Her final reckoning
Shortly before she died last month, Jenny Diski explained to Lynn Barber why her last book, In Gratitude, tackles not just her terminal cancer but Doris Lessing
Jenny Diski’s latest book, In Gratitude, was rushed out by Bloomsbury in the hope that she would live to see it published. She had terminal lung cancer and was told in February that she had at most three months to live. So I interviewed her in bed at her home in Cambridge.
Her husband, Ian Patterson, whom she refers to as “the Poet”, let me in and took me upstairs past walls and walls of books — he teaches English literature at Queens’ College and they have 7000 books between them.
For someone on her deathbed, Diski seems remarkably compos mentis, though she loses track at times — “Come back, brain!” She tells me to sit on the bed, where she can see me, and explains: “At the moment I’ve got a touch of the cancer, I’m in a bit of pain, so I’m a bit breathless.” Her looks have changed dramatically. She used to be very thin, with long, straight silver hair, but she has gained 20kg from taking steroids and her hair is now curly. The really bad thing, though, is that the radiotherapy for her lung tumour has given her pulmonary fibrosis, and it is now a toss-up which will kill her first. But she doesn’t want to talk about her illness: she wants to talk about her book.
In Gratitude is based on articles she has been writing for the London Review of Books about the progress of her cancer, but also her very strange relationship with the Nobel prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing, who died in 2013.
Diski was 15 and in a psychiatric hospital when, in 1962, Lessing became, in effect, her adoptive mother. Her real parents were useless. Her mother was depressed, alternately hysterical and suicidal, hooked on Nembutal. Her father was a conman who went around charming old ladies out of their savings, rather like John le Carre’s father. He had been in prison for fraud and went bankrupt several times. When Jenny was 11, he disappeared and left her mother penniless, until the bailiffs arrived.
Social services eventually paid for Jenny to go to a progressive boarding school, St Christopher, in Letchworth, Hertfordshire (alma mater of Michael Winner and AA Gill), to get her away from her parents. But she was expelled at 15 for stealing ether from the labs. She ended up with her mother in a bedsit in Hove and attempted suicide after three days. She was sent to a psychiatric hospital and left there while the authorities tried to work out what to do with her. And then Lessing’s son Peter wrote, inviting her to stay with his mother. He had been at school with Jenny, learned of her expulsion and asked his mother to take her in. Incredibly, she did, sight unseen, so 15-year-old Jenny fetched up at a house in Camden, London (Lessing had recently published The Golden Notebook and was affluent for the first time), where the writer’s friends sat around talking about books and films and politics and sex. Lots and lots of sex.
It’s weird that Lessing took her in, though, because she was never motherly — on the contrary, according to Diski, “She was the least motherly, least warm person I’ve ever known.” And she had abandoned two of her own children when she came to England from Southern Rhodesia in 1949, bringing only the youngest, Peter, who was then two. She might have done better to have left Peter too, because he turned out very badly. He lived with his mother all his life, but from the age of 19 never worked, never left the house, lay on his bed watching television and became hugely overweight. He died just a month before Doris.
Nevertheless, it was Peter who rescued Diski from the Brighton madhouse. Why? Were they friends at school? “No, we were enemies, really, and we didn’t have much to do with each other at all. But Peter was a very complicated person. He liked to be rather pompous. He would have liked to be the manager of a department store — I can imagine him walking round the shop with his hands behind his back. He liked to rule the roost and to run things. And he suggested Doris take me in — I mean, a potty suggestion to take in a 15-year-old girl who she’d never met and didn’t know anything about, but very generous.”
There is a poignant scene in the book where Diski, having hung around the house silently for days, eventually asks Lessing, “Do you like me?”, whereupon Lessing accuses her of emotional blackmail. Diski glosses it thus: ‘‘I was a child who had no real parents and who’d been taken up and dropped by various people, and put into a house that had nothing to do with me at all. So I was just taken aback and went very quiet and she kept asking me what was wrong. And I finally said, ‘I’m alarmed that you might not like me and if you don’t like me, what will happen, because there’s nowhere to send me back to?’ And I think it was the question that she’d been dreading, really.’’
In fact, Lessing was so furious that she walked out of the house without a word, but Jenny found a letter the next morning accusing her of being manipulative. I tell Diski my sympathies were rather with Lessing. “Well, I think everybody is manipulative, actually — it goes both ways.” But is she grateful that Doris took her in? Her book is called In Gratitude, but could just as easily be called Ingratitude. “Yes, I do feel that the title works both ways. I’m both grateful and ungrateful, no question. She came the first day or night and said, ‘Look, you’ve got nothing to be grateful for, or to apologise for, and you’re perfectly welcome here.’ And I said, ‘Yes, of course, I’m not worried’ — though actually I was terrified. She gave out a kind of warning that I’d better be careful — unspoken. We never liked each other, really, from the word go.’’
Lessing also pestered Diski about sex. “From the moment I got there, she talked about sex continuously. It was amazing. It was as if she was grounding me in methods of sexuality. She thought that getting your sex life sorted was a matter of essential life, and she would discuss how to do this and how to do that, and she sent me to a gynaecologist to get a Dutch cap. I wasn’t a virgin, but she had some notion that I was a rip-roaring sexual being, and her great fear was that I would get pregnant. She felt that having a baby or being married were things that stopped your life, brought you to a dead halt.’’
Eventually, Diski moved out to live in a squat, though she went on visiting Lessing and the writer continued to support her. She wanted Diski to go to university. Diski didn’t, but she did go to teacher training college and found that she enjoyed teaching. Then she married a fellow teacher, Roger Diski (though he was called Marks originally; they chose the surname Diski together), and set up a free school in Camden.
“It could have been a disaster, but it wasn’t. It was based around this group of kids who had been thrown out of school and hung around Camden Square, getting into trouble and costing the council a huge amount of money. So Roger marched into county hall, demanding funding, and we got the politician Frank Dobson on side, and it just seemed to happen, really. We picked up all the local talent — and there was a lot, in Camden — and got them to volunteer to teach for half a day, and it worked amazingly well.”
The Diskis divorced after a few years (he went on to become a pioneer of ecological tourism) but remained good friends until his death in a swimming accident in 2011. And Jenny is eternally grateful that they had a daughter, Chloe, together. “I don’t think I could have done any of the things I did without Chloe — she was my rock. Because I had such a mess of a childhood, there was no way I could possibly make someone else go through that, so I just tried to be an ordinary mother. And I think it worked out quite well. I used to send Chloe to bed an hour earlier than her sleeping time, so that she could do things on her own — just read or watch television — and she didn’t mind that.
“She had a solidity that I never had. She does things that she needs to do for herself. I mean, almost immediately I told her I had cancer, she got pregnant, and almost immediately after that she got pregnant again — it was as if she was building a wall of safety about herself. And she has a wonderfully solid partner from school.” Diski enjoys her grandchildren, though not too often, for fear of infection. “But they know their grandmother and we all get on pretty well.”
Jenny Diski: ‘There’s no time I can remember not wanting to be a writer’