Did you know that Doris Lessing lived in Holbein Mansion, Langham Street from 1958 to 1962? She rented a flat from her publisher, Howard Samuels, for £5 a week.
Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013) was one of the foremost post-war British novelists, the author of some fifty novels, plays and volumes of poetry and autobiography. She was the recipient of numerous literary awards, culminating with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. She was also an active campaigner against nuclear arms, and an opponent of apartheid which in 1956 led to her being banned from South Africa and Rhodesia (where she had been brought up). She belonged for many years to the British Communist party, until the Soviet invasion of Hungary led her to resign her membership.
In the second volume of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade (Harper Collins), she describes her Langham Street flat:
“The flat was tiny, six small rooms, and the building was hideous, with a grey bare cement staircase. On the fourth floor you opened the door to a narrow corridor, which bisected the flat. Opposite the door was a minute kitchen, then the bathroom, with its hissing and clattering gas geyser, and two other little rooms on that side. On the street side was my tiny bedroom, and a larger room, the living room. There was no way that flat could be made more than tolerable.”
It was in this flat that she received Henry Kissinger, who was later to become National Security Advisor and Secretary of State for the Nixon and Ford governments. He wanted to meet members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) while he was in London, and in those years Lessing’s flat was something of a headquarters for the internationalist New Left.
Their conversation didn’t get very far. When he began praising a new nuclear weapon precise enough to kill only a targeted 100,000 people and called it a “kitten bomb”, Lessing was shocked and said that “anyone who could use the word ‘kitten’ to describe such a weapon of war showed a lack of moral feeling and sensitivity and that just about summed up everything which was wrong with American foreign policy.”
It was also while she lived in Langham Street that she wrote The Golden Notebook, widely regarded as her masterpiece. In both her life and her magnificently rich and diverse work the personal and political were entwined. A feminist and social activist, she was attracted by Sufism and also wrote most movingly about mental breakdown. For a whole generation she described and interpreted a time of shifting certainties.
Doris Lessing was one of the most important writers of the post-war period. So why is there no blue plaque on Holbein Mansions to record her stay?
Jennifer Kavanagh is the creator of the board game, “Journey Home”, and the author of a number of books including one novel, The Emancipation of B.
Follow her on Twitter @jenniferkwriter.
This article was originally published in the printed edition of Fitzrovia News, FN142, September 2016.