My friendship with Doris Lessing ended when I jumped on a table in the canteen of the Polytechnic of Central London and shouted:
‘Come friendly Russian bombs and rain on London!’
I felt someone staring. It was Lessing. She had just published a book on how nuclear war was survivable. It was shameful that our government – Margaret Thatcher’s government – wasn’t building nuclear shelters like the Swiss. Every time she spoke of the possibility of nuclear war tears would well up.
I got down off the table sheepishly, too embarrassed to explain:
‘I was being sarcastic. Sarcastic.’
The night before my Russian class started I knew I was going to meet Doris Lessing. I picked up a book she had written and read it through. The character of the black male-servant in the book was impenetrably exotic. I felt she had dehumanized him – turned him into a cypher for the heart of darkness. I accosted her the next day.
‘I read the The Grass is Singing.’
‘Really? What did you think?’
‘Would you write it the same way now?’
She paused. ‘No, I wouldn’t.’
‘Ah.’ I said, without explaining the cause of my irritation.
In the 1980s I thought of myself as a communist. Nearly all of our teachers were dissidents, émigrés and retired spies. I was open about my beliefs. If you studied Russian in those days, being a communist disqualified you from almost every government job. I wasn’t planning on having a successful career in the British Oversees Career Service.
Of course Doris Lessing’s novel, The Good Terrorist, probably arose out of the the result of her close observation of the young people she associated with during the Fifties, Sixties and perhaps even the Seventies. It wasn’t about me.
Doris Lessing never saw the front of the Tanzania Standard in 1972 which featured a picture of my brothers and I and our friends with the caption underneath:
Soon these children will be taking up weapons and fighting for the liberation of their countries.
On our mantelpiece was a piece of aluminium cut out of the fuselage of a downed B52. It was etched with a heroic scene from the struggle of the North Vietnamese Liberation Army. A large photograph of a portly Che hung on the wall. My father was the first journalist from a South African national newspaper to be banned in 1963. In 1962 my mother had gone to jail for ‘insulting the dignity of the South African president’ and for being caught red-handed with pots of glue and posters that explained why the ANC was turning to the armed struggle.
At my mother’s funeral Marcelino in 2007, former Vice President of FRELIMO, a deadly enemy of western involvement in Africa from the
1960s to the 1980s, gave the oration. Afterwards Marcelino explained to me why he disliked Che Guevara:
He came to us and asked us to fight in the Congo. Why would we fight in the Congo? It had nothing to do with us. I think he had this view because he was a parvenu to the Cuban struggle. He just happened to hook up with Fidel and the other Cubans in Miami and jumped on the Granma. He had no awareness of all the spadework that revolution and national liberation need. He jumped off that boat with Fidel and started shooting bullets and they won. He thought revolution was just about firing bullets and then calling the peasants and workers to join in.
‘And he was a racist.’ said Marcelino.
‘Yes. Our fighters had just downed a Portuguese jet with a SAM, a heatseeking, anti-aircraft missile. He refused to believe that Mozambicans could do that. He was a racist.’
It was 1972 and we were living in Dar-es-Salaam. I was 12 and I remember riding on the back of a Chinese military truck driven by ANC fighters into the camp. I begged them.
‘Please, please send me to South Africa. I want to be a spy for the ANC, for you - a saboteur.’
They laughed. The fighters made chicken stew with spinach and tomato for us all and sent us home.
And yet, in the 1980s, some of my friends did fight. They were trained in the Soviet Union and East Germany. By the late 1990s they were in middle
ranking and senior positions in the military and governments of several countries across Africa. They fought tooth and nail against the South Africans and UNITA in Angola and Namibia alongside Cuban volunteers and won. In the end they were defeating the South Africans in set piece battles with tanks. It was this that caused the South Africans to negotiate seriously with the ANC, not the international Anti-Apartheid movement.
My brothers and I had only ever thought of ourselves as South African exiles, but in 1976 my parents decided that any sacrifices to be made would be theirs alone, not ours. They sent a letter to Oliver Tambo, the President of the ANC before Mandela, who they knew, offering themselves entirely to the struggle, with the proviso that we, their children, would have nothing to do with it. Their offer was refused. Perhaps they were not considered useful enough. So, eventually, they both joined the UN. They retired to South Africa in the 90s. Satisfyingly, they were acknowledged as ANC veterans.
My illusions of being part of some great historical process, illusions built up throughout childhood and adolescence, slowly diffused. I confined myself to starting student societies, going on anti-Nazi league pickets and joining in with the Kitsons who sang and danced on the pavement outside South Africa House. I studied every revolution that had ever taken place, argued with every teacher I had ever had about history and economics, and I failed almost every exam I took.
There was a book of poetry which came out of the struggle for freedom in Southern Africa called When Bullets Begin to Flower. But in the 1980s I had no invitation to the intoxicating historical romance of bullets and martyrdom taking place in Southern Africa.
I was with Doris. There had just been a bomb attempt on the ANC offices in London near King’s Cross. Thatcher had called Mandela a terrorist. We stood together looking out of a big glass window overlooking the city. I
pointed out what I thought were MI5 headquarters.
‘We should blow them up in turn. They collaborated with BOSS, you know.’
She turned to look at me. ‘Why don’t you?’
We shared a class. One of our teachers was a Mr Borovsky. He had been a well-known literary critic in the Soviet Union, but had defected and now taught literature. His party trick was to teach Zoschenko’s book, People. The book was about an idiotic idealist in the spirit of Candide or Don Quixote, who insists on seeing the bright side of communism while the evidence of human venality, brutality and duplicity is all around him. In describing the duplicity of the communists he looked directly at me. He grimaced unpleasantly and said.
‘We call these people ‘Tuneyadstvo’.’ What does it mean?’ I asked ‘Parasites. Bloodsuckers.’ He said, staring.
At the time, I had no idea why Lessing chose to befriend me, inviting me into her home from time-to-time. Later on I read an article in the Observer or the Guardian. It was about a young woman who had also been adopted by Lessing. I found an echo.
‘I don’t think she even liked me.’ the woman wrote, still puzzled. ‘It was as if she had made some kind of promise to herself. As if she were studying me.’
Lessing smiled most of the time.