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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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’

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