Ordinary people

As a young woman, the novelist and recent Nobel Prize-winner for literature Doris Lessing wrote occa

The New Statesman

25 June 1960

Living in London I meet no-one who is not vertiginously interesting, so it can’t be the craving for novelty which drives me out of England, pursued by every devil of claustrophobia. When short of a hair shirt, the puritan conscience torments itself because one is not meeting ordinary people, but it would be better occupied wondering why one has spent relentless years levering oneself out of the tedium of provincial life (Central Africa, in my case) only to be afflicted by doubts as to the wholesome influences one must be missing. As D. H. Lawrence said: ‘Ah, all those wholesome, simple, ordinary people everywhere, only alas one never seems to meet any.’

Taking flight, therefore, to meet ordinary people, I sat beside a healthy blonde on the airport bus, on the Black Thursday of the collapsed Summit, and her first syllable revealed her as South African. ‘I don’t like being here because everyone criticises us about the kaffirs.’ She said at the airport cafe, at the sight of a black man in waiter’s dress: ‘There’s a native boy who looks as if he’s doing his proper job, dressed like that.’ She said on the tarmac: ‘I expected to have to mix in England but a big buck Jamaican said “Hello, love” to me at a bus-stop and me and my girl-friend were nearly sick.’

I said, ‘Men are all the same’, but she said: ‘No, it’s only the black kaffirs’. So I said, ‘All the world knows a black man loves a blonde,’ and she said, ‘I shouldn’t have left my boyfriend in Durban, poor chappie.’ I sat behind her on the plane, refusing converse with my neighbour, who I knew would turn out to be Welensky’s second cousin from Broken Hill, and watched, fascinated, her large, freckled forearm, which sprouted thick growths of yellow hair. Next to her a bald and shiny business man listened to her complaints that Holland was the only clean country in Europe; and before the white cliffs were well over, he was stroking the furzy forearm closest to him and persuading her to accompany him to Sweden, which is cleaner even than Holland.

At Orly waited a groomed and glittering plane with a strip of red carpet tethered by white ropes. Krushchev? Macmillan? Eisenhower? I looked for signs of this crisis in history in the faces of the passengers, but some Americans from Long Island complained that there was refuse in the Grand Canal, while a French girl just returned from nursing in London, told her mother that she’d rather die than ever set foot in England again. Seeing a posse of journalists nosing for crises, I asked how it had been, and one said it was just his luck, he’d never enjoyed a conference more. I left them playing that new and soothing parlour game which Krushchev has given us with one hand while destroying our peace of mind with the other: the invention of suitable yet wholesome peasant proverbs:

French peasant: Open the icebox door too often, and the hinges will weaken. British peasant: Leave not the Sunday joint on the back step if you wish not the vultures to get

it. American peasant: Where there are lice, there is love.

There was a man on his knees on the red carpet with a hand brush, but no sign of the Summitteers, so I got on the bus behind two American business men. One said the French girls are more sexy than the Italians, but the second said No, the Germans are more sexy and anyway much cleaner. The first said he spent one day in Paris at the end of the Second World War and he had four addresses to look up; the other said, That was a long time ago, but the first said it didn’t matter anyway because he had been wrecked by a girl in Amsterdam. Then they played the new game: ‘Expense account in at the window; alimony out at the door.’‘The best things in life are free, as we always say in the States.’

The agency said that Paris was full, but the hotel in the Rue Vernueit had a room. This hotel has been run for ever by two elderly sisters; one bright blonde, one bright auburn. It has 40 rooms, and five years ago there was one maid who worked from six in the morning till 11 at night with one afternoon off at £3 a week. When I paid the bill five years ago the red-haired sister was in her sitting- room, which had dark red flowered wallpaper and dark bureaux oozing papers suggestive of coldly contested legal documents. Madame sat in a chair in a dirty purple corset with her thin white legs stuck in a foot-bath, while the maid squatted on the floor washing her feet.

Now she again retired to the same room, with the same wallpaper and the same maid washed her feet in a white enamel basin. It gave me the feeling one has on revisiting a play that has run a long time: the same people have been making the same movements and saying the same things for a lifetime of nights. I said to Madame, How was the conference, but she said: Je m’en fou, and a lot more on the same lines, so I went up to my room and indulged my sentimentality about Paris, or rather about the narrow, white-grey, bird-haunted streets of the Left Bank. Nothing had changed — a remark one could not make about London which changes dramatically for the better every month. Paris, it goes without saying, could not change for the better.

Downstairs in the lobby two American students talking: ‘Why journey to France where there are no values we haven’t got back where we come from?’‘Why pay for love if you can sleep for nothing with your best friend’s wife?’ Their faces were straight, but by then I could recognise the game any-where, so 1 left them to it, and went to the restaurant which five years ago was for students and very cheap. Now it is for tourists and the créme caramel was a packaged gelatine dessert and there was an extremely cosmopolitan fruit cup, tout compris. This restaurant is run by a girl every bit as beautiful as Bardot, and a very scruffy man. He said to her: ‘Why wear white if you wish to appear clean?’ And she was saying to him:

‘Do not eat pate when your liver is out of order.’ This caused a quarrel, and he sulked off. I said, What’s wrong with him, and she said: ‘He is dying for love of me.’ I said:

‘Good for you.’ She said: ‘I became his partner because I loved him, but now I do not love him.’

I said: ‘When money comes in at the door love flies out of the window’; and she said:

‘When we kill each other the papers will say it was for love but it will be for money’; and I said: ‘You should look before you leap’; and she said: ‘That’s life! taking the words right out of my mouth.’

Then I went to the Café Flore and watched Walt Disney being photographed with his wife, whose hat was covered with quivering white feathers. Both looked extremely respectable, and before they had even left, the waiters were arguing with solemn passion about whether he is, or is not, a truly great artist.

Selected by Robert Taylor

Doris Lessing is a novelist, poet and playwright. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran