The London of Doris Lessing: in defence of the Underground

by Dave Hill

The novelist and playwright Doris Lessing (1919-2013) was born in Iran, brought up in what was then called Southern Rhodesia and lived in London from 1949. In 1957 she wrote: “One evening, walking across the park, the light welded buildings, trees and scarlet buses into something familiar and beautiful, and I knew myself to be at home.” In 1992, a collection of her stories and sketches about the city from the preceding five years was published under the title London Observed. Here’s an excerpt from one called In Defence of the Underground. The title itself gives a sense of how attitudes to the Tube have changed. So does the second sentence:

I like travelling by Underground. This is a defiant admission. I am always hearing, reading, “I hate the Underground”. In a book I have just picked up the author says he seldom uses it, but when he did have to go a few stops, he found it disgusting. If people have to travel in the rush hour, then all is understood, but you may hear people who know nothing about rush hours say how terrible the Underground is. This is the Jubilee Line and I use it all the time. Fifteen minutes at the most to get into the centre. The carriages are bright and new – well almost. There are efficient indicators: Charing Cross, five minutes, three minutes, one minute. The platforms are no more littered than the streets, often less, or not at all. “Ah, but you should have seen what they were like in the old days. The Tube was different then.”

I know an old woman, I’m sure I should say lady, who says, “People like you…” She means aliens, foreigners, though I have lived here 40 years…. “Have no idea what London was like. You could travel from one side of London to the other by taxi for half a crown.” (In Elizabeth I’s time you could buy a sheep for a few pence and under the Romans doubtless you could buy a villa for a silver coin, but currencies never devaluate when Nostalgia is in this gear). “And everything was so nice and clean and people were polite. Buses were always on time and the Tube was cheap.”

Further on:

In my half of the carriage are three white people and the rest are black and brown and yellowish. Or, by another division, five females and six males. Or, four young people and seven middle-aged or elderly. Two Japanese girls, as glossy and self-sufficient as young cats, sit smiling. Surely the mourners for old London must applaud the Japanese who are never, every, scruffy or careless? Probably not: in that other London there are no foreigners, only English, pinko-grey as Shaw said, always chez nous, for the Empire had not imploded, the world had not invaded, and while every family had at least one relative abroad administering colonies or dominions, or being soldiers, that was abroad, it was there, not here, the colonies had not come home to roost.

A young black man sits dreaming, his ears wired to his Walkman, and his feet jig gently to some private rhythm. He wears clothes more expensive, more stylish than anyone else in this travelling room. Next to him is an Indian woman with a girl of ten or so. They wear saris that show brown midriffs as glossy as toffee, but they have cardigans over them. Butterfly saris, workaday cardigans that make the statement, if you choose to live in a cold northern country, then this is the penalty.Never has there been a sadder  marriage than saris with cardigans. They sit quietly conversing, in a way that makes the little girl seem a woman.

These three get out at Finchley Road. In get four Americans, two boys, two girls, in their uniform of jeans and T-shirts and sports shoes. They talk loudly and do not see anyone else. They sprawl opposite, and two loll either side of, a tall woman, possibly Scottish, who sits with her burnished shoes side by side, her fine bony hands on the handle of a wheeled shopping basket. She gazes ahead of her, as if the loud youngsters do not exist, and she is possibly remembering – but what London? The war? (Second World War, this time). Not a poor London, that is certain. She is elegant, in tweeds and a silk shirt, and her rings are fine.

She and the four Americans get out at St Johns Wood, the youngsters off to the American school, but she probably lives here. St Johns’ Wood, so we are told by Galsworthy, for one, was where kept women were put in discreetly pretty villas by rich or at least respectable lovers. Now these villas can be afforded only by the rich, often Arabs.

Her journey continues: hooligans get on at Baker Street, everyone piles out at Charing Cross. She paints a vivid picture of a London that was just starting to recover from its post-war population slump and taking the shape of the global metropolis we know today. London Observed is published by Harper Collins and you can buy a copy from them here.

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