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I have been very fortunate over the past 14 years to spend time with some of the world’s greatest writers. Through the daily author interview show I used to host on Oneword Radio to chairing events at literary festivals from Hay-on-Wye to Dubai, I have met many of the storytellers and thinkers who have inspired us and amazed us through their words. Some have been hugely successful, some enormously inventive; a few have received the highest plaudits from their peers.
If there is a connection between them it is their engagement with the light and shade of the business of life, their joy in the use of language and their abiding will to communicate, entertain and inform their readers.
One such writer, one who I was honoured to meet and proud to know, was Doris Lessing, who has passed away at the age of 94. She was a shining example of that rare breed of writer who could do all of the above, all that a great writer should do and more. She was a literary titan who bestrode the world stage and for all the right reasons.
Born in that part of Iran, which was then called Persia, the year after the Great War ended, Lessing was brought up in Zimbabwe (then called Southern Rhodesia) and was self-educated from the age of 14. She began selling stories to magazines at the age of 15 and in so doing started a writing career, the like of which we are unlikely to see again.
I realise that it is a bold claim, but I have my reasons. I have long contended that the closer a writer gets to their personal truths through their work and the better they express their own faults and frailties, the greater the connection they make with their readers.
Lessing’s writing was profoundly informed by the events of her own life. From fleeing to London in 1949, leaving two of her children, then toddlers, with their father in Southern Rhodesia, her dalliance in Communism born out of her interest in and membership of the Left Book Club and her campaigning against apartheid and nuclear arms, are all woven into the fabric of her published work. The weft of political engagement and social conscience threaded through the warp of a rare personal honesty and rational evaluation of her own decisions.
Her fearless ability to be at once frank, objective and intellectual won her the respect of fellow writers and the enduring admiration of her wide readership. In the 1960s she was adopted by the burgeoning feminist movement who saw her as a revolutionary voice; it was an association that she herself resisted. As a playwright she was a friend of John Osborne, part of the Royal Court Theatre group and, as Gaby Wood suggested in the Daily Telegraph, perhaps the only woman who could be considered an ‘Angry Young Man.’
And then there were the prizes. She had been told in the 1960s, not long after the publication of The Golden Notebook, that the Nobel Prize committee didn’t like her, that she would never be a Laureate. But in 2007 she returned home from grocery shopping to find a horde of journalists on her doorstep. On hearing the announcement that she had won, (only the 11th woman and the oldest author to do so, the Nobel citation mentioning her “scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”) as she took her shopping bags out of a black London taxi, her first reaction to the TV crews was “Oh Christ!” followed by a more considered, “I’m sure you’d like some uplifting remarks of some kind… I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I’m delighted to win them all. It’s a royal flush.”
She later remarked: “I’m 88 years old and they can’t give the Nobel to someone who’s dead, so I think they were probably thinking they’d probably better give it to me now before I’ve popped off”.
She could always be relied upon to do the unexpected, to resist being pigeonholed. From her radical writing on social issues, as represented in her Communist themed works, to her exploration of the concepts of Sufism, which she had been introduced to through her friend Idries Shah, which she wrote about through the prism of her Canopus in Argos science fictions, or ‘space fictions’ as she dubbed them. Unlike many literary authors who dabble in the genre but exhibit mild embarrassment when questioned on it, she embraced it, even attending the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention as its Guest Writer of Honour and commenting at another time, “that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time.”
Each of her readers will cite different favourite works, but it is The Golden Notebook and The Grass is Singing that will endure in my mind as Lessing’s finest writing and most comprehensive exploration of humanity, the latter, with its title drawn from Eliot’s The Waste Land, dealing with racial politics, the former her seminal work of ‘inner space fiction,’ and its analysis of the different people we all are and can be.
When we last met, it was at the Oxford Literary Festival, on a crisp day with the spring sunlight warmed by the honeyed stone of Christ Church’s Tom Quad. Lessing was funny and firm, mercurial and mindful. She held my hand as we walked and I told her that on the journey to the festival I had been listening to James Brown, the ‘Godfather of Soul’ and that I had thought that she, Lessing, should be the “Godmother of Literature.” She chuckled at my weak joke, saying, “I don’t think I need another title, Paul,” reminding me that she had declined the offer to be a Dame of The British Empire for being ‘too pantomimey.’ We stood for photographs and later I thought we should raise a statue in her honour, for all that she stood for, all that she gave to literature and her readers. I still do.