Memories of Doris Lessing

While I was trawling my archives for notes I’d made on Sufism in Burnley (in vain so far), an unpolished, unpublished draft post on Doris Lessing came to my attention – I was conscious I hadn’t said all I wanted to say about Ms Lessing. It is dated late 2014 – around that time I was writing the draft for an early excursion into YA (Tengrism, other nomad themes, an alternate Earth, all part of a Dark Fantasy). The following is still draft:

Memories of Doris Lessing

I’ve been meaning to tidy up my paperback collection for some time now. I have lots of things to divert me but several days ago I took the plunge.
In a long life of collecting whatever interested me, I have amassed a collection of over 1,000 books. The last time I catalogued them was some time back. Checking up on my Excel file (yup, all neatly tabulated) tells me that was in January / February 2008. Since then they’ve been in boxes, got shipped from one place to another, been repacked into more boxes, and finally, just over one year ago, unpacked to stand on new bookshelves. Unfortunately they’re in an almighty mess. When I unpacked, I did my best by placing them in a more or less, alphabetical order. Cue end of 2014 / start of 2015; time to clear them all up; see which books have gone missing and note new entries to the catalogue.
I like the look and feel of books. I’m also taken, now and again, by the urge to record whatever I can, for who knows when I may find it useful at some future point of time? I divide my books into categories; Fiction, Classics, Reference and Professional. And because my shelves have limited height, I tend to separate out hardback fiction.

What do I record?
Publisher, Cover price, Author, Title, Year of ©, Year my edition came out, Notes – the usual sort of thing.
Why bother organising? after all, I’m light-years away from being neat & tidy; honest.
Well, they can be organised, and it would be great to refresh my memories of authors.
In life, the rules change as you progress; what seemed good now seems poorly drafted; other things that seemed exotic you now know to be pointlessly effete. Little survives unscathed. As a rule I tend to not reread old favourites.

It’s been a while since I read Doris Lessing. You must understand that I am an inveterate Science Fiction reader, however, sometime in 1977 I decided to get ahold of A Briefing for a Descent into Hell. For the anal types, this was four years before her first Space Fiction appeared in paperback – hardback at that time was completely off my agenda. This was, however, at a time when I began to explore the works of Idries Shah. More on that later.

As in writing, I see a library as a whole. It is a lifetime’s endeavour in the exploration of the marvellous (or whatever play of words matches the impulse). In my case, this is clear. Though I separate my studies of classical Greece, Rome, China and Islam, as well as my reference works from the works of fiction, they are all essentially me and, to a greater or lesser extent, are a reflection of how I came to be where I am.

A Briefing for a Descent into Hell, was slightly radical; I’ve been prepared for new ways of looking at the potential of fiction by the likes of Michael Moorcock’s experiments in New Worlds, and Harlan Ellison’s thumb-nose at SF mantras in Dangerous Visions. Nevertheless, the work was challenging. 

Briefing for a Descent into Hell

Briefing for a Descent into Hell

What do we do when we read? We pass whatever is there through our frame of reference to build up a gestalt. It’s a way of getting into the mind of the author. I wasn’t entirely clear on Doris Lessing’s message, so I looked in on the Martha Quest series (better known as Children of Violence), and while I was at it, gave The Golden Notebook a go.

The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook

Part of the point of those works was the critics reaction. It was, I suppose, an open secret.
I had been studying the materials (as a sceptic) provided by Idries Shah.
To be certain, I am not a Sufi, nor am I about to spout the teachings of a 1400 year old zealot. On the contrary, I am more Christian now than then, and as for Sufism, it has no function outside of Islam –and on that score I have no truck with organisations with and Islamic agenda.
There was much to admire in Doris’s tale of Martha Quest; for a start, it gave me insight into a middle-class life of made up causes and genteel radicalism; I was of course from the lowest levels of society, that that makes up the majority of British people and on whose behalf, genteel radicals purport to ‘fight’. Feel the sarcasm because most so-called radicals would do less harm (and better off) getting a proper job and helping society to function; but what the hey? These stories were of course more than this, there was a plucky young woman, well equipped to deal with the affected anarchy and the chauvinistic idealists of society. Contrast that with what I knew. Most of those I knew then were incapable of dealing with their own affairs, let alone the kids they had. Their anarchic circumstance was unaffected.
Anyway, Doris Lessing, darling of the feminists (for a while) seemed a decent starting point
Taught to aspire to that class so what were its values? Were they actually worth aspiring to? Idries Shah makes a number of observations about the English in Darkest England. These provoke more answers than they provide.
It may seem that not a great deal has been said about her. What’s also important is what I haven’t said.

It’s tempting to populate my recollection with bits from the net. Heaven knows, there’s enough of it. Like Doris, I’ve a long established disregard for convention and I ‘m capable of arriving at my own conclusions. My mother many times had said, God gave you a brain, so use it. That went along with God gave you a tongue… and Cleanliness is next to Godliness. My mother wasn’t a great preacher on Christian virtues but she knew when to craft (or reuse) a phrase.

It was open knowledge – to some I guess. How did I know. I can’t prove it but I saw the story shapes in Canopus in Argos and suspected. How can I say such a thing? It was obvious. Know what to look for. This was in the days before instant news, 24/7.

Provoke an examination of the world and how we live in it.

I always felt that Doris had more to say in her Space Fiction. Given the opportunity I would have taken her to task, after all, it said things that just weren’t conveyed in her other stuff. And as far as Science Fiction went, there were only a few serious purveyors. Philip K Dick had passed on to that great imperium sine fine rosea lux. Other writers might take up the strain but even as he succumbed to the final kiss of life, Doris pulled away too. What was one to do?

I’d a few of her short story collections to go at but the bright attraction was gone. What was worse was the pink rosy glow around my chosen genre began to pall. My collection of classical works from antiquity was well underway, I was going through the throes of professional qualification; essential if I was to survive in the coming world. By the early 90s, I put collecting books aside. Doris voice had little more to say to me through her works – perhaps for others. I put my Sufi studies aside when Idries Shah died. He smoked too much and admitted as much. But that connection stayed in my head. They do if you see a link.

Anyway, what did I learn? Apart from the obvious purpose of life and other ground shaking observations, I learned I’d committed a grievous error in my initial catalogue of works; somehow that list excluded two books


Publisher Year © Year Pub Cover price Author 1st_name Title_of_book__________ Notes
Granada 1979 1981 1.95 Lessing Doris Shikasta Canopus in Argos
Granada 1980 1981 1.95 Lessing Doris The Marriages between Zones Three, Four and Five Canopus in Argos


These, along with other omissions / additions are now incorporated into a new, improved catalogue 2014.

Note, as I’ve progressed, I’ll do bits on other authors. For the most part these will be SF / Fantasy. The only definites in this are Philip K Dick and Roger Zelazny. Authors conspicuous by their absence: Plato, Aristotle, Idries Shah.

Sufism in Burnley – as I recall that was a time when my Windows 10 laptop arbitrarily chose when to reboot – recreating those notes will be a pain.


About Terence Park

Board games, US Comic books, SF Paperbacks, Vinyl records; I've plenty of them all. I write SF (the serious sort). I also do spreadsheets.
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