, for instance, but there was no word from his father, no letter, nothing. One may describe the pain of that for the child, his bewilderment and the mother’s anger, but not the day-in, day-out slog of it all, trying to be what is impossible, a father as well as a mother.
When Jack finally left me, we were in Paris. He was going to some hospital abroad somewhere. I knew he had arranged it to break with me. We both knew this was the end but were saying things like: ‘Well, it’s only six months.’ He was off to the airport, but he went with me to the ticket office at the station, where I would buy my ticket back to London. We embraced. He left. I stood immobilized, tears flooding. The young man at the window made sympathetic noises. No queue. Seeing I had a packet of Gitanes in my hand, he nipped out from his little office, put a cigarette in my mouth, lit it, clicked his tongue, Tsk-tsk, patted me, said ‘Pauvre petite‘ several times, and nipped back to serve a customer. When I finally was able to ask for a ticket, he said love was a very serious matter, but cheer up, I’d find another lover soon.
It was very bad. The ‘affair’, which had lasted four years, was in fact a marriage, more of one than either of my two legal marriages. I had been uncooked, raw, not involved with more than a small part of myself. But with this man, it had been all or nothing. How absurd that was: he had never ever said he would marry me, made any promises. And yet I had been committed to him. This was the most serious love in my life. So little did he understand how it was for me that he turned up later, three times in all, the last being in the Seventies, to say that since we had done so well, we should start again. And with a look at the bed. That was where we understood each other . . . But surely in a good many other ways too? In Under My Skin I describe leaving two small children, and I earned criticism for not going into what I felt about it. It seemed to me obvious that I was bound to be unhappy, and any intelligent reader would understand that without ritual beatings of the breast. Now I feel the same. There is no one who hasn’t suffered over love at some time, and so it should be enough to say that being thrown over by this man was bad for me. It was the worst. I was unhappy for a long time. Men fell in love with me, but it was no good, I could not care for them. And then I did something foolish, after misguided reflection. My two marriages I did not think of as having been chosen by me: the first was because of the approach of war, always as good as a marriage broker, the second was a political marriage. My great love, with Jack, had ended badly. Why did I not do as people have been doing for centuries – choose a man for compatibility, similarity of tastes and ideas (at that time these had to include politics)? Among the men interested in me was one who could not have fitted the bill better, as well as being amiable with Peter, who liked him. We embarked on an affair. This was a bad experience for him. He was in love with me, but seriously, and I had to bring the thing to an end. I felt suffocated by him. There was no rational reason, and I have never understood it. We’d meet, with pleasure, talk, walk, go for a meal, I found him delightful – and then it would begin, an irritable need to escape, get away; and in bed it was the same, though on the face of it there was nothing wrong. I couldn’t breathe. It had never happened to me before, and it hasn’t happened since. I was shocked at myself for letting him in for such pain, because he was badly hurt by it.
You have to be grown up, really grown up, not merely in years, to understand your parents. I was middle-aged when it occurred to me that I had never known my father, as he really was, as he would have been, without that terrible war. Young, he was optimistic and robust, played football, played cricket and billiards for his county, walked and – what he enjoyed most – danced at all the dances for miles around, thought nothing of walking ten miles to a dance, dancing all night, walking back again. The war had killed that young man and left a sombre, irascible man, soon to become a semi-invalid, and then a very ill man. If I had ever met that young Alfred Tayler, would I have recognized him? And, similarly, my mother. Yes, I knew that the war had done her in too, not least because it killed the great love of her life, so that in the end she married one of its victims – and spent the rest of her life nursing him. But it took me a long time to see something else. This was the girl who had defied her father to become a nurse, standing up to years of his refusal even to speak to her. This was the woman who impressed everyone she met by her vigour, her competence, her independence, her humour. I cannot imagine that had I met the young Emily Maude McVeagh I would have had much to say to her, but I would have had to admire her.
I think what happened was this: when she arrived on the Rhodesian farm, which was still virgin bush, with not so much as a field cleared on it, not a house or farm building – nothing; when she knew that this would be her future, a lonely one, because of her neighbours, with whom she had nothing in common; when she knew that the forward drive of her life, which had been towards some form of conventional middle-class living, was blocked; when she knew her husband was an invalid and would not be able to keep his grasp on life; when she knew that nothing she had hoped for could ever happen – then she had a breakdown and took to her bed. But words like ‘breakdown’ and ‘depression’ were not used then as they are now: people could be suffering from neurasthenia, or low spirits. She said she had a bad heart and probably believed it, as she lay in bed with her heart pounding from anxiety, looking out over the African bush, where she would never ever feel at home. She lay there for months, saying to her little children, ‘Poor mummy, poor sick mummy,’ begging for their love and sympathy, and that was so unlike her it should have given me reason to think. And then she got out of bed, because she had to. But who got out of that bed? Not the young Emily Maude (she had become Maude by then, the Emily had gone – she had dropped her mother’s name). A woman who kept telling her children she had sacrificed her life for them, that they were ungrateful and unfeeling and . . . all the litany of reproaches that are the stock-in-trade of the female martyr. A creature I am sure she would have hated and despised when being herself and still young – and undamaged by war.
She went back to Southern Rhodesia, after four disappointing years in England, told her son and his wife that she would devote her life to them, and her daughter-in-law said to her son, Either her or me. And she began on a round of visits to friends. In the letters she wrote, she said, I hope I shall make myself useful; I don’t want to be a burden.
Photograph © Ben Brooksbank, Shepherds Bush Road at Hammersmith Broadway, 1959