So the Big D has gone. Hardly unexpected. She was 94 and ill; we had talked about her impending death the last time I visited her in London. Yet when I heard the news, the kickback of knowing there would be no more of that consciousness in the world was enormous.
She would no doubt say something crisp like, “Robbie, you must stop emoting.”
As always, the most banal wish: that I had said simply, “I love you, I admire you. I am profoundly grateful to you, difficult and prickly though you sometimes were.”
So what comes to mind immediately? The chaotic and prodigious English garden with bits of Africa scattered through it (pumpkin vines among the David Austin roses). Kittens following her up the stairs to her eyrie – a small bedroom cum writing room. The piles of washing-up, letters, postcards and books (always books) in the kitchen. The piles of magazines and books in the loo. Feeding the birds on the back porch. The way she noticed everything from that back porch, as people raised in the country do. However urban you become, that way of noticing the natural world remains.
The food. From the chaos of her small kitchen came food for 50. Delicious, wicked food, with lots of fat and cream. Sunday lunches there would see an unlikely assortment of people – literary, famous, oddballs, old friends, lost souls she had taken under her wing, penniless immigrants (quietly, she would make sure they had money and shelter), her agent, her publisher, her son Peter sitting in his armchair, saying cryptic things … all of us expected to get along with one another, all felled by the calorific food and red wine, the new ones looking bewildered on the cat-haired sofa or sitting on the floor amid the piles of books. Not for her the English socialising in which status, placement and food portion are carefully considered.
The older she got, the less she gave a damn what accolades or criticism came her way. There wasn’t time for such trivia. “Oh Christ,” she said on hearing she had won the Nobel prize for literature. And those of us who knew her laughed and said how typically Doris that was. All the fuss over something so unimportant; it would eat into her time. “Oh Christ,” as she hauled the bags of shopping up steps that were becoming more difficult to negotiate because of the pain in her collapsing back. No point in complaining – about pain, or difficulty, or death. (What do we think life is, after all?)
She took me in not long after I’d crossed the Australian desert, in 1978. In the arrogance of youth, I had written to her. I had said how “useful” her books were. She wrote back, saying, “If you can write a good letter, you can write a good book.” We corresponded for a while. I decided to write Tracks, the story of that journey through the desert. I went to London. I met her. I adored her. Six months later, she invited me to live in the little flat at the bottom of her house. I was editing Tracks for publication by then. We seldom talked about writing, though we did talk about books. I remember complaining to her one day, “Doris, everything I write sounds the same.” She burst out laughing and said, “My dear, that’s called having a style.”
And later, when Tracks came out, and it was apparent it was going to be a bestseller, she advised, “Don’t bother reading what people say about you or the book. Reviews will tell you nothing useful about your work, only about the current fashion.” I took her advice and have found it to be sound.
Another time, she came down to sit by the fire with me. She was having trouble with a book. “Some come out so easily, and others just won’t budge … Why? Why?” I was astonished that this woman who seemed to push out a novel every five minutes could suffer from something like writer’s block.
She was both friend and mentor, someone I felt deeply in tune with (that colonial background, perhaps, the dislike of limit and of being categorised, the mistrust of “ism” and ideology, anything that trapped you or hemmed you in or limited your range of thinking and imagining) and at the same time shy of. In awe of. She was mother substitute and literary mother. Not because her books were “feminist” but because they took on so much and indicated how far outside the usual boundaries a female intelligence could go.
She gave so many of us younger women a cardinal point to help us navigate. She gave us something to admire. To emulate. She showed us that we did not have to be nice so much as we had to be courageous.
I ignored her books until I was in my mid 20s; I ignored them because they were by a woman. My reasoning was that I already knew how a woman thought and that I needed to understand how men thought, how power worked. Then someone gave me The Golden Notebook. I found it, as I so gormlessly said, “useful”. And how.
There are great human beings in the world who are not publicly visible. And there are great writers and public figures who are not great human beings. It is exceedingly rare, in my experience, that a great writer is also a great human being. Not perfect, not easy, not infallible, but great. Containing multitudes.
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