From the old stone house where I was born were views of the mountains with snow on them, and of the dusty plains that surround the little town. A high dry place. My mother said that the washing, put out to dry at eight in the morning was dry long before lunchtime. The outside world was present inside the house itself, in the person of a young American sharing the house with us. He was an oil man. “There were a lot of oil men around then”. Thus did the future announce itself. It was his voice I remember but overlaid by probably a hundred American voices since.
It was 1919 when I was born. Many decades later a book came into my hands of the kind you see on “remaindered” boxes, or – once – second hand bookshops. It was written by a British “businessman”, obviously an agent, or spy of some kind. He was ambling through Persia, through tribes and villages, sheep and shepherds. Long ago did this Persia disappear. He thoroughly enjoyed it all, and they were fascinated by him, this exotic from the outside world, and he was so interested in them, asking so many questions. He wrote about Kermanshah, where he said, the 1918−1919 flu epidemic took its toll. And the war had blown through there too. My parents had plentiful reminisces about those two years in Kermanshah, but nothing was said about the flu or the refugees from war.
There is one memory, indubitably from that time. My father rode to work at the bank, (The Imperial Bank of Persia) on a horse. Every morning I was lifted up, grasped by my father’s hands on my ribs, to be put before him. I rode with him a short way, before he turned off onto a big road. Now, all that I remember is strong, even violent. First of all, the smell of horse, and then the slippery heat of the horse’s hide under my palms. The heat of the horse on my legs. My father had his arm around me, and I leaned back into him. The smell of his jacket, the faintly smoky smell of tweed. And inside the tweed, the straps that went across his body and over his shoulder, to hold the wooden leg in position. The leg, responded with a hollow knock if you kicked it, was a legacy from the war – the Trenches.
When you see some little sprite of a girl or a little boy absorbed in his toy, you are seeing beings assaulted by storms of sensory inputs. In front of my father, I held tight – “Hold her tight, don’t let her fall” – various female voices, irritants in this storm of smells, noises, sounds. We were going slowly towards the big gates, the horse moving awkwardly under me, my father’s wooden leg straps poking into my back. The moment I was set down from the horse, I knew my father would set off on a trot and then a gallop. How I longed to be there still. But no. It was a slow walk, and my father’s voice, just behind me, cajoled the horse, “Gently there, slow there…”
And as for what the little child you see there eats… Unless some late reversal of your taste buds allows you, every adult forgets what it is a small child tastes, what it has in its mouth – explosions of taste.
If I want to know what some small child is experiencing, I make myself remember that slow ride on my father’s horse, gripped tight by my father. The smell of horse in itself is a giddying intoxicant.
Some memories have to be cherished, held tight, kept as reminders.
That was my best memory of my first two years, that and the smell that comes back at the words market, bazaar, a warm spicy smell, and the cries and commands in the other language.
And then there was Tehran, and I have so many memories, but one chief one, which is the birth of my brother.
No doubt this is a real memory, because everything is high around me, the loo handle miles above my head, my father who is ill, in a version of couvade, is on a high bed and I can scarcely see him. I am touching the frills of a cot, by reaching up my hand to them. My mother, tall and powerful, is standing by the cot with a baby, and urging me, saying “And this is your baby” and “Now you must love it.” Well, it was not my baby, but I did indeed love it. This little scene was a motivator for the rest of my emotional life. Not till I wrote, late in my life, Mara and Dann, about how a small girl loves and guards her small brother, did I remember just how powerful was that injunction. “And now you must love him.” But the lie there, “This is your baby,” well, I never forgot that. Mistrust of bad faith, Trust once lost is not easily regained.
The three years in Tehran are a gallery of memories, but I will use three.
The little children are carried out to see the full moon, the stars. I lisped out the words for moon, stars, doubtless a dear little thing, but later when I was a horrible teenager, under another sky, other moons and stars, my father barked at me, “You were such lovely little things, with your ‘mun, mun,’ your ‘stars,’ but look at you now, who would believe you were ever such a pretty little thing.” I did see his point, yes, and I did leave home about then, fifteen or so, I was.
If the moon and the stars were what every proud parent wants to show his little children, the next memory is fit for a treatise on nursery psychology. We are in the nursery in Tehran, I and my brother, undressing for bed, and I say to him, “What’s that you’ve got there.” And I point at his male equipment. Yet I have been familiar with my brother’s sexual endowment for years, since he was born in fact. Yet, it seems, I only now notice it. “What’s that you’ve got there?” And my brother, aged three, perhaps, four, pushes out his front, and points it at me. “Mine” he says, “it’s mine.” “My pee place is better that your pee place,” I claim, vainly trying to make something impressive of my cleft. “It’s mine, mine” said Harry, making of his penis a little bow, which he releases, at me. “You haven’t got anything,” he asserts. This scene I put into my novel The Cleft, as a key moment in the lives of those two little children. And of course we have all witnessed something similar if we have had any connection at all with nursery life. Surely a scene that must recur again and again, an exemplary Scene.
Then, from many memories one that is fit for the educationalists. It is winter, my mother has made a cat in snow, much more than life-size. It sits on its base of a box, draped in cloth, where snow is making patterns. The cat is sitting with its fore paws down, and it is looking out from green shiny eyes, a potent figure in the falling snow.
I am entranced, bewitched by this white cat. His eyes follow me, I cry “Look he is looking at me.” And the cat does look, through the falling snow, which glitters. “Don’t be silly” says my mother, “It’s only bits of green stone.” And she whisks out the cats eyes, one, two, shows me the bright green pebbles – and puts them back in.
Somewhere in a Tehran garden are lying two green pebbles, that were once a white cat’s eyes, shining through falling snow.
Other memories – oh many, but then I am getting on for five, and the family is leaving Tehran, and we are going to get to England via Moscow. There is a train from the Caspian to Moscow. For those Edwardians, my parents, a train means dining cars and conductors, something safe and regulated, not dangerous, for my mother wasn’t going to take her precious little children through the Red Sea in all that heat.
And now the memories are a river, a flood. First that train journey through Russia, on a train recently a troop train, dirty, with torn seats, needing applications of insect powder. No food on the train. My mother leaped down at the stations to buy hardboiled eggs and pies from the peasant women. She was left behind on a station, and then, without a word of Russian, she stopped the next train, commandeered it and caught up with our train the next day: panic, even terror. Never will I forget those stations, each crowded with raggedy hungry children, who had lost parents in the Civil War. It was possible for children not to have a mother, a father? More panic. And each station crowded with people and children who saw our dilapidated train as a promise of food and safety. Then Moscow, a real hotel and then a boat through the Baltic States. Years later I was in Riga, saw the little park where I played with my brother but it had been war damaged (like Kermanshah in the Iran war, like Zimbabwe years later). And the hotel was there but are those memories really mine or clips from a Bergman film. His films love wide hotel corridors, not like nowadays, into which may come a dwarf, strolling players, a kind of old man beckoning one into amazing secrets…
England. I loathed it. Not a false memory. I had come from high, dry sunlit Persia where there was snow on the mountains. And now – one memory sums it all up. A fishmonger’s slab, with its dead staring fish, and over them weakly clambers a black lobster, “looking for the sea” someone says, “Yes, it’s not going to find the sea again,” and the grey rain falling – six months of England.
The boat, the sea voyage. My mother liked the captain, and they had jolly times, while poor father, very sea sick, lay on his bunk.
At evening they danced and dined, and I wanting to join in was told that I wouldn’t enjoy it. Of course I would enjoy it. I behaved badly to punish my mother for her lie. I tried to cut up her evening dresses with a little pair of nail scissors. I went on behaving badly during a journey lit with marvels… “Look at that, look at the ostriches!” There they were, highstepping it across some sandy flat, and then after so much wicked behaviour on my part, and I was on the wagon (a covered wagon, like on the films) where I lay at night and watched the hurricane lamp swaying where it hung from the canvas, and beyond that the bush and the noises of the night.
What about that house, the building of it… It was very quick, building that house. You dig a trench, insert poles cut from the bush, tie them with the wonderfully smelling apricot coloured “bush rope,” the fleshy underbark of the Mususa tree, you slap handfuls of mud on to the poles, cover it all with sheaves of fragrant new cut grass, doors and windows appear, and there is the house, which soon we occupied.
Of course there were minor setbacks, like all the family getting married, not once, but twice.
I could rhapsodise, which I tend to do, secretly, remembering prize moments, about the warm glow of the oil lamps on the white shed walls, and the gleaming thatch.
But now I suppose must begin that adventure which was my life, shall I dwell on the horrors of the convent school, where I was so unhappy, nothing in my life could ever be as bad.
Much better the times in the bush, where I was so often, by myself or with my brother.
The point of these memories is that they are beyond reach, now for as far away as “Scenes from the Boer War” might be for my parents. It was virgin bush, our farm, full of the animals born to be there. The elephants had gone, and the lions, but all the rest were there, and wandering out in the early morning just down the hill a few paces, I might see Kudu, the eland, the little duiker, a porcupine, snakes, the little bush monkeys some people made into pets and which might flit across the rafters of our house at night.
I would stand outside my room and look down on the backs of hunting hawks, as they soared over the maize fields.
These animals are in game parks now.
The birds are always fewer and fewer. Whites and blacks, are too much for the animals and birds who once said “This bush is ours…”
There were a hundred adventures and pleasures in the bush.
And now I must record that my brother and I became friends late in life and I would reminisce about my days in the bush, but noticed he was often silent.
He said he did not remember anything at all before he was eleven. “What, nothing?”
“You don’t remember how we were in the bush and some wild pig chased us and we went up a tree and you were laughing so hard you nearly fell straight down in front of her?”
“No I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember how we walked to the river and sat and watched the troop of baboons feeding and drinking until the big baboon gesticulated and threatened us, until we gave in and went away?”
“You don’t remember how we…”
There sat my brother across from me at the table, and my mind was full of memories, but his mind, he said was a blank.
How was that possible?
When he was seven, he said, he would take the cookboy’s son with him, with a gun, and some bread, and go off into the bush for days.
“We had all kinds of jolly good chinwags, I can tell you.”
Then I was in the city, for a year I was one of the girls. A small number of the city’s eligible young men, and the girls – we went to the bioscope every night (the films) and wore evening dresses. The provinces tend to make great occasions out of the ordinary. We danced too. When I say “We” I mean the young whites.
And then there was the war, and I got married, because that is what happens in a war and for three years I was the most conventional white madam, doing everything just right, cooking, making clothes and there were two babes. How infinitely adaptable we all are. I hated the life, the society – one hundred thousand whites commanded half a million blacks in old Southern Rhodesia.
I left that marriage, married a German refugee, Gottfried Lessing, had another child. Having babies when you are very young is really very easy: it seems one must make this point now, when getting children seems to be increasingly difficult.
Ten years of the war. The colony was full of the refugees from Europe and then the RAF. Amazing that this chapter of the war should be forgotten.
1939 to 1945. From ’45 to ’49 were the worst years of my life. I longed to leave for England, which is where I would have gone in ’38, ’39 if I had had the money. I couldn’t leave at once then, because of complications over Gottfried wanting to get British nationality: a divorce would not have helped him. But I stuck it out and we got amicably divorced and at last I did leave for England. I think all the rest has been adequately chronicled.
I felt as if my real life was beginning when I at last arrived in war-torn, grubby, cold England. And of course, it was. Since then, I have written, that has been my life.
Very hard work, life is – that’s my summing up as I reach the end of life. “Oh such hard work. All of it.”
For most of the time I had a child and we all know that the life of a writer is better without small children. But that is not to say I had ever wished the child away. And I even at various points in my life added children and young people when I didn’t have to, as in The Sweetest Dream, for instance. But the real story of a life is in the record of the memories or dreams… and where should I begin, or end? Once I thought I would write my autobiography in dreams. My failed attempt became Memoirs of a Survivor. Dreams, a dream, have often rescued me when stuck in a story or a novel.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
Doris Lessing died on 17 November 2013.