From the archive: Doris Lessing's London diary

The girl at the laundry is getting married next week. She says she found him at the marriage bureau.

New Statesman
The Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing in the 1970s. Image: Godfrey Argent/Camera Press

An American friend is absorbed in that occupation so fascinating to all us foreigners when we first arrive in this island – an empirical study of the class system. Engaged in painting the Universities and Left Review coffee house, he often travels in paintstained clothes, when he is treated with camaraderie by workmen, and as if he does not exist by the well dressed. Back in respectable clothes, he is a sir, another person. I once wrote in a book review that the caste system in this country was as complicated as that of India. I had 37 indignant letters saying that class distinctions had been killed in the Second World War. They were all from middle class people.

A man told me this story of the last war, when he was simultaneously one of the managers of a large factory outside London and Communist Party organiser for the area. Three times a week he changed into workmen’s clothes and stood at the factory gates speechifying. The other managers, beside whom he worked all day, would drive out past him at a couple of yards’ distance, but none of them ever recognised him: they simply didn’t see him because he was wearing different clothes. And it was the same with the workmen who saw him every day in his capacity as boss. One of them did once remark that he could swear he “knew his face from somewhere”. My friend, torn apart by this Jekyll and Hyde existence, tried to explain, but the man would not believe him.

***

The girl at the laundry is getting married next week. She says she found him at the marriage bureau – he fits her much better than those boys she used to pick up at the Palais. She tried out seven applicants before she found one to suit. But marriage bureaux work in more devious ways than perhaps they know.

I once lived in the next room to a girl, waitress at Lyons, who was in love with the manager of the restaurant across the street. He had been playing her up, so she decided to make him jealous. She visited the bureau demanding “a handsome dark man, aged 25, five foot ten”. The lady at the bureau was distressed at Betty’s frivolous attitude, even came to visit her at home so as to explain that happy wedlock did not depend on good looks. Betty was tolerant about this, conceding that she meant well. Meanwhile, handsome dark young men came to tea with Betty on those afternoons when Steven the manager was due to pass by. Everyone’s plans miscarried. Steven was jealous, but too much so: Betty turned him down because she couldn’t be happy with a man as unreasonable as all that. Two of the bureau’s candidates took to her, but she couldn’t fully take to men who had to go through an office to find themselves girls. She married a boy she had known since childhood – tall, dark and extremely handsome, but because, she said, she was “used to him”.

***

My son has flu, rather too intensely. He, like myself, is accomplished in the pleasures of hypochondria and has decided his temperature is too high for real enjoyment. “About 100° is what I like,” he says, and I agree with him. While we wait for his temperature to fall to a pleasurable level, his remarks hover on the borders of sense.

Do I agree, he asks, with the man who says that the Tube is like a pea-shooter?

“What tube?” – my mind being full of bronchials.

“The Underground – all those people like peas blown in at one end and flying out the other.”

“People,” I say, severely maintaining the humanist position, “are not like peas, not ever. They are people.”

Meanwhile the Warwick Road, grey and damp with winter, roaring with great lorries, remains sulking outside. A red fire engine gongs its way past.

“Is it true that lions would live in England if it was hot?”

“Who said so?”

“The man at the bus stop.”

“What makes you think of lions now?”

“The fire engine, it makes me think of lions, when I cough I sound like a lazy lion. I like the thoughts I have when I’m sick. What’s going to happen to the thoughts I’m having in this room when we leave? Will they stay here and get into the minds of the people who come?”

“Certainly not,” I say, delivering a short but unprincipled anti-idealist lecture.

“Well, then, they’ll go rippling out over London into the sky and out and out . . . What happens when they collide with the waves that come from the hydrogen bombs?”

***

Like every right-minded woman I disapprove of Dr Johnson, and even the one remark he made I do like is hard to hold fast to in March. Yet the streets of London can always be relied upon for entertainment. It was snowing, so I tied a scarf over my head to go shopping. In the supermarket I was stopped by a couple of girls who announced themselves as members of an association to brighten Britain, particularly in its standard of dress. If I didn’t mind them saying so, I was fine as far as the shoulders, but would I please give them my word I would never again, in the national interest, wear a headscarf?

Last year a visiting Russian writer borrowed an umbrella for a visit to Hyde Park, and was approached by a couple of men from the League for the Correct Furling of Umbrellas – or some such title. The Russian said that he deduced from this incident that Engels’s estimate of the British character was still valid.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in the NS on 22 March 1958. Doris Lessing died on 17 November 2013, aged 94