The Roads of London, Doris Lessing.

This memoir by Doris Lessing is taken from the second volume of her autobiography Walking in the Shade. In it, she details her move from Southern Rhodesia to live in London in the 1940s. She writes of the ‘surreal’ vision of the city at the time:

That London of the late 1940s, the early 1950s has vanished, and now it is hard to believe it existed. It was unpainted, buildings were stained and cracked and dull and grey; it was war-damaged, some areas all ruins, and under them holes full of dirty water, once cellars, and it was subject to sudden dark fogs – that was before the Clean Air Act. No one who has only known today’s London of self-respecting clean buildings, crowded cafes and restaurants, good food and coffee, streets full until after midnight with mostly young people having a good time can believe what London was like then. No cafes. No good restaurants. Clothes were still ‘austerity’ from the war, dismal and ugly. Everyone was indoors by ten, and the streets were empty.

It would take the 1950s to rebuild London (and Lessing notes the improvements that had occurred by the end of that decade). And beyond the physical rebuilding, the changing society and massive social reforms of the 1960s changed the fabric of the city forever. Numerous mistakes would be made: communities were moved around, creating division; highlighting poverty.

Poverty, genteel or otherwise, has always been woven into the lives of the city. Doris Lessing started living in Westbourne Grove and Bayswater (the former ‘A slummy road’ and the latter ‘Was then rather seedy and hard to associate with the grandeur of its earlier days. Prostitutes lined the streets every evening’). Both areas have come back up in the world but retain a louche edge to them. Having the remarkable Paddington Station on the doorstep, with the transient nature that a mainline station brings, will always add an edge to the areas it touches.

There are contrasting impressions of the British too. In 1950, ‘Men sat in their shirtsleeves, glistening with wellbeing’, but Lessing also notes:

They were a tired people, the British. Stoical. The national low vitality […] swallowing energy like a black hole, was balanced by something very different. On the one hand, the low spirits, a patient sticking it out, but on the other, an optimism for the future

Such optimism was not ill-placed. There may have been empty streets, ugly clothes and no good restaurants, but post-war social welfare policies were about to change many lives for the better. Those policies are carefully being dismantled now, under a new guise of austerity, creating division and highlighting a different kind of poverty: the lines are being drawn around People Like Us.

And I’m not sure we’re glistening with wellbeing either.


Lessing, Doris. ‘The Roads of London’, Granta Magazine (No 58: ‘Ambition’, Summer 1997, pp53-84)


© Alex Urban 2013


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