Doris Lessing: The Hostess and The Alien
Episode Guide: Doris Lessing
Posted: Tuesday, 27th May 2008
Doris Lessing, winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, is both 'hostess' and 'alien' - the hostess, who presents a public face to the world, and the private person who writes, dreams and 'experiments with her life'.
Alan Yentob meets this feisty 88-year-old whose 'myth country' is still the African bush where she was brought up. Her first book, The Grass Is Singing, an instant success in 1950, explored the racial and sexual tensions of Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Since then she's written dozens of books - realist novels, science fiction (which she calls 'space fiction'), essays and autobiography.
She has believed in 'ban the bomb' and telepathy, been a Communist, a Sufi and a 'Free Woman'. She’s always outspoken, eccentric and engaged.
Her reaction on hearing she had won the Nobel Prize was typical – 'Oh Christ'. And then: 'I've won all the prizes in Europe, it's a royal flush.' She says she had been told they didn't like her and she would never get it. Her acceptance speech was witty and way-out: 'There isn't anywhere to go from here - is there? - unless I could get a pat on the head from the Pope.' She hears the voices of St Peter and then her father, telling her not to get above herself.
All her life she has been haunted by voices from her childhood. There's the father who drew her towards science fiction by encouraging her to gaze at the stars in the vast African skies, saying, 'Well, if we blow ourselves up, there's plenty more where we came from.' And her mother, with whom she has been fighting all her life. Now - as old age draws in - she is at last beginning to come to terms with her mother, and to see that she got something from her too - her energy, and her love of books.
Doris Lessing takes Alan Yentob through her family photos: 'That's me and my mother. Look at this smiling happy girl - we were engaged in bitter warfare all the time. She always had that terrible dying duck look.' She tries to explain why she abandoned two of her own children: 'If I didn't, I would have been an alcoholic inside ten years or had a breakdown like my mother, who was living a life she couldn't bear.' And we come to see how she has fought to give meaning to her own life, and how her emotional and political experiences have fed her fiction.
Jill Nicholls' vivid, intimate film gets us close to this tiny woman with a bad back, her fat cat Yum Yum at her feet, books and papers piled everywhere, her North London garden full of birds and stray cats, and her eyes that look as though they have spent a lifetime staring out across the African velt.
With contributions from authors AS Byatt, Brian Aldiss, Julian Mitchell and Maggie Gee, co-founder of Spare Rib magazine Marsha Rowe, Jane Davies - who runs a reading project in Liverpool inspired by Doris Lessing, and actress Juliet Stevenson.
Doris Lessing: The Hostess and the Alien, BBC One, 27th May 2008, 10.35pm.
The Reader Organisation
The Reader Organisation featured in the film was started by Jane Davis in 2002, with a small grant from the University of Liverpool. Jane says, "The Reader Organisation wants to spearhead a reading revolution, to put books at the heart of life and build communities around the sharing of books. The writer Frank Cottrell Boyce said recently, 'Get Into Reading groups should be like pubs on the dock road, one on every corner.' That's what we mean when we say we want to put books at the heart of life: Get Into Reading groups on every corner."